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RT.com / RT projects / Russiapedia / Prominent Russians / Literature / Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Prominent Russians: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

December 11, 1918 – August 3, 2008
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Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was a Russian author and historian who exposed the horror of Soviet prison labor camps and gave new meaning to the word "gulag." (Gulag stands for Chief Administration of Corrective Labor Camps.) Solzhenitsyn spent eight years in those camps.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn descended from an intellectual Cossack family. He was born in Kislovodsk in the northern Caucasus Mountains. His father Isaak had studied philological subjects at Moscow University, but did not complete his studies, enlisting instead as a volunteer when WWI broke out in 1914. He became an artillery officer on the German front and fought throughout the war. During WWI he married Taisya Shchberbak, Solzhenitsyn's mother. They were married on the front lines by a brigade priest. Isaak returned home from the war in the spring of 1918, but died soon after as the result of a hunting accident and poor medical care, six months before Aleksandr's birth.

Solzhenitsyn's mother never remarried, partially because of her fear that a new husband would be too strict a step-father to her son. She was an educated woman, fluent in French and English, and supported herself and her son by working as a typist and stenographer. Beginning in 1924, the two lived in Rostov-on-Don. They were forced to rent rooms and huts from private owners because the state did not provide them with a room. After fifteen years, they were finally given a drafty room in a reconstructed stable.

From his boyhood, Solzhenitsyn planned to become a writer, though he called his early writings "much of the usual youthful nonsense." Though Solzhenitsyn longed to study literature as his father had at Moscow University, his mother could not afford to send him to Moscow. Therefore, he embarked upon a course of study in the Department of Physics and Mathematics at the University of Rostov-on-Don in 1937. Later, he would say that his degree in mathematics twice saved his life - teaching mathematics in a sharashka (special labor camp for scientists) for four years of an eight-year prison camp term and afterward teaching mathematics to support himself in exile after his release.

In 1940, while still a student, Solzhenitsyn married chemistry student Natalya Reshetovskaya. His mother died shortly before that.

After graduating in 1941, just a few days before the beginning of World War II, Solzhenitsyn was given a job as a physics teacher at the First Secondary School of Morozovka village in his home region of Rostov. His tenure in this position was cut short due to the war, and in October 1941, he found himself assigned to be the driver of horse-drawn vehicles for the Red Army, a job that he would hold throughout the following winter. But Solzhenitzyn's mathematical education played a role in shaping his destiny. Because of his background in mathematics, he was transferred to an artillery school and completed an abridged artillery training program in November 1942. After his commissioning, he served for two weeks in the Gorky region before being made commander of a reconnaissance artillery battery on the Leningrad front. He served continuously until 1945, always on the front - in the battle of Kursk, in Poland and in East Prussia. Promoted to captain, Solzhenitsyn received the Order of the Patriotic War Class II and the Order of the Red Star.

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During the war, between 1944 and 1945, Solzhenitsyn had corresponded with a school friend Vitkevich, criticizing Stalin but referring to him under a pseudonym. Nonetheless, Captain Solzhenitsyn was arrested. Solzhenitsyn was beaten and interrogated at Lubyanka prison in Moscow, and was sentenced in absentia, a common practice for the Soviet government, to eight years of hard labor on 7 July 1945. He spent the next five months at correctional camps near Moscow, where he was forced to work on city building projects. In 1946, because of his mathematical expertise, he was sent to the Scientific Research Institute in Moscow, where he spent four years.

In 1950, Solzhenitsyn was sent to Ekibastuz in Kazakhstan, a new camp for political prisoners only, to serve the three years remaining in his sentence. He would later transform his experiences at that camp, working as a bricklayer, laborer, and smelter, into “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.”

While there, he developed cancer, and was operated on but not cured. Immediately after his release from the camp in March 1953, Solzhenitsyn served a one-month holdover at a transit camp and upon his release, learned that Stalin had just died. Nevertheless, Solzhenitsyn was sentenced to perpetual exile in Kokterek in southern Kazakhstan.

He spent the next three years of his life, until June 1956, in exile in Kokterek, except for a period at the end of 1953 when his cancerous tumor became life-threatening and he was sent to a cancer clinic in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where he was cured.

Upon his return to Russia, Solzhenitsyn settled first in the Vladimir district and then in Ryazan, a town 160 kilometers southeast of Moscow. While in prison, Solzhenitsyn had divorced his wife in order to protect her from persecution because of her association with him. Though she had married another man with whom she had two children, she returned to Solzhenitsyn upon his release. Living in Ryazan, Solzhenitsyn supported himself by teaching mathematics, writing in his spare time, while Natalia Reshetovskaya taught at the Ryazan Polytechnical Institute. In the early 1960s, the couple considered moving to Obninsk, a scientific center southwest of Moscow.

Solzhenitsyn's first novel “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” was published in 1962. It was actually completed in 1958 but not submitted to the literary magazine Novy Mir until 1961. In 1961 Tvardovsky, the editor of Novy Mir, sought approval from the Central Committee of the Communist Party for publication of Solzhenitsyn's book.

"A great writer is, so to speak, a second government in his country," Solzhenitsyn wrote in” The First Circle.” "And for that reason no regime has ever loved great writers, only minor ones."

The publication made him a celebrated writer in the Soviet Union and abroad. Solzhenitsyn ceased teaching and continued to write. His short stories, "Matryona's Homestead," "An Incident at Krechetovka Station," and "For the Good of the Cause" were published in Novy Mir in 1963. However, after Khruschev's forced retirement in 1964, Solzhenitsyn began to face a backlash. The editorial board questioned and delayed publication of his novels “The First Circle” and “The Cancer Ward” in 1964 and 1966. Solzhenitsyn's manuscripts and private archives were confiscated by KGB in 1965.

By 1968, both unauthorized excerpts and complete English translations of “The Cancer Ward” and “The First Circle” were published in Great Britain and Western Europe.

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Meanwhile, Solzhenitsyn's personal life was equally chaotic. He separated from Reshotovskaya and in 1970 began a relationship with a thirty-two-year-old mathematics teacher named Natalya Svetlova. In 1973 Solzhenitsyn married Natalya Svetlova; they had three sons, Yermolay, Stepan, and Ignat. Svetlova also had a son, Dmitry, from her first marriage to Prof. Andrey Tyurin. Svetlova, born in 1939, was a postgraduate of the mechanical department of Moscow State University.

In October of that same year, Solzhenitsyn was announced as the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. The Soviet government denounced Solzhenitsyn's Nobel Prize as a politically hostile act. "If Solzhenitsyn continues to reside in the country after receiving the Nobel Prize, it will strengthen his position, and allow him to propagate his views more actively," wrote then KGB chief Yury Andropov in a secret memorandum. Solzhenitsyn was forced to decline the opportunity to accept the award in person because of his fear that he would not be allowed to return to Russia.

Efforts to award Solzhenitsyn his Nobel medal privately were blocked by the Soviet authorities in 1972, after he spoke to reporters from the New York Times and the Washington Post about his continued political persecution.

In 1973, Reshotovskaya, despite pressure from the KGB, granted Solzhenitsyn a divorce, and he married Svetlova. However, he was at first not allowed to live with her. He had been hiding his novel “The Gulag Archipelago” from the authorities, fearful that people mentioned in it would suffer reprisals. But when his former assistant, Elizaveta Voronyanskaya, after being interrogated by the KGB revealed the location of a copy of the manuscript and hung herself, Solzhenitsyn decided to publish it. “The Gulag Archipelago,” the first volume of which was published in Paris in December 1973, detailed some 1,800 pages of Soviet abuses from 1918 onward and was Solzhenitsyn's attempt to create a literary and historical record of the vast and brutal system of prison and labor camps in the Soviet Union. Though Pravda called it a lie, foreign radio stations immediately broadcast the text. For the work, Solzhenitsyn collected excerpts from documents, oral testimonies, eyewitness reports, and other material, which was inflammable.

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In February 1974, KGB officers arrested Solzhenitsyn and brought him to Lefortovo Prison, where he was stripped and interrogated and charged with treason. The next day, he was told that he was to be deprived of his citizenship and was immediately deported from Russia to the West. Shortly after being expelled, he predicted that he would return to a free Russia. The majority of Western Sovietologists thought he was crazy.

He lived first in Switzerland and then moved to the United States in 1976. There he saw that his primary mission was to rewrite the Russian history of the revolutionary period in the multivolume work “The Red Wheel” - an epic history of the events leading up to the Russian Revolution.

“The ‘October Revolution’ is a myth generated by the winners, the Bolsheviks. This revolution does indeed have its source in Russia’s pre-revolutionary conditions, and I have never stated otherwise. The February Revolution had deep roots -- I have shown that in "The Red Wheel." First among these was the long-term mutual distrust between those in power and educated society, a bitter distrust that rendered impossible any compromise, any constructive solutions for the state. And the greatest responsibility, then, of course falls on the authorities: who if not the captain is to blame for a shipwreck? So you may indeed say that the February Revolution, in its causes, was the results of the previous Russian political regime.”

- Solzhenitsyn

Living in the West, Solzhenitsyn continued to publish profusely. In 1976, he and his family settled in a secluded estate in Cavendish, Vermont, where Solzhenitsyn would remain for the next twenty years.
In 1994 Solzhenitsyn returned from Vermont to his native land. The new regime, led by Mikhail Gorbachev, had offered to restore his citizenship already in 1990, and the following year his treason charges were formally dropped. Solzhenitsyn made a sensational whistle-stop tour through Siberia, becoming a highly popular figure. Solzhenitsyn was also received by President Yeltsin and in 1994 he gave an address to Russian Duma.

In 1997 the Solzhenitsyn Prize for Russian writing was established.

In the last years of his long life, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn finally found a political system he could embrace: Vladimir Putin's Russia. Solzhenitsyn had long signaled in his writing and speeches that the Russia of his dreams was no clone of Western-style democracy. It was instead a place apart from and suspicious of the West, acutely aware of its destiny as a great power and unique culture and steeped in the values of the Russian Orthodox Church and Slavic nationalism.

"Putin inherited a ransacked and bewildered country, with a poor and demoralized people," Solzhenitsyn told the German magazine Der Spiegel in a 2007 interview. "And he started to do what was possible, a slow and gradual restoration. These efforts were not noticed, nor appreciated, immediately. In any case, one is hard-pressed to find examples in history when steps by one country to restore its strength were met favorably by other governments."

AFP Photo / Michael Estafiev AFP Photo / Michael Estafiev

In 2007 Solzhenitsyn was awarded Russia's prestigious State Prize for his contribution to humanitarian causes.

Solzhenitsyn, patriot and hero of the nation, died on 3 August 2008 at the age of 89.

"We are proud that Alexander Solzhenitsyn was our compatriot and contemporary. We will remember him as a strong, courageous person with a great sense of dignity. His activities as a writer and public figure, his entire long, thorny life journey will remain for us a model of true devotion, selfless service to the people, the motherland and the ideals of freedom, justice and humaneness."

- Putin

"Severe trials befell Solzhenitsyn, as they did millions of other people in this country. He was among the first to speak out about the brutality of Stalin's regime and about the people who experienced it but were not crushed… To his last days he continued to work for Russia to gain a worthy future, to become a truly free and democratic country, not jus to break away from its totalitarian past. We owe him much."

- Gorbachev

For the admirers of Solzhenitsyn’s life, Ludmila Saraskina has written a detailed and extensive biography of the author. She worked closely with the writer and his family, and the overall result was approved by him. It is seen by many as a mixed blessing. Some claim that the genre of the book crosses the boundary between biography and hagiography. A previous extensive Solzhenitsyn biography, written in English by Michael Scammell, contained views and opinions of people who did not wholeheartedly share Solzhenitsyn's views, which led the writer to cut off his collaboration with the biographer.

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