This Day In Writing History
On December 11th, 1918, the legendary Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn was born. He was born in Kislovodsk, Stavropol Krai, in the North Caucasian region of Russia. Shortly after his mother Taisia discovered that she was pregnant with him, his father Isaakiy, an Army officer and World War 1 veteran, was killed in a hunting accident.
With the death of his father, Alexander was raised by his mother and aunt. Poor but educated, his mother encouraged his interests in literature and science and brought him up in her Russian Orthodox faith. He began writing in 1936, at the age of eighteen. He also studied mathematics at Rostov State University and took correspondence courses from the Moscow Institute of Philosophy, Literature, and History.
In April of 1940, while at university, Solzhenitsyn married his classmate, Natalia Alekseevna Reshetovskaya, a chemistry major. They would divorce in 1952, remarry in 1957, then divorce again in 1972. The following year, he married his second wife, mathematician Natalia Dmitrievna Svetlova, who was 21 years younger. She would bear him three sons.
During World War 2, Solzhenitsyn served in the Red Army as commander of a sound-ranging battery, saw major action at the front, and was decorated twice. His early, unfinished novel Love The Revolution! chronicled his wartime experiences and his growing disillusionment with the Soviet regime. Around this time, in Februrary of 1945, Solzhenitsyn was arrested for making derogatory comments about the regime in general and Josef Stalin in particular, in letters to his friend Nikolai Vitkevich. (At the time, it was a common practice for Soviet authorities to read citizens' private mail in search of subversive statements.)
Accused of distributing anti-Soviet propaganda, Solzhenitsyn was taken to the Lubyanka prison in Moscow, where he was beaten and interrogated. On July 7th, 1945, he was sentenced to eight years of hard labor, which was the normal sentence for the crime Solzhenitsyn was charged with. He served his time at several different work camps, including one in Ekibastuz, Kazakhstan, where his experiences would form the basis for his first published book, a novella that would bring him international fame.
One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich (1962) told the story of the title character, an innocent Russian soldier and prisoner of war who, after returning home, finds himself arrested by Soviet authorities and charged with being a spy. He is sent to a work camp in the Soviet gulag system. The brutally cold, filthy, and degrading labor camp is designed to dehumanize the prisoners, but Ivan Denisovich's spirit can't be broken. He makes friends with his fellow inmates and they all try to survive the inhumane conditions as best they can. When Denisovich falls ill, he is forced to continue working.
While serving his time in Ekibastuz, Alexander Solzhenitsyn himself fell ill and had a tumor removed, although the doctors failed to diagnose his cancer. In 1953, after he finished serving his sentence, he was exiled for life in Kazakhstan, a common fate for political prisoners. His cancer spread. Close to death, he was allowed to be treated at a hospital in Tashkent. The treatments worked and his cancer went into remission. He would base his 1967 novel, Cancer Ward, on his experiences fighting the disease.
After Nikita Khrushchev gave his famous Secret Speech in 1956, where he denounced the crimes of the Stalin regime in an attempt to bring the Soviet Union out of the dark ages and closer to Lenin's original vision, Alexander Solzhenitsyn was exonerated and freed from exile. He returned to Russia, where he taught school during the day and wrote at night. He kept his writings a secret, but somehow, while he was working on the manuscript for his famous non-fiction expose, The Gulag Archipelago, which wouldn't be published until 1973, (and not officially in the Soviet Union until 1989) the KGB found out that he was a writer.
Nevertheless, in 1962, Solzhenitsyn approached Alexander Tvardovsky, poet and editor-in-chief of the Noviy Mir magazine, with his final draft of One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich. Amazingly, the novella was published in an edited form with the explicit approval of Nikita Khrushchev, who publically defended it at a Politburo hearing on whether to allow its publication. He said: "There is a Stalinist in each of you; there's even a Stalinist in me. We must root out this evil."
Solzhenitsyn's novella became a huge hit throughout Russia. It was studied in Soviet schools. It also became a hit around the world, bringing the Soviet gulag system to the attention of the West. Unfortunately, two years later, in 1964, Nikita Khrushchev was ousted from power, and books exposing the horrors of Stalinism began to disappear. In 1965, the KGB confiscated most of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's papers and manuscripts. The manuscript for his non-fiction book The Gulag Archipelago was spared, hidden from the KGB by Solzhenitsyn's friends in Estonia. They helped him finish typing it up.
In 1970, Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize for Literature. He couldn't go to Stockholm to receive it, for fear of not being allowed back in the Soviet Union. A compromise was proposed where Solzhenitsyn would receive his prize at a ceremony at the Swedish embassy in Moscow, but the Swedish government rejected the proposal, fearing that the ensuing media coverage would damage its relations with the Soviet Union.
The Gulag Archipelago was published in the West in 1973. Not long afterward, the KGB found a copy of the first part of the manuscript. On Februrary 12th, 1974, Alexander Solzhenitsyn was arrested. The following day, he was deported to Frankfurt, West Germany, and stripped of his Soviet citizenship. A few days later, the celebrated Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko suffered reprisals for his support of Solzhenitsyn. U.S. military attache William Odom managed to smuggle most of Solzhenitsyn's archive out of Russia.
Solzhenitsyn lived in Cologne and Zurich, Switzerland, before Stanford University invited him to stay in the United States. He lived in the Hoover Tower, then settled in Cavendish, Vermont, in 1976. In 1978, Harvard University awarded him an honorary literary degree, and he delivered the commencment address - where he condemned materialism in modern Western culture. He began work on The Red Wheel, a cycle of novels on the Russian Revolution of 1917.
In the 1980s, Solzhenitsyn found himself becoming a media star, the darling of the radical right and the Reagan administration, which had whipped up anti-communist hysteria and paranoia to levels not seen since the 1950s. Liberals and secularists criticized Solzhenitsyn for his strong support of the Vietnam War, his reactionary patriotism, and his devout espousal of Russian Orthodox Christianity, which had an anti-Semitic flavor. He had written a 2-volume essay on Russian-Jewish relations, Two Hundred Years Together, which was denounced as anti-Semitic. He had also fought against allowing foreign Catholic and Protestant clergy into Russia in order to protect the country's Russian Orthodox Christian identity.
In 1990, Solzhenitsyn's Russian citizenship was restored. Four years later, having tired of the West, he and his wife moved to Troitse-Lykovo, West Moscow, where he lived until his death in 2008 at the age of 89. On the first anniversary of Solzhenitsyn's death, in an interview on Radio Liberty, Russian dissident writer Vladimir Voynovich claimed that Solzhenitsyn had been a lifelong anti-Semite - a fact he deliberately kept secret because he knew that it would prevent him from receiving the Nobel Prize. His notorious essay, Two Hundred Years Together, would not be published until 2001.
Despite the controversy over some of his beliefs, Alexander Solzhenitsyn remains one of Russia's greatest writers.
Quote Of The Day
"Literature that is not the breath of contemporary society, that dares not transmit the pains and fears of that society, that does not warn in time of threatening moral and social dangers - such literature does not deserve the name of literature; it is only a facade. Such literature loses the confidence of its own people, and its public works are used as wastepaper instead of being read." - Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Today's video features a news segment from Russia Today on the legacy of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Enjoy!