Sunday, August 3, 2008

Alexander Solzhenitsyn Dead

[Alexander Solzhenitsyn returns to Russia from exile in 1994. Image credit: Evstafiev via Wikipedia.]

The BBC, CNN, and Voice of America have all reported that Alexander Solzhenitsyn has died today. The BBC reports:

Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who exposed Stalin's prison system in his novels and spent 20 years in exile, has died near Moscow at the age of 89.

The author of The Gulag Archipelago and One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich, who returned to Russia in 1994, died of either a stroke or heart failure.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn dies at 89

[I added the links to Wikipedia articles].

I don't think it's exaggerating to say that he had nearly as profound an effect on the West as he did in his own country. The movie version of One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich, which I saw many years ago, is one of the few that I remember vividly decades later. Perhaps that fact is partly due to the song "Mother Russia" by the progressive rock band Renaissance, which is a tribute to Solzhenitsyn that is a haunting mix of sadness and hope. His novels, and The Gulag Archipelago, exposed Soviet totalitarianism for all to see, and also gave fascinating glimpses into how a totalitarian regime operates. Archipelago is a clinic, and I recommend it for anyone who wants to know how such things can happen.

Reuters describes Solzhenitsyn's fall and rise in Russian society. It's a story of the Soviet Union, and of intolerance for anti-establishment opinion generally, in microcosm:

A short-lived policy of de-Stalinisation by the then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev made possible the publication in 1962 of Solzhenitsyn's "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich", which described the horrifying routine of labour camp life.

Other literary works, including a series of historical novels and political pamphlets, were banned from publication in the Soviet Union, where their distribution was made a criminal offence.

Major works including "The First Circle" and "Cancer Ward" brought Solzhenitsyn world admiration and the Nobel Literature Prize in 1970.

Four years later, he was stripped of his citizenship and put on a plane to West Germany for refusing to keep silent about his country's past, and became an icon of resistance to the communist system from his American home in Vermont, where he remained until his triumphant return in 1994.

Soviet dissident writer dies at 89

His life mirrored the life of his country, from its abuse at the hands of its leaders, to the disappointments of today. Reuters quotes him, speaking of modern Russia:

"As far as the state, the public mind and the economy is concerned, Russia is still far away from the country of which I dreamed."

Soviet dissident writer dies at 89

As we're finding out here, freedom is both a blessing and a responsibility - one that our leaders often do not feel any compulsion to live up to.


Dana Hunter said...

You know, somehow I thought men like this - the Russian dissidents, people like Elie Wiesel - would live forever.

In a way they will. We'll never forget them.

Cujo359 said...

Their work lives on. In Solzhenitsyn's case, Gulag will be interesting to historians for centuries, I should think. Day In The Life will probably remain a classic, if only because it's not the last time we'll see such treatment of people.