Literary Giant Solzhenitsyn Dead at 89

Alexander Solzhenitsyn gives his first news conference in the West since being expelled from Russia, 1974.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn gives his first news conference in the West since being expelled from Russia, 1974.

AP
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel Prize-winning author who shook the foundations of Soviet rule with his monumental work "The Gulag Archipelago," died late Sunday in his Moscow region home, his son said. He was 89 years old.

Solzhenitsyn, who had been ill for many years, continued working right up until his death from heart failure, Stepan Solzhenitsyn said Monday. At the time of his death, he was editing a 30-volume anthology of his work.

"It makes great sense for a writer to be remembered, and to be read not just remembered, through his books," his son said by telephone. "The books will live on, as will our memory of him."

Praise for the literary giant and legendary dissident poured in from across the world. President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin both personally expressed their condolences to the Solzhenitsyn family. French President Nicolas Sarkozy and U.S. President George W. Bush issued statements praising the writer.

"The passing of Alexander Solzhenitsyn is a heavy loss for all of Russia," Putin said in a telegram to the family. "We will remember him as a man of strength, of courage and one who possessed enormous internal dignity."

Medvedev described Solzhenitsyn as a true Russian patriot. "The departure of this great man, one of the most far-reaching thinkers, writers and humanitarians of the 20th century, is an irretrievable loss for Russia and for the whole world," Medvedev said, Interfax reported.

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev praised Solzhenitsyn for helping bring to light the atrocities of the Stalinist regime. "Until the end of his days, he fought for Russia not only to move away from its totalitarian past but also to have a worthy future, to become a truly free and democratic country. We owe him a lot," Gorbachev said, Interfax reported.

The establishment of a timeless memorial to the victims of Stalinist repression through the writing of "The Gulag Archipelago" will stand as Solzhenitsyn's greatest accomplishment, writer Viktor Yerofeyev said. "This memorial, to all of the dead and all those who suffered, is a truly great memorial and will always stand as a symbol to Russian patriots and patriots all over the world," he said. "We all should bow in praise before Solzhenitsyn."

Praise from those with whom he worked in his creative life and on his many philanthropic endeavors was equally effusive. "I think that the whole of his life was important not only for Russian literature, but also for the life of our country," said Viktor Moskvin, director of the Russian Abroad Foundation Library, which Solzhenitsyn founded. "Solzhenitsyn was a thinker. Solzhenitsyn was a writer. And yes, Solzhenitsyn was a man who spoke truth to the people and to power."

Solzhenitsyn was born into a Cossack family in Kislovodsk on Dec. 11, 1918. He was raised by his mother, a typist, his father having died in an accident six months before he was born.

Though interested in literature from an early age, Solzhenitsyn studied mathematics and physics at Rostov-on-Don State University, graduating in 1941, just days before Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. At that point in his life, he was a devoted Leninist.

When war broke out, he enlisted in the Red Army and rose to the rank of artillery captain. Decorated twice, he witnessed some of the fiercest battles of World War II, leading an artillery company on the front lines from November 1942 to February 1945. It was then that Solzhenitsyn was arrested - an event that would change his life forever and set the tone of his future literary career.

Disillusioned by the mismanagement of the war effort and appalled by the Red Army's looting as it reached Germany, he made critical references to Stalin in correspondence with a friend. The NKVD read his letters and arrested him for "anti-Soviet agitation." He was sentenced to eight years in prison - considered a mild sentence at the time.

Thanks to his mathematical training, Solzhenitsyn was initially spared the worst excesses of the gulag. From 1946 to 1950, he was confined to a sharashka, a special prison for scientists forced to work on government projects. The experience later became the basis for his novel "The First Circle."

In 1950, he was sent to a special camp for political prisoners in Kazakhstan, where he spent the next three years. During that time, he contracted a tumor. While recovering from an operation, he had a long conversation with a doctor - a Jewish convert to Christianity - who impressed him with his faith and ultimately inspired Solzhenitsyn's own conversion. The writer later described the experience in "The Gulag Archipelago."

"It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good," he wrote. "Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts."

Following Stalin's death in 1953, Solzhenitsyn was exiled to southern Kazakhstan, where his health continued to deteriorate. In 1954, he managed to get life-saving treatment at a cancer ward in Tashkent. He spent the rest of his exile teaching mathematics and physics, while secretly writing on the side. Solzhenitsyn's exile ended only after Khrushchev made his famous "secret speech" denouncing Stalin's crimes in 1956. He moved to Ryazan.

In the relatively liberal atmosphere of the Khrushchev years, Solzhenitsyn decided to try getting published. In 1961, he sent the manuscript of a short novel, "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," to the literary journal Novy Mir. Based on Solzhenitsyn's experiences in Kazakhstan, the novel recounted a day in the life of an ordinary gulag prisoner.

Novy Mir published the novel - with Khrushchev's personal approval - in 1962. As the first account of Stalin's gulag to be published in the Soviet Union, the result was a bombshell. Solzhenitsyn became an instant celebrity and was invited to join the Writers' Union. His freedom was short-lived, however, and after the publication of some short stories in 1963 he found that he could no longer be printed. Following the ouster of Khrushchev in 1964, the screws tightened further and the KGB began seizing his manuscripts.

Defiantly, Solzhenitsyn sent an open letter to the Writers' Union in 1967 demanding an end to censorship. That led to his expulsion from the union.

In 1968, Solzhenitsyn's novels "The First Circle" and "Cancer Ward" were published in the West. The books cemented his status as a figure of international renown, and in 1970 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Though invited to Stockholm to accept the prize, he declined to go out of fear that the Soviet authorities would not let him return. Efforts to award him the prize at the Swedish Embassy in Moscow were fruitless.

Now under constant harassment, Solzhenitsyn took refuge at the dacha of cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and his wife, opera singer Galina Vishnevskaya, outside Moscow. He lived there, on and off, for four years.

One of Solzhenitsyn's main dilemmas at the time was what to do with the text of "The Gulag Archipelago," which he had completed in 1968.

The book, a sprawling exposО of the gulag system, blended his own experiences with the testimony of other former prisoners to create a damning indictment of the Soviet regime. Most contentiously, Solzhenitsyn did not blame the gulag solely on Stalin - as Khrushchev had in 1956 - but instead went all the way back to Lenin, the Soviet Union's revered founder.

Solzhenitsyn hid portions of the book's manuscript at the homes of trusted friends. In 1972, he started smuggling it to the West with the help of Stig Fredrikson, a Swedish foreign correspondent. The two had about 20 secret meetings where Solzhenitsyn passed Fredrikson pages from the manuscript copied onto microfilm.

Later, Fredrikson published an account of those meetings on the web site of the Nobel Foundation.

"He was so isolated, so persecuted," Fredrikson recalled about Solzhenitsyn. "He was leading a one-man struggle against an overwhelming enemy with the enormous resources of the totalitarian state in its determination to silence him. ... He is also a man with a strong charm and charisma. It is evident throughout his career that he has been able to get friends to help him. He is not a man to whom you say no easily."

Events moved swiftly after the KGB seized a copy of the manuscript in September 1973. Solzhenitsyn sent an urgent message to his Western partners to publish the book as soon as possible. It first appeared in Paris in December 1973, leading to a flurry of bad publicity for the Soviet Union in the international press. The Politburo met on Jan. 7, 1974, to discuss what to do with Solzhenitsyn.

"By law, we have every basis for putting him in jail," said Leonid Brezhnev, according to the minutes of the meeting, which are available on the web site of the National Security Archive. "He has tried to undermine all we hold sacred: Lenin, the Soviet system, Soviet power - everything dear to us. ... This hooligan Solzhenitsyn is out of control."

One week later, Pravda ran a furious attack calling him a "traitor." On Feb. 12, he was arrested and charged with treason. The next day, he was stripped of his citizenship and put on a plane to West Germany. He would spend the next 20 years in exile.

A former high-ranking KGB official, speaking to Interfax on Monday on condition of anonymity, expressed regret at Solzhenitsyn's treatment in the 1970s. "We were creating our enemies ourselves," he said. "They handed down the decision to release the Jew in order to attain a political concession. And what did we get? Solzhenitsyn turned out to be a great man and a true patriot of his country. He could have lived abroad, become rich, but he wanted to return to his country in order to repair it. And he continued that mission until the end of his days."

Though he initially received a hero's welcome in the West, Solzhenitsyn's reception soon turned sour. In a series of speeches - most famous a commencement speech at Harvard University in 1978 - he attacked what he saw as the moral corruption of Western society, rejecting, above all, its core value of freedom.

"Destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space," he told the Harvard graduates. "Society appears to have little defense against the abyss of human decadence, such as, for example, misuse of liberty for moral violence against young people, motion pictures full of pornography, crime and horror."

In turn, Solzhenitsyn was ridiculed in the Western press and accused of being a tsarist and an anti-Semite, which he denied.

The writer retreated into seclusion, moving to the tiny town of Cavendish, Vermont. He spent most of the next two decades working on "The Red Wheel," a cycle of historical novels set around the time of the Russian Revolution. The work was 5,000 pages long when finally completed in 1991.

Back in the Soviet Union, Solzhenitsyn remained the most anathema of exiled dissident writers. Possession of a samizdat copy of "The Gulag Archipelago" could lead to a jail sentence.

Even after Gorbachev liberalized the Soviet press, Solzhenitsyn was one of the last authors to be removed from the blacklist. In October 1988, Novy Mir carried an announcement on its back cover stating that it would soon start publishing his works. The Politburo put a stop to that, and the covers were torn off more than a million copies of the journal.

Novy Mir finally began to serialize "The Gulag Archipelago" in summer 1989. Solzhenitsyn had his citizenship restored in 1990.

The Soviet Union, which he had battled for decades, collapsed the next year.

Solzhenitsyn returned to Russia on May 27, 1994, landing in the Far East city of Magadan - which was once a major transit center of Stalin's gulag - and then flying on to Vladivostok.

From there, he embarked on a seven-week train odyssey to Moscow, saying he wanted to reacquaint himself with everyday Russian reality. In a series of public appearances, he railed against "brainless" privatization reforms and the degradation of the Russian language. After arriving in the capital, he had a congenial meeting with President Boris Yeltsin.

Though he repeatedly stated that he had no political aspirations, Solzhenitsyn was often mentioned as a potential successor to Yeltsin. Some liberals even feared that he would become an Ayatollah Khomeini-like figure, leading a nationalist revolution against the corruption-tarnished Yeltsin government.

For many Russians, however, he was simply an old man out of touch with their present-day concerns.

"It's wonderful that the greatest Russian refugee and the most famous living writer is back on native ground," wrote music critic Artemy Troitsky, then a columnist for The Moscow Times. "However, the 'Khomeini effect' or anything of large political and social significance shouldn't be expected from the comeback. The name (let alone the works) of Solzhenitsyn is very little known to new generations of Russians."

Instead of going into politics, Solzhenitsyn retreated from the public eye.

His television appearances became less and less frequent. He spent most of his last years in a house specially built for him in Troitse-Lykovo, an elite gated community in western Moscow, doing what he loved most: writing. He published several works of nonfiction and memoir, although none had the impact of his earlier books.

Solzhenitsyn also launched several charitable projects, using proceeds from sales of "The Gulag Archipelago" and his Nobel Prize award money. In 1997, he established an annual literary prize that continues to be given out today. He also helped open the Russian Abroad Foundation Library, an archive and research center near Taganskaya metro station that collects the papers of Russian emigres.

After the 2000 election of Putin - a former KGB agent - the two men had a three-hour meeting at Solzhenitsyn's residence. The writer praised Putin afterward. Solzhenitsyn generally supported Putin's efforts to strengthen the Russian state, although he broke with him on several issues. For instance, he fiercely criticized the revival of the old Soviet anthem in late 2000.

In early 2006, Rossia television aired a 10-part miniseries based on "The First Circle." Despite his previous disparaging of television, Solzhenitsyn helped write the script and even narrated parts of the voice-over. The miniseries starred the popular young actor Yevgeny Mironov and earned respectable ratings.

Solzhenitsyn was lauded at the highest levels of the state in his final years. Putin quoted him in his 2006 state-of-the-nation address, and on June 12, 2007, visited his home to give him Russia's highest award, the State Prize.

The old enemy of the state had come full circle.

Solzhenitsyn will lie in state on Tuesday at the Russian Academy of Sciences in southwest Moscow. The writer will be laid to rest Wednesday at the Donskoi Monastery in central Moscow, his son said.

Solzhenitsyn is survived by his wife, Natalya, whom he married in 1973 and who served as his full-time assistant and spokeswoman for many years, and three sons. One of them, Ignat, is an acclaimed concert pianist.


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