Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: “I believe that world literature has the power to help mankind”
It is difficult to find anyone who did as much to crash totalitarianism, reveal all its misery and irradiate its legacy as Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn. Even though he was subjected to physical and mental suffering, betrayal and misery he nevertheless managed not only to survive but also to reaffirm the virtues of pure humanism and made millions believe in these virtues again.
Solzhenitsyn was born on December 11th 1918 when the young Soviet Republic was fighting for its right to exist. Coming from a rural background, his family was bankrupted by the Bolsheviks; thus his mother, an early widow, was forced to move to Rostov-on-Don, where Aleksandr despite total family misery performed very well at school. This enabled him to enter university. Although he had already written some literary works, he entered the physics-mathematics department of Rostov State University and graduated with honors in 1941.
The WWII years were a great test to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn as well as to millions of other people all over the world. He volunteered to the front and marched with his artillery brigade from Orel to Eastern Prussia. Literature and mental work didn’t leave him during this period of suffering and disaster. He regularly wrote in his diary and became increasingly disappointed in Stalinism. Some open-minded thoughts that he wrote in his letters were enough to send him to a Stalin camp for 8 years.
During his prison years Solzhenitsyn managed to see through his own gifted eyes and as a great observer the different dimensions of Stalin’s prison system. As a talented mathematician, he was sent to the special prison-research institute – Sharashka – later depicted in his novel “The First Circle.” Later he was sent to the ordinary Stalin camp where he worked as an ordinary prisoner. The memoirs of this period were published in the revolutionary book “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.” With the efforts of Aleksandr Tvardovsky the book was published in November 1962 in then the most popular Soviet literature journal “Novy Mir.” The book was met with enormous public support and approval. The whole country managed to see in one day of Ivan Denisovich the whole tragedy of the Stalin camp system.
But for Solzhenitsyn, this early success in Soviet literature was not enough. With a new wave of energy he continued to work on other novels to ruin the legacy of Stalinism. While Khruschev tolerated Solzhenitsyn as an ally in his policy of de-Stalinisation, new members of the Politburo headed by Brezhnev didn’t need anything from the writer. Moreover, the authorities and other soviet writers started to view Solzhenitsyn’s writings as anti-patriotic and an open betrayal of socialist values. Political and moral hunting was opened against him.
By 1967 Solzhenitsyn finished his famous novel “The Gulag Archipelago.” Meanwhile his writings were officially banned from being published in Soviet magazines while some of his unpublished books appeared in Western Europe and the United States. In 1970, the Nobel Prize committee listed Solzhenitsyn as a nominated candidate. The USSR Union of Writers expelled Solzhenitsyn from its members. Besides, the risk for Solzhenitsyn’s life became real. In 1974 Solzhenitsyn was forced to leave the Soviet Union. His absence lasted 20 years. But the first day he arrived in Frankfurt he whispered: “I see the day of my return to Russia.”
While Solzhenitsyn openly criticized the Soviet regime and became an icon for many dissidents and anti-communists in the USSR, he never accepted foreign citizenship and believed that everything he did was for the sake of Russia. Thus it won’t be an exaggeration to admit that neither Perestroika nor the further democratic reforms in the Soviet Republics would have been impossible without the influence that Solzhenitsyn had on millions of people.
When he returned to Russia in 1994, while making a trip through the country people met him as a leaving prophet of justice and truth. Solzhenitsyn spent his last years at his dacha in Moscow working on new writings until his last day.
The whole story of his life was a battle, - a battle for the revival of humanism, which was ruined by the tragedies of the 20th Century. Solzhenitsyn’s method of battling is in fact very clear: “Justice is conscience, not a personal conscience but the conscience of the whole of humanity. Those who clearly recognize the voice of their own conscience usually recognize also the voice of justice.”
Dmitry Udalov is WSN Editor Russia.