Notes on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008)
Born 11 December 1918, Solzhenitsyn was raised by his mother after his father died in a hunting accident six months before he was born.  He spent his childhood in Kislovodsk in the North Caucasus Mountains.  He studied mathematics at the University of Rostov and tried to do some writing, but he was unable to get anything published.
During the war he served as a captain of artillery, but in February 1945 he was arrested because of some disparaging remarks about Stalin in some correspondence with a school friend.  In July 1945 he was sentenced to eight years detention, i.e., hard labor in the Soviet prison camp system.

After serving his eight-year term in various labor camp regimes, Solzhenitsyn was exiled for life to Kok-Terek in southern Kazakhstan.  There he was treated for stomach cancer in 1954 (from which he luckily recovered to describe his experiences in Cancer Ward).  After Khrushchev's general amnesty/rehabilitation of 1956, Solzhenitsyn settled in Riazan as a mathematics teacher (1957).  This was a year after Nikita Khrushchev's Secret Speech denouncing Stalin's terror and personal dictatorship.

Solzhenitsyn had written a lot in secret during all of these years and somehow managed to preserve it all. In 1961, after Khrushchev's denunciation of the cult of Stalin and the opening of the de-Stalinization campaign, Solzhenitsyn offered One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich for publication. (See my notes on One Day.)  After a lot of back-door politicking, it appeared in the Soviet literary journal Novyi Mir.

But the door of relaxed writing censorship closed quickly for Solzhenitsyn.  In the years that followed, he managed only to publish three short stories.  Most of his manuscripts were seized by the KGB, but his work continued to circulate underground in Russia, as samizdat. He was expelled from the Writers' Union in 1969, and when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, the Soviet Government, as in the case of Boris Pasternak, denounced the Prize as a hostile political act. Solzhenitsyn did not travel to Stockholm to receive the prize for fear that he would not be allowed back into the Soviet Union. It also proved impossible to arrange a ceremony in Moscow--he later received his prize after being deported from Russia. When the first volume of The Gulag Archipelago appeared in 1973, the Soviet government was not pleased. Completely out-of-the-blue, on 12 February 1974, the KGB arrested Solzhenitsyn at his apartment, and after briefly detaining him in Lefortovo prison, he was put on a plane and flown to Frankfurt, Germany. He was also deprived of his Soviet citizenship.

He lived first in Switzerland and then in Vermont in the United States, where he led a recluse-type lifestyle in his massive enclosure.  By the mid-1980s, he was also relatively wealthy as a result of his publishing activities in the West.  After the collapse of the Soviet Union, his Soviet citizenship was restored, and in 1994 he returned to Russia. The treason charges were formally dropped.

Solzhenitsyn is clearly one of the towering Russian cultural figures of the last fifty years, and his writings are on the scale of Dostoevskii, Tolstoi and Turgenev.  His messages for Russia and the West, however, have had a less-than-enthusiastic reception, and in his later years he made some controversial statements about Russia and its place in history. He moved very far to the right of the political spectrum, and in a way his spiritual/ideological evolution mirrors that undertaken by Tolstoi a century ago.  Solzhenitsyn has embarked on a kind of crusade of spiritual moralism, calling on Russia to look within and revitalize itself (Remember Vekhi from 1909?).  Solzhenitsyn has also launched scathing critiques of "Western materialism" (and Russia's preoccupation with it) and Russian secularization.

On 3 August 2008 Solzhenitsyn died of heart failure and was buried three days later in the Donskoi Monastery in Moscow. He had escaped the fate of so many of his fellow prisoners.

As I was thinking about what to say about his legacy, and his moral courage in the face of the supposed power of the Soviet regime in the 1960s, these three words came to mind: truth, moral force, humanism. Indeed, that was what preoccupied Solzhenitsyn in his work as a writer. In this regard, see An Interview with Alexander Solzhenitsyn by Joseph Pearce. Solzhenitsyn noted:

This is certainly true. Man has set for himself the goal of conquering the world but in the processes loses his soul. That which is called humanism, but what would be more correctly called irreligious anthropocentrism, cannot yield answers to the most essential questions of our life. We have arrived at an intellectual chaos.

Then I read Nina Khrushcheva's commentary, and she has some interesting things to say about how Solzhenitsyn's writings and ideas have been co-opted by the present Russian regime, but she also reminds us how Solzhenitsyn once stood strong as a bulwark against the Soviet regime's tyranny and power.


Some websites with more biographical information about Solzhenitsyn--there is a lot out there:

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