Not the least of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s achievements was lexicographical: he introduced the word “gulag” to the free world. One of the last century’s most important writers, he survived Hitler’s army, Stalin’s death camps and a bout with cancer, before succumbing to heart failure earlier this week at the age of 89. Still, the stark fact about his life remains: tyranny could not silence him.
Arguably the greatest of the anti-Soviet dissidents, and certainly the best known, Solzhenitsyn strode across the world at the height of the Cold War, urging presidents and prime ministers to stand up to the communist menace. Armed only with a pen, he defied one of history’s most brutal tyrannies and revealed its horrors to a world that was not always ready to believe.
His monumental and best-known work, The Gulag Archipelago, documented the massive destruction of human life in Soviet concentration camps – a destruction that rivaled the Nazi genocide. (According to conservative estimates, between 20 and 30 million perished in the gulag.) The damning indictment put the lie to the idea – still in vogue among some left-leaning revisionists – that the Soviet experiment was a success until corrupted by Stalin and his system of forced labor camps, the notorious gulag. Reaching further back into the Soviet past, Solzhenitsyn was able to show that, on the contrary, the death camps actually began with Lenin. To Solzhenitsyn himself, what was most important was that his work served as a memorial to the gulag’s millions of voiceless victims, to whom it is dedicated. He described it as being written “with the blood of millions of human beings.”
That The Gulag Archipelago was published at all is something of a miracle. The KGB had desperately tried to stop its 1974 publication in the West. It had interrogated a woman, one of the four Solzhenitsyn used to type the secretly-written manuscript, for four days to discover its whereabouts. After revealing the location, the woman committed suicide. For all its intimidation, however, the KGB failed to prevent the book’s publication in the West.
Its immediate effect in the West was profound. Solzhenitsyn’s philosophy for dealing with Soviet tyrants was straightforward: The harder you hit them with the big fist, he once said, the better they understood. In exposing communism’s then-unknown crimes against humanity to a worldwide audience, Solzhenitsyn dealt a severe blow to the Soviet state.
The Kremlin was stunned, and failed to react for several days. But it eventually stripped Solzhenitsyn of his citizenship and expelled him from the Soviet Union. Cast out from his country, the reasoning went, Solzhenitsyn would fade into oblivion. Instead, he changed history.
Solzhenitsyn’s life paralleled the history of the Soviet Union. He was born in Kislovodsk, in the North Caucasus region of southern Russia, in 1918. His father, an artillery captain in World War I, died in a hunting accident shortly before his birth, leaving his typist mother to raise him alone. The young Solzhenitsyn, a dedicated Marxist-Leninist, studied physics and mathematics at university, but took a correspondence literature course. He graduated shortly before the German invasion in 1941.
Like his father, he became a captain of artillery, surviving some of the most ferocious fighting on the Eastern Front. Ironically, it was the writing of a simple letter at the front that was to change his life forever, putting him on the path that ended in his fierce, anti-Soviet stance and a 1970 Nobel Prize in Literature.
NKVD agents, the KGB’s predecessors, arrested him at the Battle of Konigsberg in early 1945 for writing critical comments about Stalin to a fellow officer. His interrogation was mild and his subsequent eight-year sentence was lenient, at least by the gulag’s pitiless standards. As a zek (prisoner), Solzhenitsyn was first sent to an Arctic camp, “to the polar bears” in secret-police parlance. In this “general camp,” he witnessed the Russian criminal world whose strange vocabulary and brutal ways he would introduce to the Russian reading public.
It is also where he nearly died. Because of his scientific background, Solzhenitsyn was recalled when he was nearly a “goner,” and transferred to a special camp outside of Moscow from 1946 to 1950. At this sharashka, he worked on secret government projects. His time there served as the basis for his famous novel, The First Circle.
In 1950, Solzhenitsyn was sent to a camp in Kazakhstan, where he fell sick with cancer, for which he was later operated. In another life-changing experience, Solzhenitsyn during his convalescence converted to Christianity after talking to a Jewish doctor, himself a Christian convert. His hospital stay also inspired his equally famous book, Cancer Ward.
In The Gulag Archipelago, he recounted what set him on the road to conversion. “It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political classes either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts.”
After Stalin’s death in 1953, Solzhenitsyn was released. Exiled to Kazakhstan, he worked as a school teacher during the day and in the evening’s worked on his book, One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich, a powerful account of an average day in the bleak and brutal life of a gulag inmate. Published in 1962, during the political thaw initiated by Stalin’s successor Nikita Khrushchev, the book won Solzhenitsyn the Nobel Prize.
Solzhenitsyn’s literary freedom proved fleeting. With Leonid Brezhnev’s ascension to power, Solzhenitsyn no longer could get his works published. He was told that the gulag theme had been “exhausted” after only one book. This censorship ensured future confrontations between the writer and state authorities, eventually leading to his expulsion from the Soviet writers’ union and, ultimately, from the country.
In America, Solzhenitsyn led a simple existence in Cavendish, Vermont, a part of the country that most resembled his native Russia. He wrote, gave interviews and delivered occasional speeches. Among the most famous was his 1978 Harvard commencement address. In it, he railed against the West’s moral corruption – caused, in his view, by an excess of freedom – and lamented America’s failure to defeat communism in Vietnam.
On his return to Russia in 1994, Solzhenitsyn saw a much-changed country. He observed that that the damage done by Soviet rule was not primarily economic or environmental, but rather moral. A staunch Russian Orthodox Christian, he wanted future Russian society to be based on its traditional faith, and mourned that the Marxist-Leninists had done so much to destroy it.
In his later years, Solzhenitsyn did not cease to court controversy, though not always for the best of reasons. Breaking with the West following NATO's bombing of Serbia in the 1990s, he argued that democracy cannot be introduced on the point of a bayonet. But Solzhenitsyn also could be guilty of moral equivalence, as when he claimed to see no difference between the behavior of NATO and Hitler.
Solzhenitsyn again raised eyebrows with his last book, Dvesti let vmeste (Two Hundred Years Together), a work about Jews and Russians common history in Russia. To some, the book was a tough-but-fair account of Russian Jewry, including the role some Jews played in the communist revolution. But others took issue with, among other sections, Solzhenitsyn’s account of Jewish life under the tsars, suggesting that his attempt to blame Jews for government-incited pogroms was, as one critic put it, an exercise in blaming “the victims of their troubles.” Charges of anti-Semitism followed.
While darkening the later stages of his career, these controversies cannot blacken the author’s imperishable achievements. In the Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn unmasked communism for the inhuman system that it was. For that, generations of free people in Russia and across the world owe him a great debt.