Solzhenitsyn, 20th Century Oracle Dies
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Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in the Hoover Library at Stanford university in May,
1976. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Solzhenitsyn, 20th-century oracle, dies
_By Michael T. Kaufman_ (http://www.iht.com/cgi-bin/search.cgi?query=By
Michael T. Kaufman&sort=publicationdate&submit=Search)
Published: August 4, 2008
_Listen to Article_
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose stubborn, lonely and combative literary
struggles gained the force of prophecy as he revealed the heavy afflictions of
Soviet Communism in some of the most powerful literary works of the 20th century,
died late on Sunday at the age of 89 in Moscow. His son Yermolai said the
cause was a heart ailment.
Solzhenitsyn outlived by nearly 17 years the Soviet state and system he had
battled through years of imprisonment, ostracism and exile.
Solzhenitsyn had been an obscure, middle-aged, unpublished high school
science teacher in a provincial Russian town when he burst onto the literary stage
in 1962 with "A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich." The book, a
mold-breaking novel about a prison camp inmate, was a sensation. Suddenly he was being
compared to giants of Russian literature like Tolstoy, Dostoyevski and Chekov.
Over the next five decades, Solzhenitsyn's fame spread throughout the world
as he drew upon his experiences of totalitarian duress to write evocative
novels like "The First Circle" and "The Cancer Ward" and historical works like
"The Gulag Archipelago."
"Gulag" was a monumental account of the Soviet labor camp system, a chain of
prisons that by Solzhenitsyn's calculation some 60 million people had entered
during the 20th century. The book led to his expulsion from his native land.
George Kennan, the American diplomat, described it as "the greatest and most
powerful single indictment of a political regime ever to be leveled in
Audio: Serge Schmemann on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (mp3)
Photos: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Times topic: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Solzhenitsyn was heir to a morally focused and often prophetic Russian
literary tradition, and he looked the part. With his stern visage, lofty brow and
full, Old Testament beard, he recalled Tolstoy while suggesting a modern-day
Jeremiah, denouncing the evils of the Kremlin and later the mores of the
West. He returned to Russia and deplored what he considered its spiritual
decline, but in the last years of his life he embraced President Vladimir Putin as a
restorer of Russia's greatness.
In almost half a century, more than 30 million of his books have been sold
worldwide and translated into some 40 languages. In 1970 he was awarded the
Nobel Prize in Literature.
Solzhenitsyn owed his initial success to the Soviet leader Nikita
Khrushchev's decision to allow "Ivan Denisovich" to be published in a popular journal.
Khrushchev believed its publication would advance the liberal line he had
promoted since his secret speech in 1956 on the crimes of Stalin.
But soon after the story appeared, Khrushchev was replaced by hard-liners,
and they campaigned to silence its author. They stopped publication of his new
works, denounced him as a traitor and confiscated his manuscripts.
A Giant and a Victim
But their iron grip could not contain Solzhenitsyn's reach. By then his works
were appearing outside the Soviet Union, in many languages, and he was being
compared not only to Russia's literary giants but also to Stalin's literary
victims, writers like Anna Akhmatova, Iosip Mandleshtam and Boris Pasternak.
At home, the Kremlin stepped up its campaign by expelling Solzhenitsyn from
the Writer's Union. He fought back. He succeeded in having microfilms of his
banned manuscripts smuggled out of the Soviet Union. He addressed petitions to
government organs, wrote open letters, rallied support among friends and
artists, and corresponded with people abroad. They turned his struggles into one
of the most celebrated cases of the cold war period.
Hundreds of well-known intellectuals signed petitions against his silencing;
the names of left-leaning figures like Jean-Paul Sartre carried particular
weight with Moscow. Other supporters included Graham Greene, Muriel Spark, W.H.
Auden, Gunther Grass, Heinrich Boll, Yukio Mishima, Carlos Fuentes and, from
the United States, Arthur Miller, John Updike, Truman Capote and Kurt
Vonnegut. All joined a call for an international cultural boycott of the Soviet
That position was confirmed when he was awarded the 1970 Nobel Prize in the
face of Moscow's protests. The Nobel jurists cited him for "the ethical force
with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian
Solzhenitsyn dared not travel to Stockholm to accept the prize for fear that
the Soviet authorities would prevent him from returning. But his acceptance
address was circulated widely. He recalled a time when "in the midst of
exhausting prison camp relocations, marching in a column of prisoners in the gloom
of bitterly cold evenings, with strings of camp lights glimmering through
the darkness, we would often feel rising in our breast what we would have wanted
to shout out to the whole world — if only the whole world could have heard
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