solzhenitsyn.gif Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918- )

Ah, but not simply to report as usual to the authorities for the daily assignment. Shukhov remembered that this morning his fate hung in the balance: they wanted to shift the 104th from the building shops to a new site, the "Socialist Way of Life" settlement. It lay in open country covered with snowdrifts, and before anything else could be done there they would have to dig holes and put up posts and attach barbed wire to them. Wire themselves in, so that they wouldn't run away. Only then would they start building.

There wouldn't be a warm corner for a whole month. Not even a doghouse. And fires were out of the question. There was nothing to build them with. Let your work warm you up, that was your only salvation.

--from One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (translated by Ralph Parker)

One of the leading Russian writers of the 20th century, Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn, b. Rostov-on-Don, Dec. 11 (N.S.), 1918, received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970 "for the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature." Solzhenitsyn's novels are autobiographical, presenting a vivid account of a man maintaining his freedom against the vicious repressions of an authoritarian regime. Clearly a novelist in the 19th-century tradition, he is often considered Russia's greatest 20th-century novelist.

Solzhenitsyn studied mathematics and physics at the University of Rostov-on-Don, graduating at the beginning of World War II. He served for 4 years in the Soviet army and attained the rank of captain in the artillery. His difficulties with the authorities began on Feb. 8, 1945, when he was arrested for having written critical remarks about Joseph Stalin in a letter to a friend that was intercepted by the censors. Sentenced without a trial to 8 years of hard labor, he remained until 1953 in a number of labor camps, one of which was a research institute (the setting for The First Circle), where he worked (1953) as a mathematician. In 1952 he contracted cancer of the skin, and was treated (1953) in a hospital in Tashkent (the setting for Cancer Ward). Pronounced cured, he completed his sentence a year later and, although still in exile, was able to teach mathematics and to begin writing.

During the period of de-Stalinization, he was called "rehabilitated" and in 1956 was allowed to return to European Russia. He settled in a town southeast of Moscow, taught high school mathematics and physics, and worked on his stories and novels. The short novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962; film, 1971) was the first of Solzhenitsyn's works to be published in the Soviet Union. It created an instant sensation because its subject is Stalin's forced labor camps, and it brought Solzhenitsyn immediate recognition. Praised initially, the novel became the basis for further action against him. After 1963, his work was not published in the Soviet Union for many years. Open conflict erupted with Solzhenitsyn's May 1967 letter to the Fourth National Congress of Soviet Writers, in which he demanded the abolition of censorship, the "rehabilitation" of many writers killed during the purges, and the restoration of his personal papers, confiscated by the KGB (secret police) in 1965. The confrontation grew more intense after the publication abroad of The First Circle (1968)--the title of which refers to the first circle of Dante's hell--and The Cancer Ward (1968-69), and after his winning the Nobel Prize in 1970. Further public statements by Solzhenitsyn, as well as the publication of the first volume of August 1914 (1971) and the first volume of the Gulag Archipelago (1973), led the Soviet authorities to exile him to the West in February 1974.

Having settled first in Zurich, Solzhenitsyn and his family later moved to the United States, where they took up residence in a small Vermont town. While in the West, Solzhenitsyn completed the Gulag Archipelago (three parts, 1974-78); The Oak and the Calf (1975; Eng. trans., 1980), the memoirs of his last ten years in the Soviet Union; The Mortal Danger: Misconceptions about Soviet Russia and the Threat to America (1980); and Three Plays (1986). In 1989 an expanded version of August 1914 was published as the first in a projected series of novels about the Russian Revolution to be called, collectively, The Red Wheel. (Excerpts from this work had been published in 1975 as Lenin in Zurich.)

In the United States, Solzhenitsyn did not always find a sympathetic audience for his ideas, which were revealed in a series of public addresses and stemmed from his conviction that Soviet Communism was America's perpetual enemy and the source of great suffering in Russia. The United States seemed to him complacent in its affluence and unwilling to confront harsh truths. A passionate nationalist and a devout Russian Orthodox Christian, he has long believed that the Soviet Union must renounce its ambitions to become an industrial and military power and look once more to the land. Solzhenitsyn faced prison and the threat of a mean death with immense moral courage. He achieved greatness both in enduring oppression and--in his works--as a witness to it. His beliefs may be seen as a consequence of his experiences and, perhaps, as the means by which he survived. In 1989, The Gulag Archipelago was published as a serial in the literary magazine Novy Mir, the first Soviet publication of any Solzhenitsyn work since 1963.

Laszlo M. Tikos

Bibliography: Bjorkegren, Hans, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: A Biography, trans. by Kaarina Eneberg (1972); Carter, S., The Politics of Solzhenitsyn (1977); Curtis, James, Solzhenitsyn's Traditional Imagination (1984); Dunlop, John B., et al., eds., Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: Critical Essays and Documentary Materials (1974; repr. 1985); Ericson, E. E., Solzhenitsyn: The Moral Vision (1982); Grazzini, Giovanni, Solzhenitsyn (1973); Kodjak, Andrej, Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1978); Labedz, Leopold, ed., Solzhenitsyn: A Documentary Record (1973); Lukacs, Georg, Solzhenitsyn, trans. by William D. Graf (1970); Rothberg, Abraham, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The Major Novels (1971); Scammell, Michael, Solzhenitsyn: A Biography (1984).

Text Copyright © 1993 Grolier Incorporated

Solzhenitsyn Links Press-Gopher Links Related Links