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Russian Gulag writer Solzhenitsyn dies aged 89

Russian Gulag writer Solzhenitsyn dies aged 89
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First Published: Mon, Aug 04 2008. 01 04 PM IST

Russian President Vladimir Putin, visits Alexander Solzhenitsyn, in his house in Troitse-Lykovo in the outskirts of Moscow. In the background are, his sons, Stepan and Yermolai
Russian President Vladimir Putin, visits Alexander Solzhenitsyn, in his house in Troitse-Lykovo in the outskirts of Moscow. In the background are, his sons, Stepan and Yermolai
Updated: Mon, Aug 04 2008. 01 04 PM IST
Agencies
Moscow: Russian writer and dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, died lSunday night of heart failure at the age of 89 at his Moscow residence.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, visits Alexander Solzhenitsyn, in his house in Troitse-Lykovo in the outskirts of Moscow. In the background are, his sons, Stepan and Yermolai
Solzhenitsyn, who wrote about the gulag prison camps and was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974, “had a difficult but happy life” according to his widow Natalya Solzhenitsyna.
Best known for his “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” and “The Gulag Archipelago,” he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970 for depicting in harrowing detail the Soviet Union’s system of labour camps, where he spent eight years from 1945.
Unearthed dark secrets of the Stalinist rule
He toiled obsessively to unearth the darkest secrets of Stalinist rule and his work ultimately dealt a crippling blow to the Soviet Union’s authority.
Born to a single mother in 1918 at Kislovodsk in the Caucasus amid the bloody aftermath of the Russian Revolution, he was initially a loyal Communist. He went on to undermine the regime’s moral foundations with his writings energizing dissent at home and in the West.
He entered the living hell of the Gulag, a vast prison system that stretched from the Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea to the steppes of Kazakhstan.
Literary achievements, exile notwithstanding
Solzhenitsyn was sentenced to eight years in the camps in 1945 and went on to survive cancer and a KGB assassination attempt.
By Gulag standards, conditions at the camp near Moscow where he initially worked were relatively tolerable. He deliberately exchanged them for back-breaking physical toil in a camp in Kazakhstan so as to share the lot of ordinary prisoners.
He was released in February 1953, a few weeks before Stalin’s death. He spent three more years in internal exile in Kazakhstan, contracted and overcame cancer, before moving back to Russia as a schoolteacher.
Then in 1962 he burst onto the world of literature with “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”. A slim volume published with official approval during the thaw under Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, it described the world of the forced labour camps. After its publication in the magazine Novy Mir, two subsequent editions totalling 850,000 copies sold out immediately. “Cancer Ward” and “The First Circle” followed, both appearing in English in 1968.
Amid a crackdown under Khrushchev’s successor Leonid Brezhnev, Russians for 20 years could read the texts only in clandestine editions.
Awarded Nobel Prize in 1970
But already by 1970 Solzhenitsyn’s impact was so great that he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He accepted the award but refused to travel to receive it for fear of not being allowed to return home.
By now Solzhenitsyn was sacrificing everything to his massive portrait of the camps, “The Gulag Archipelago,” covertly collecting information from 227 former prisoners.
The authorities were at a loss to know what to do about him. In 1970 Solzhenitsyn was sheltered by the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who wrote an open letter to Pravda newspaper supporting him. Rostropovich, who died in April 2007, was to suffer for their closeness, eventually being forced into exile.
The next year Solzhenitsyn suffered a bout of “heat stroke” which was later revealed to have been caused by ricin, a poison administered surreptitiously in a crowded shop.
Expelled from Russia in 1974
Finally the authorities discovered manuscripts for “The Gulag Archipelago” and in 1974 Solzhenitsyn was expelled by KGB chief Yury Andropov.
After a spell in Switzerland he moved to a remote village in Vermont, in the United States, where he devoted himself to his “Red Wheel” cycle, a fictionalized history of the run-up to the Revolution.
The world now discovered a Solzhenitsyn who was highly critical of Western ways and called for moral renewal based on Christian values.
Returned to his homeland in 1994
His spectacular return to his homeland in 1994 proved something of an anti-climax. The new Russia was as alien to Solzhenitsyn as the United States had been, a finding he shared with audiences in gloomy televized harangues.
In June last year, then Russian president Vladimir Putin awarded Solzhenitsyn the State Prize, Russia’s highest honour, praising his devotion to the “fatherland” in a lavish ceremony at the Kremlin. His wife Natalya accepted the award on behalf of her husband, who was unable to attend the ceremony.
Recognizable later in life by his flowing beard and ascetic dress, he had been very frail for several years.
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First Published: Mon, Aug 04 2008. 01 04 PM IST