Monday, August 4, 2008

Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn, 1918-2008

And so Nobel laureate Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn, one of the great figures of Russian literature, primarily known in the West as a chronicler of Communist atrocities in Russia, died Sunday at the age of 89. That he lived to such an old age is remarkable considering his unusual life, marked with cancer, prison, labor camps, exile, controversy, and, frequently, condemnation. Deported from Russia in 1974 for his insistent criticism of the Soviet government, and subsequently stripped of his Soviet citizenship, Solzhenitsyn lived first in West Germany and then, for a short time, in Switzerland. Eventually he was invited to the United States under the auspices of Stanford University, which enthusiastically vowed to allow him to continue his anti-Soviet writing. He eventually moved to Cavendish, Vermont, where he (ironically, given his years in prison and labor camps) enclosed his property with a fence topped with barbed wire and set up a closed-circuit television system. According to the obituary in the Los Angeles Times, “He once claimed to have made no more than five phone calls from the retreat over 20 years.”

Known in the West for The Gulag Archipelago (three volumes, 1973-78), a scathing indictment of Stalin’s repressive police state, Solzhenitsyn was in fact an excellent novelist, author of novels such as A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962), The First Circle (1968), and Cancer Ward (1968). These are all very fine books, concerned with any number of important issues, not simply with (Soviet) politics, but it was his lot—which he apparently came to resent—to be used by the Western media primarily for his functional, propagandistic value as an individual who suffered terribly at the hands of an enemy state--the U.S.S.R. (One of the standard ploys of the propaganda system in the United States is to emphasize the crimes and atrocities of an avowed enemy while minimizing the importance or significance of its own.) While there is no question of Stalin’s brutality—that has been so well documented that I hardly need rehearse it here—Solzhenitsyn’s exclusive value to the United States during the period leading up to the collapse of the Berlin wall was as someone who could document the crimes of a Communist state—too bad, because it diverted attention away from his considerable gifts as a novelist.

Solzhenitsyn enthusiastically returned to Russia in 1994, after spending roughly eighteen years in the United States. He bought a country estate near Moscow—in yet another irony, the retreat once used by Stalinist henchman Lazar Kaganovich—and resumed the reclusive way of life that characterized his years in Vermont. His books on Stalin's gulag were valuable to the West during the years of the Cold War, but it is his novels that now attest to Alexander Solzhenitsyn being one of the great figures of Russian literature, no small feat considering the number of great writers from that country.

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