Sunday, August 3, 2008

Aleksandr Isaevich Solzhenitsyn, 1918-2008

It is our sad duty to report that celebrated Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, 89, died of heart failure, according to his son, Stepan. His short novel, "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" (1962) made a deep impression on me, and became the curtain-raiser for a series of books that exposed the massive meat-grinder that was the Soviet Gulag.

Solzhenitsyn wrote from bitter personal experience. All socialist regimes are intolerant of criticism, but Capt. Solzhenitsyn paid a high price - 7 years in a slave labor camp and 3 years in internal exile - for something ridiculously trivial: referring to Stalin as "the man with the mustache" in a letter. The brutal system that killed millions of people and broke many more failed to crush this uncompromising crusader. He committed his three volume magnum opus, the Gulag Archipelago, to memory so that he could later publish the testimony that would help to bring down the USSR.

His life, in a nutshell, was quite turbulent: award of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, charges of treason that led to his expulsion from the USSR, 18 years of exile in Cavendish Vermont, restoration of his Russian citizenship and dismissal of treason charges, a triumphant return to the Motherland.

Even after he was free to return to Russia, Solzhenitsyn maintained that his homeland was in a class by itself, and had to develop a Russian solution to its problems instead of relying on foreign imports such as Marxism. He was openly contemptuous of Boris Yeltsin and skeptical of his successor, Vladimir Putin. But eventually they reached a certain accommodation - "Like Putin, Solzhenitsyn argued that Russia was following its own path to its own form of democratic society."

He is survived by his wife, Natalya, and his three sons, including Stepan, Ignat, a pianist and conductor, and Yermolai. All live in the United States.

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