Monday, August 4, 2008

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, 1918-2008

More than any other writer of the twentieth century, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn demonstrated the power of literature to affect politics, and vice-versa. Solzhenitsyn died Sunday in Moscow at the age of 89.

It all started in 1945 with a remark in a letter to a friend about "the man with the mustache." Authorities interpreted this as a disrespectful reference to Stalin, and, as a result, Solzhenitsyn was sentenced to eight years in labor camps. One of those camps, in Kazakhstan, provided the basis for what later became his first book, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

One Day was published openly in the Soviet Union in 1962, at a time when Khrushchev was trying to "de-Stalinize" the country. However, Solzhenitsyn's reputation with the authorities changed dramatically in 1964 with Khrushchev's ouster, and when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, he dared not go to Stockholm to accept it for fear he would not be able to return. The culmination came in February, 1974, after The Gulag Archipelago was published in Paris. Solzhenitsyn was arrested, stripped of his citizenship, and deported, eventually settling in Vermont. He outlived the USSR, and returned to Russia in 1994.

Due to his passion, vision, and eloquence, Solzhenitsyn was often called a prophet, and, like many prophets, he could be hard to get along with. His personal life was sometimes turbulent. Two years after taking sanctuary in the United States, he made a speech at Harvard in which he harshly criticized his host country for what he saw as its vulgarity and materialism. He alienated his fellow dissidents with what seemed to be his desire for a theocratic, authoritarian Russia. He was accused by some of anti-Semitism, though strongly defended against that charge by others. During the breakup of Yugoslavia, he once compared NATO to Hitler.

Still, there seems little doubt that he will be considered one of the most important figures of the twentieth century, both in literature and in the advancement of freedom.

More about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn can be found here.

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