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Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn


Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn


Russian author and historian, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn continued the realistic tradition of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy and complemented it with his views of the flaws of both East and West. In the 1960s and 1970s he produced a number of major novels based on his own experiences of Soviet prisons and hospital life. Later he saw that his primary mission is to rewrite the Russian history of the revolutionary period in the multivolumed work The Red Wheel (1983-1991).

"He had drawn many a thousand of these rations in prisons and camps, and though he'd never had an opportunity to weight them on scales, and although, being a man of timid nature, he knew no way of standing up for his rights, he, like every other prisoner, had discovered long ago that honest weight was never to be found in the bread-cutting. There was short weight in every ration. The only point was how short. So every day you took a look to soothe your soul - today, maybe, they haven't snitched any." (from One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, 1962)
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn descended from an intellectual Cossack family. He was born in Kislovodsk in the northern Caucasus Mountains, between the Black and Caspian seas. His father, Isaaki Solzhenitsyn, a tsarist artillery officer, was killed in an hunting accident six months before Aleksandr's birth. During WW I he had served on the front, where he married Taissia Shchberbak, Solzhenitsyn's mother.

To support herself and her son, Taissia worked in Rostov as a typist and did extra work in the evenings. Because the family was extremely poor, Solzhenitsyn had to give up his plans to study literature in Moscow. Instead he enrolled in Rostov University, where he studied mathematics and physics, graduating in 1941. In 1939-41 he took correspondence courses in literature at Moscow State University. In 1940 he married Natalia Alekseevna Reshetovskaia; they divorced in 1950, remarried in 1957, and divorced again in 1972. In 1973 Solzhenitsyn married Natalia Svetlova; they had three sons, Yermolai, Stephan, and Ignat. Dmitri was the son from Svetlova's first marriage to Prof. Andrei Tiurin. Svetlova, born in 1939, was a postgraduate of the mechanical department of Moscow State University.

In WW II Solzhenitsyn achieved the rank of captain of artillery and was twice decorated. From 1945 to 1953 he was imprisoned for writing a letter in which he criticized Joseph Stalin - "the man with the mustache." Solzhenitsyn served in the camps and prisons near Moskow, and in a camp in Ekibastuz, Kazakhstan (1945-53). During these years, Solzhenitsyn's double degree in mathematics and physics saved him mostly from hard physical labour, although in 1950 he was taken to a new kind of camp, created for political prisoners only, where he worked as a manual laborer.

"The Kolyma was the greatest and most famous island, the pole of ferocity of that amazing country of Gulag, which, though scattered in an archipelago geographically, was, in the psychological sense, fused into a continent - an almost invisible, almost imperceptible country inhabited by the Zek people." (from The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956, 1974)
From Marfino, a specialized prison that employed mathematicians and scientist in research, Solzhenitsyn was transferred to forced-labour camp in the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic; there he developed stomach cancer. Between 1953 and 1956 Solzhenitsyn was exiled to South Kazakhstan village of Kok-Terek. To supported himself Solzhenitsyn worked as a mathematics and physics teacher. Solzhenitsyn also wrote in secret. He developed a cancer, but was successfully treated in Tashkent (1954-55). Later these experiences became basis for the novels First Circle and Cancer Ward. After rehabilitation, Solzhenitsyn settled in Riazan as a teacher (1957).

At the age of 42, Solzhenitsy had written a great deal, but published nothing. After Nikita Khrushchev had publicly condemned the "cult of personality" - an attack on Stalin's heritage - the political censorship loosened its tight grip for a period. Solzhenitsyn's first book, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, appeared next year in the leading Soviet literary journal Novyi Mir. It marked the beginning of Soviet prison-camp literature. Solzhenitsyn used third-person direct speech, examining the Soviet life through the eyes of a simple Everyman. Written in clear and honest style, it described the horrors of just one day in a labour camp. The book gained fame both in the USSR and the West, and was compared with Fedor Dostoyevsky's novel House of the Dead. With the royalties, Solzhenitsyn bought a green Moskvich car.

Novyi Mir published also the stories 'Matryona's Home' and 'An Incident at Krechetovka Station', but rejected Cancer Ward (1968), in which Kostoglotov, the protagonist, was a semi-authorial figure. The characters confront questions of life and death, truth and falsehood - emphasized by the discussion of Lev Tolstoi's What Do Men Live For? in the ward. Stalinism is paralleled with the tragedy of those in the hospital suffering from cancer: an informer has cancer of the tongue. The Fist Circle (1968) was set during the late 1940s and early 1950s, and drew a picture of a class of intellectuals, research scientists, caught up in the system of prisons and camps. They are forced to work for the secret police, and debate endlessly about politics and the principles of morality. The title of the book referred to the least painful circle of Hell in Dante's Inferno. However, if the prisoners do not produce satisfactory work, they will found themselves in the lower circles of the labor camps.

The period of official favour lasted only a few years. Between the years 1963 and 1966 Solzhenitsyn managed to publish only four stories and finally all his manuscripts were censored. Khrushchev himself was forced into retirement in 1964. The KGB confiscated the novel V KRUGE PERVON and other writings in 1965. Solzhenitsyn refused to join his colleagues who protested prison sentences imposed on the writers, because he "disapproved of writers who sought fame abroad", but in 1969 he was expelled in absentia from the Writers' Union. "Dust off the clock face," Solzhenitsyn said in his open letter after the expulsion. "You are behind the times. Throw open the sumptuous heavy curtain - you do not even suspect that day is already dawning outside." From 1971 his unpublished manuscripts were smuggled in the West. These works secured Solzhenitsyn's international fame as one of the most prominent opponents of government policies.

Rejecting the ideology of his youth, Solzhenitsyn came to believe that the struggle between good and evil cannot be resolved among parties, classes or doctrines, but is waged within the individual human heart. During the Cold War years, this Tolstoian view and search for Christian morality was considered radical in the ideological atmosphere of the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s. As the great 19th-century Russian writers, Solzhenitsyn assumed the role of an observer. "Where can I read about us? Will that be only in a hundred years?" says a woman in Cancer Ward. Solzhenitsyn became a chronicler, witness whose own experiences are part of the way to approach truth and judge.

The first volume of The Gulag Archipelago appeared in 1973. (Gulag stands for "Chief Administration of Corrective Labor Camps.") For the work Solzhenitsyn collected excerpts from documents, oral testimonies, eyewitness reports, and other material, which all was inflammable. The detailed account of the network of prison and labor camps - scattered like islands in a sea - in Stalin's Russia angered the Soviet authorities and Solzhenitsyn was arrested and charged with treason. "A great writer is, so to speak, a second government in his country," Solzhnenitsyn wrote in The First Circle. "And for that reason no regime has ever loved great writers, only minor ones."

As with Boris Pasternak, the Soviet government denounced Solzhenitsyn's Nobel Prize as a politically hostile act. "If Solzhenitsyn continues to reside in the country after receiving the Nobel Prize, it will strenghten his position, and allow him to propaganda his views more actively," wrote the KGB chief Yuri Andropov in a secret memorandum.

In 1974 the author was exiled from the Soviet Union. He lived first in Switzerland and moved then in 1976 to the United States, where he continued to write series called The Red Wheel, an epic history of the events, that led to the Russian Revolution. August 1914 (1971), constructed in fragmented style, focused on the defeat of the Russian Second Army in East Prussia. Although Solzhenitsyn did not have much sympathy for intentionally experimental, avant-garde literature, he used also in this work documents, proverbs, songs, newspapers, and imitation film scripts. With these technical devices Solzhenityn managed to create a broad social picture of this crucial moment of history.

"Exile from his great theme, Stalinism and the Gulag, had exposed his major weakness. Whatever its origins - and I suspect it was born early in his life - an overpowering repression would not allow him to penetrate below the conscious level of his mind. In his earlier works this did not matter, for he was able to externalize his unconscious: the savage, Inferno-esque vision of Gulag is, in a sense, a projection of his own repressed violence - on a gargantuan scale, because of the intensity of the repression. Lacking a strong fictive sense, he could never have invented and Inferno, as Dante did; he didn't need to, because this Russian Inferno existed. He hacked the salamander out of the ice. No one else in world literature, ever, could have done it." (D.M. Thomas in Alexander Solzhenitsyn, 1998)
After collapse of the Soviet Union Solzhenitsyn returned from Vermont to his native land in 1994. The new regime, led by Mikhail S. Gorbachev, had offered to restore his citizenship already in 1990, and next year his treason charges were formally dropped. Solzhenitsyn made a sensational whistle-stop tour through Siberia, becoming a highly popular figure. Solzhenitsyn was also received by President Yeltsin and in 1994 he gave an address to Russian Duma.

Solzhenitsyn settled in Moscow, where he continued to criticize western materialism and Russian bureaucracy and secularization. Western democratic system meant for Solzhenitsyn "spiritual exhaustion" in which "mediocrity triumphs under the guise of democratic restraints." "We have been through a spiritual training far in advance of Western experience. The complex and deadly crush of life has produced stronger, deeper, and more interesting personalities than those generated by standardized Western well-being." (from a speech given in Harvard in 1978) Sozhenitsyn's old Russian ideals were already explicit in the character of Matryona in 'Matryona's House'. Its narrator meets a saintly woman, whose life has been full of disappointments but who helps others. "We had lived side by side her and had never understood that she was the righteous one without whom,. as the proverb says, no village can stand."

In modern Russia Solzhenitsyn was soon labelled as "a reactionary utopian". His basic message was that the only salvation is to abandon materialist world view and return to the virtues of Holy Russia. Due to low ratings, Solzhenitsyn's 15-minute talk show was cancelled a year after it was started, but the television adaptation of The First Circle, broadcasted in 2006, gained a huge audience.

The Solzhenitsyn Prize for Russian writing was established in 1997. Since his return Solzhenitsyn, published several works, but in the West his views did not gain the former interest, with the exception of the essay Rebuilding Russia (1990) which was widely read and arose much debate. Solzhenitsyn's later books include ROSSIYA V OBVALE (1998, Russia Collapsing), an attack on Russia's business circles and government, published by Viktor Moskvin. The first printing was 5 000 copies. He also wrote on Russian-Jewish relations. In January 2003 Solzhenitsyn was hospitalized with high blood pressure. "For me faith is the foundation and support of one’s life," Solzhenitsyn said in a Spiegel interview (July 23, 2007). In 2007, Russian President Vladimir Putin granted Solzhenitsyn a State Award for humanitarian achievement, saying that millions of people around the world associate Solzhenitsyn's name and work with the very fate of Russia itself. Solzhenitsyn died from a heart condition on August 3, 2008.



One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn

This contemporary literary classic is quite literally what it says it is: a single day in the life of a prisoner in a Stalinist labor camp in 1951. Ivan Denisovich Shukov is punished with three days in solitary confinement for not getting out of bed, but the threat is idle, and he only has to wash a floor before being taken back to breakfast. As the day goes on, the reader gains insight into the workers' suffering and companionship, and the uneasy coexistence between the prisoners and guards. At the end of the day, Ivan is lucky to be rewarded with a few extra mouthfuls of food from another inmate and thanks God for getting him through another day. This day, we find out at the end, is just one out of 3,653 of Ivan's prison existence. Ivan is an unlikely protagonist for Russian literature of this time, being a peasant, a normal man, and possibly illiterate. He represents the uneducated and persecuted mainstream of Soviet society. Despite his background, however, Ivan develops an inner dignity as he builds some meaning out of his mundane and degrading camp existence, transcending his surroundings with a spiritual intensity.Throughout,the story reverberates with the desperate dehumanization of the prisoners; the unjust punishments and arbitrary rules that reduce men to mere numbers. Yet despite the degradation a hope rings out as the twin strengths of camaraderie and faith help the men to survive.
Solzhenitsyn was arrested in 1945 for criticizing Stalin in a private letter, spending eight years of his life in labor camps similar to the one he describes here. In 1962, he became famous with this novel's publication^ landmark event in the history of Soviet literature. This memorable work was the first public recognition of the existence of the labor camps and the hideous conditions endured by their inmates.



Alexandr Solzhenitsyn

The Nobel Prize in Literature 1970


I was born at Kislovodsk on 11th December, 1918. My father had studied philological subjects at Moscow University, but did not complete his studies, as he enlisted as a volunteer when war broke out in 1914. He became an artillery officer on the German front, fought throughout the war and died in the summer of 1918, six months before I was born. I was brought up by my mother, who worked as a shorthand-typist, in the town of Rostov on the Don, where I spent the whole of my childhood and youth, leaving the grammar school there in 1936. Even as a child, without any prompting from others, I wanted to be a writer and, indeed, I turned out a good deal of the usual juvenilia. In the 1930s, I tried to get my writings published but I could not find anyone willing to accept my manuscripts. I wanted to acquire a literary education, but in Rostov such an education that would suit my wishes was not to be obtained. To move to Moscow was not possible, partly because my mother was alone and in poor health, and partly because of our modest circumstances. I therefore began to study at the Department of Mathematics at Rostov University, where it proved that I had considerable aptitude for mathematics. But although I found it easy to learn this subject, I did not feel that I wished to devote my whole life to it. Nevertheless, it was to play a beneficial role in my destiny later on, and on at least two occasions, it rescued me from death. For I would probably not have survived the eight years in camps if I had not, as a mathematician, been transferred to a so-called sharashia, where I spent four years; and later, during my exile, I was allowed to teach mathematics and physics, which helped to ease my existence and made it possible for me to write. If I had had a literary education it is quite likely that I should not have survived these ordeals but would instead have been subjected to even greater pressures. Later on, it is true, I began to get some literary education as well; this was from 1939 to 1941, during which time, along with university studies in physics and mathematics, I also studied by correspondence at the Institute of History, Philosophy and Literature in Moscow.

In 1941, a few days before the outbreak of the war, I graduated from the Department of Physics and Mathematics at Rostov University. At the beginning of the war, owing to weak health, I was detailed to serve as a driver of horsedrawn vehicles during the winter of 1941-1942. Later, because of my mathematical knowledge, I was transferred to an artillery school, from which, after a crash course, I passed out in November 1942. Immediately after this I was put in command of an artillery-position-finding company, and in this capacity, served, without a break, right in the front line until I was arrested in February 1945. This happened in East Prussia, a region which is linked with my destiny in a remarkable way. As early as 1937, as a first-year student, I chose to write a descriptive essay on "The Samsonov Disaster" of 1914 in East Prussia and studied material on this; and in 1945 I myself went to this area (at the time of writing, autumn 1970, the book August 1914 has just been completed).

I was arrested on the grounds of what the censorship had found during the years 1944-45 in my correspondence with a school friend, mainly because of certain disrespectful remarks about Stalin, although we referred to him in disguised terms. As a further basis for the "charge", there were used the drafts of stories and reflections which had been found in my map case. These, however, were not sufficient for a "prosecution", and in July 1945 I was "sentenced" in my absence, in accordance with a procedure then frequently applied, after a resolution by the OSO (the Special Committee of the NKVD), to eight years in a detention camp (at that time this was considered a mild sentence).

I served the first part of my sentence in several correctional work camps of mixed types (this kind of camp is described in the play, The Tenderfoot and the Tramp). In 1946, as a mathematician, I was transferred to the group of scientific research institutes of the MVD-MOB (Ministry of Internal Affairs, Ministry of State Security). I spent the middle period of my sentence in such "SPECIAL PRISONS" (The First Circle). In 1950 I was sent to the newly established "Special Camps" which were intended only for political prisoners. In such a camp in the town of Ekibastuz in Kazakhstan (One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich), I worked as a miner, a bricklayer, and a foundryman. There I contracted a tumour which was operated on, but the condition was not cured (its character was not established until later on).

One month after I had served the full term of my eight-year sentence, there came, without any new judgement and even without a "resolution from the OSO", an administrative decision to the effect that I was not to be released but EXILED FOR LIFE to Kok-Terek (southern Kazakhstan). This measure was not directed specially against me, but was a very usual procedure at that time. I served this exile from March 1953 (on March 5th, when Stalin's death was made public, I was allowed for the first time to go out without an escort) until June 1956. Here my cancer had developed rapidly, and at the end of 1953, I was very near death. I was unable to eat, I could not sleep and was severely affected by the poisons from the tumour. However, I was able to go to a cancer clinic at Tashkent, where, during 1954, I was cured (The Cancer Ward, Right Hand). During all the years of exile, I taught mathematics and physics in a primary school and during my hard and lonely existence I wrote prose in secret (in the camp I could only write down poetry from memory). I managed, however, to keep what I had written, and to take it with me to the European part of the country, where, in the same way, I continued, as far as the outer world was concerned, to occupy myself with teaching and, in secret, to devote myself to writing, at first in the Vladimir district (Matryona's Farm) and afterwards in Ryazan.

During all the years until 1961, not only was I convinced that I should never see a single line of mine in print in my lifetime, but, also, I scarcely dared allow any of my close acquaintances to read anything I had written because I feared that this would become known. Finally, at the age of 42, this secret authorship began to wear me down. The most difficult thing of all to bear was that I could not get my works judged by people with literary training. In 1961, after the 22nd Congress of the U.S.S.R. Communist Party and Tvardovsky's speech at this, I decided to emerge and to offer One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

Such an emergence seemed, then, to me, and not without reason, to be very risky because it might lead to the loss of my manuscripts, and to my own destruction. But, on that occasion, things turned out successfully, and after protracted efforts, A.T. Tvardovsky was able to print my novel one year later. The printing of my work was, however, stopped almost immediately and the authorities stopped both my plays and (in 1964) the novel, The First Circle, which, in 1965, was seized together with my papers from the past years. During these months it seemed to me that I had committed an unpardonable mistake by revealing my work prematurely and that because of this I should not be able to carry it to a conclusion.

It is almost always impossible to evaluate at the time events which you have already experienced, and to understand their meaning with the guidance of their effects. All the more unpredictable and surprising to us will be the course of future events.

From Nobel Lectures, Literature 1968-1980, Editor-in-Charge Tore Frängsmyr, Editor Sture Allén, World Scientific Publishing Co., Singapore, 1993

This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and first published in the book series Les Prix Nobel. It was later edited and republished in Nobel Lectures. To cite this document, always state the source as shown above.



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