Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn, born 11 December 1918, was a Nobel Prize winning Russian novelist, Soviet dissident, and political prisoner. In 2018 on the 100th anniversary of Solzhenitsyns’ birthday, Russian president Vladimir Putin unveiled a statue in Moscow in his memory, describing him as “true and real patriot”, perhaps a final act of a reconciliation between the state and a prominent and vocal dissident?
Solzhenitsyn was not afraid to speak about his country, pointing out that:
“In our country the lie has become not just a moral category but a pillar of the State”.
“Unlimited power in the hands of limited people always leads to cruelty.”
Arrest and exile
Solzhenitsyn served as a Red Army captain throughout the Second World War (WWII).
His views on war are summarised here:
“A state of war only serves as an excuse for domestic tyranny.”
As a captain, Solzhenitsyn was arrested for his criticism of Joseph Stalin, former leader of the Soviet Union. He was sentenced to eight years in prison and later internal exile in Ekibastuz, north-Eastern Kazakhstan.
I have visited Ekibastuz several times for work purposes. Now a mining town, the local Gres2 power station has the world’s tallest flue-gas stack at 419.7 metres (1,377ft) high. The reinforced concrete chimney is the tallest freestanding chimney ever built.
When I visit, the chimney and power station are a reminder that this is one of the towns of former political prisoners. Here, Solzhenitsyn was put to work in a labour camp – the usual procedure for those committing crimes under Article 58, which forbade anti-Soviet propaganda. Solzhenitsyn contributed to the building one of the early local power stations.
During one of my visits, I was introduced to his writing. He describes his experiences in the labour camp in Ekibastuz in the novel One Day in the life of Ivan Denisovich, published in 1962, which describes a single day in the life of a political prisoner in exile.
In 1970, Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel prize for Literature. The citation read:
“For the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature.”
His books, according to the Nobel Prize website, ‘reflects a humanist view of the universality of human experience’.
A thaw in relations with Solzhenitsyn
Khrushchev’s accession to the position of First Secretary of the Soviet Union in 1953 saw a period of ‘de-Stalinisation’, in which political reforms were introduced to repair damage left by Stalin. One of the minor, though certainly significant steps that Khrushchev took was to approve the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.
Following this, there was a thaw in the state’s relationship with Solzhenitsyn. The author was released from exile and exonerated. He returned to Moscow where he continued to write.
Following Khrushchev’s rule, the Soviet authorities tried to discourage Solzhenitsyn’s writing.
He could not, however, be censored. In 1968 he published Cancer Ward, followed by The Gulag Archipelago in 1973, both of which outraged the Soviet state. In 1974 Solzhenitsyn’s Soviet citizenship was revoked and he was exiled to West Germany. In 1976, two years after his forced removal, he moved to America.
It wouldn’t be until 1990, one year before the collapse of the USSR, that Solzhenitsyn’s citizenship was restored; he returned to Russia in 1994 and stayed here until his death in in 2008.
Although critical of ‘individual rights’ in the West, Solzhenitsyn warned that political freedom and democracy were shrinking. In an academic article written by Sidney Hook, it was claimed that Solzhenitsyn’s ultimate message was that with ‘moral courage’ and ‘dedication to freedom’, we can ‘avoid both war and capitulation in the grim days ahead’.
In later life his thoughts drifted into dangerous territory as he became more extreme in his Russian nationalism. Yet the quality of his earlier work and the strength of his critique of the authoritarian system remains.
I have recently heard Solzhenitsyn described as a “troubler of a nations conscience”.
A nation, the world, sorely needs such a man today!