Remembering Solzhenitsyn: the chronicler of the Gulag

Thursday marks 90 years since the birth of the late Nobel Prize-winning author, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. He died this August at his home outside Moscow, leaving behind an enduring legacy.

The story of Solzhenitsyn’s life was one of survival. He lived through the horrors of Stalin’s labour camps, an assassination attempt, cancer, persecution – and 20 years in exile.

“If you look at his circumstances, you would see flashing red lights everywhere: impossible to survive! But he fought the regime and won. One person defeated the entire system,” said actor Evgeny Mironov.

Solzhenitsyn was born in a small village in Russia in 1918 – the same year that Bolsheviks executed the last Russian Tsar and his family.

Writing the ‘Gulag Archipelago’

He fought for his country in World War II but was sentenced to eight years in a labour camp for criticizing Stalin in a personal letter to a friend.

In prison he worked as a scientist, a miner and a bricklayer. But his mind was far away, creating and memorizing novels as 'One Day in The Life of Ivan Denisovich' and the Nobel-winning 'The First Circle'.

After his 'Gulag Archipelago' was published in the West, the authorities accused him of treason and expelled him from the Soviet Union. His wife, Natalya, says Solzhenitsyn was surprised that all he faced was exile.

“We always understood that at any moment he could have been killed in a set-up car crash or something like that. Such practices were quite common at that time,” she said. “And there was an assassination attempt on him in 1971.”

Exile in the United States

Rural Vermont in the United States became home for Solzhenitsyn, his wife and three sons.

The writer spent up to 15 hours a day working, but he always found time for his children.

“Our kids were still very little,” said Natalya Solzhenitsyna. “When they went to his classes they would all gather at his study door, waiting and they wouldn’t even think to be 30 seconds late, because they respected his time.”

Seen as a beacon of freedom in the West, the writer never returned the praise it heaped upon him. Regarding the West as spiritually decadent, he criticized its democracy – and even declined an invitation to dinner with U.S. President Ronald Reagan.

“So the president invited him, there was a big reception and Solzhenitsyn said, ‘I’m sorry, Mr. President, but I don’t have time for this. But if you want my advice on something, I would be glad to come and see you,” said Yury Lubimov, a theatre director and close friend.

Homecoming

When the Soviet Union collapsed, Solzhenitsyn returned to Russia as a hero – a prophet of the post-Soviet era. But the country he came back to was unknown to him.

Although the writer won a state medal for his achievements, he was never really in step in what he described as an increasingly Western and materialistic new Russia.

“We should support and trust ordinary people but not the small group of status seekers, whose only aim is to get into power,” he said.

Solzhenitsyn shunned the limelight and spent his last years quietly with his family.

He insisted that no monuments or museum be dedicated to him, and that his only legacy be his collection of works.

XL Report: In the circle of fate

Interview with Yermolai Solzhenitsyn