Yesterday marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The celebrated novelist and dissident is considered by many to be a key figure in the demise of communism and the collapse of the Soviet Union. As Daniel J. Mahoney says, “Solzhenitsyn embodied, in thought as well as deed, the two great moral wellsprings of European civilization: humility and magnanimity, humble deference to an ‘order of things’ and the spirited defense of human liberty and dignity.”
In honor of his centennial, here are five fact you should know about Solzhenitsyn.
1. During World War II, Solzhenitsyn became a decorated commander in a Red Army artillery unit, and took part in the liberation of the Russian city of Orel and the German capital of Berlin. After witnessing war crimes against civilians by Soviet troops he began to be disillusioned by the communist regime. In early 1945, after writing a private letter to a friend criticizing Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, Solzhenitsyn was arrested and imprisoned for “counter-revolutionary activities.” He was in a Moscow prison when the war ended in May 1945.
2. In July 1945 Solzhenitsyn was sentenced to eight-year term in a labor camp. He worked in several different camps, and performed both manual labor (i.e., mining, bricklaying) and helping with scientific research. After his prison sentence ended in 1953, he was sent into internal exile in Kazakhstan. During this period of his life he abandoned Marxism and embraced the Eastern Orthodox faith.
3. Solzhenitsyn’s experience in the labor camps formed the basis of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the only novel of his allowed to be published in the Soviet Union. Nikita Khrushchev, who mistook Solzhenitsyn for a Soviet loyalist, believed the novel would be useful to his own efforts at “de-Stalinization.” The book won the Lenin Prize and gained Solzhenitsyn a worldwide audience. Two of his other novels, The First Circle and Cancer Ward, were widely read in the West but had to be illegally published and distributed in the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries. His masterpiece, The Gulag Archipelago, was written in secret over a period of twenty years and lead to his forced exile in 1974.
4. After being stripped of his Soviet citizenship, Solzhenitsyn briefly lived in West Germany and Switzerland before moving to the United States at the request of Stanford University. In 1978 he was awarded an honorary Literary Degree from Harvard University and gave his famous Commencement Address. The speech was a stinging indictment of Western materialism and our inordinate focus on individualism. (See also: 20 Key quotes from Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard address)
5. After 20 years in exile, Solzhenitsyn returned to live in his homeland and resumed his role critiquing the Russian government and society. As Jeffrey Hays notes, “Solzhenitsyn continued to make authoritative pronouncements. He blamed Gorbachev for setting in motion reforms that led to destructive commercialism, crime, permissiveness and sexual freedom. He criticized Yeltsin for breaking up the Soviet Union without taking into consideration the 25 million Russians living in the former republics, He blamed Putin for heading down the same misguided path of his predecessor and criticized Chechens, Westerners and Russian reformers.” In 2008, at the age of 89, Solzhenitsyn died of heart failure.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons