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The Warsaw Voice » Society » August 13, 2008
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Literary Giant Solzhenitsyn Dies
August 13, 2008   
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Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel Prize-winning Russian writer who awakened the world to the savagery of Soviet state repression and introduced the word "gulag" into the international lexicon, died at his home near Moscow on the evening of Aug. 3. He was 89 and had suffered a heart attack.

Alexander Isayevich Solzhenitsyn was born in the north Caucasian city of Kislovodsk in 1918. He studied mathematics at Rostov University while taking correspondence courses at the Moscow Institute of Philosophy, Literature and History. During World War II he served at the front as an artillery commander in the Red Army and was twice decorated for bravery. He was arrested in February 1945 on account of a derogatory reference to Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in a letter he had written to a friend. After being beaten and interrogated, he was sentenced in absentia to eight years of forced labor, followed by permanent internal exile.

Solzhenitsyn sparked a worldwide firestorm in 1962 when his grim One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was published, unbelievably with the personal approval of then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. The book, which chronicles the horrific conditions endured by people sent to Soviet labor camps after a show trial and with virtually no hope of ever being released, was based on Solzhenitsyn's own experiences in Kazakhstan. It was to be the last of his works published in the Soviet Union until the late 1980s when President Mikhail Gorbachev instituted his policy of glastnost (openness). Solzhenitsyn's demands that the Soviet Union tell the truth about itself soon had him spirited out the public eye and into the crosshairs of the notorious Soviet-era secret police, the KGB. He continued to be celebrated in the West, from where copies of his books were smuggled back home.

Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, which led to even more oppressive treatment. In 1973, the KGB confiscated the manuscript of his magnum opus, the three-volume The Gulag Archipelago, in 1973. Fortunately, a U.S. publisher already had a copy. The work was published from 1973 to 1978 and has taken its place in the canon of world literature. The work chronicles the history of Soviet oppression, describing the apparatus in great detail and drawing on the testimony of hundreds of those who lived through it.

Solzhenitsyn's shocking contention was that the Soviet Union needed slave labor to survive and that this made the entire system fundamentally evil. The "gulag archipelago" was not a Stalinist aberration. Lenin set it up. And it did not matter who was sent to the camps or why, so long as they were full. Gulag is a Russian acronym for Chief Administration of Corrective Labor Camps.

The Soviet authorities stripped the author of his citizenship in 1974 and banished him from the country. Solzhenitsyn finally made his triumphant return to his homeland in 1994 after spending 20 years in the United States. He soon earned himself a reputation as an advocate of a strong Russia and an ardent supporter of the Russian Orthodox Church. He was a critic of the "new democracy." He once again found himself on the sidelines after he virulently criticized President Boris Yeltsin for being too accommodating toward the West during the 1990s. He came back into favor with the ascendancy of Vladimir Putin, whose virtues he extolled at every public appearance. The admiration was mutual. In 2005, Putin visited Solzhenitsyn to present him with the State Prize of the Russian Federation in person.

S.C., L.Ż.
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