Although Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is best known for his novels and his multivolume historical-artistic investigation of the Soviet prison system, Arkhipelag GULag, 1918-1956: Opyt khudozhestvennogo issledovaniya, 1973-1975 (The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, 1974-1978), in which inset tales figure notably, he also wrote independent short fiction, prose poems, narrative poetry, a film scenario, essays, biography and autobiography, and drama. His short novel Odin den’ Ivana Denisovicha (1962; One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, 1963) was adapted for American television. Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970, but Soviet authorities blocked a reception ceremony. His Nobelevskaya lektsiya po literature 1970 goda (the Nobel lecture) was published in 1972.
Seldom has a writer emerged from total obscurity and risen so meteorically in such a short time as did Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, achieving in little more than a decade world fame and winning the Nobel Prize. He accomplished all this by adhering to the nineteenth century realistic tradition and also by bringing new elements into Russian literature. His greatest successes lie in the field of the novel, but he was as forceful in his nonfiction writings, especially in his Gulag Archipelago trilogy. Even his prose poems or miniature stories are comparable to the best in their genre. Through his artistic achievements, resistance to tyranny, and personal courage, he became the conscience not only of Russian people but also of all humankind and one of the greatest writers in Russian literature.
Although the literary reputation of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (sohl-zheh-NEET-seen) rests largely on his long prose works, this prolific writer experimented in numerous genres. The short story “Matryona’s House” is an excellent example of Solzhenitsyn’s attention to detail as well as his reverence for old Russian values as exemplified by the peasant woman Matryona and her home. In addition to his short stories, in 1964 Solzhenitsyn published Etyudy i krokhotnye rasskazy, a collection of prose poems (translated in Stories and Prose Poems by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, 1971), each of which generally conveys a single message by focusing on a solitary image. Solzhenitsyn also composed the long poem Prusskie nochi (1974; Prussian Nights, 1977), which he committed to paper only after his release from prison. Drama, as well, interested Solzhenitsyn from his early years as a writer. His dramatic trilogy was written between 1951 and 1954, but the plays were never published or staged in the Soviet Union. Solzhenitsyn’s eagerness to experiment with different genres and to mesh them makes him an unusually interesting writer. Fairy tales, film scenarios, drama, poetry, and prose are continually found interwoven in Solzhenitsyn’s works. A particularly striking example of his desire to mix genres is his history of the Stalinist labor camps, Arkhipelag GULag, 1918-1956: Opyt khudozhestvennogo issledovaniya (1973-1975; The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, 1974-1978).
The publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s first work, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich—in Russian in 1962 and in English in 1963—sent shock waves throughout both the East and the West. Suddenly a new voice was heard in the Soviet Union, shattering the long, oppressive decades of silence and revealing forbidden truths of Stalinist society. In his preface to One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Aleksandr Tvardovsky, an established Soviet poet and editor of the journal Novy mir, notes that the talent of the young writer is as extraordinary as his subject matter. Tvardovsky states that One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is a work of art. The decision to make this comment is revealing, for, from the outset, it has been difficult, if not impossible, for readers both in the East and in the West to evaluate Solzhenitsyn as an artist apart from his political views. Solzhenitsyn became a symbol of hope. Born after the Russian Revolution, educated in the Soviet system, and tempered by war and the Stalinist camps, he was in every sense a Soviet man. With the publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, he also became a Soviet writer published in the Soviet Union—a writer who, through the actions and words of a simple peasant, unmasked decades of terror and tyranny.
Solzhenitsyn’s focus on the peasant in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and in the short story “Matryona’s...
One might wonder why any Western writer would attempt a biography of Alexander Solzhenitsyn less than twenty years after the publication of Michael Scammell’s exhaustive study of the novelist, which appeared in 1984. It is certainly fair to speculate, too, about why someone who has spent most of his career as a novelist, poet, and translator would be willing to take on such a daunting task. D. M. Thomas, author of a half-dozen volumes of poetry and a dozen novels, including the ambitious five-volume Russian Nights Quintet series, claims that the decision to take on this project was motivated principally by his love for Russian literature, which he sees as a seamless web of interconnected writings stretching back as far as the beginning of the nineteenth century, when the first dissident writer, Alexander Pushkin, became the darling of literary circles in Russia. As Thomas admits in the prologue to his work, “to write a life of Solzhenitsyn is inevitably to write about a century—or perhaps two.” To learn about Solzhenitsyn’s struggles against Communism is to see in microcosm the struggles of an entire nation against an ideology that stifled individual freedoms and brutally eliminated all who opposed the grand scheme concocted by Vladimir Ilich Lenin and his most zealous followers.
Despite Thomas’s unstinting praise for his subject, this is a book that Solzhenitsyn did not want to see in print. Unhappy that Thomas was planning to rely on the memoirs of his first wife, Solzhenitsyn not only refused to grant Thomas an interview, but he even attempted to stop publication, going so far as to withdraw permission for the publisher, St. Martin’s Press, to bring out a planned collection of his own writings. In the face of these objections, Thomas provides in Alexander Solzhenitsyn: A Century in His Life a story based largely on secondary sources. At times Thomas is openly fanciful in his speculations, relying on his talents as a novelist to create scene and dialogue. More frequently, however, to flesh out the narrative he relies on Solzhenitsyn’s numerous autobiographical writings and the memoirs of those who know him. The records upon which he has been able to draw are voluminous, and his commitment to the project is infused with a belief that Solzhenitsyn “helped to bring down the greatest tyranny the world has seen” and that “no other writer of the twentieth century has had such an influence on history.” Consequently, he writes about Solzhenitsyn with a certain degree of reverence and a keen interest in explaining the complexities of character that drove the writer to challenge Soviet authorities at the risk of imprisonment or even death.
The details of Solzhenitsyn’s life are given primacy of place in Thomas’s narrative. Readers not familiar with the outlines of the writer’s life receive a solid overview of his boyhood in the provinces of the Soviet Union, his wartime service, his arrest and internment in a series of forced-labor camps, and his decades-long struggle to chronicle the evils and hypocrisies of Communist rulers whose habitual lies about progress covered up the oppression and deprivation suffered by millions. Thomas does an excellent job presenting the gradual shift in Solzhenitsyn’s ideology from committed Communist to conservative reactionary. One sees the writer gradually abandoning his belief in Lenin and adopting a philosophy that celebrates the tenets of organized religion, including the practices of the Russian Orthodox church. The Solzhenitsyn seen at the end of this tale is one very different from the young writer inspired by Lenin’s writings.
Solzhenitsyn is also very different from the idealized portrait that so many outside the U.S.S.R. had constructed of him from the works which had been published in Europe and America before he left the Soviet Union in 1974. For years a darling of Western liberal intellectuals and politicians while he toiled under the constraints of totalitarian rulers, Solzhenitsyn proved, once he arrived in the West, to be no toady of the liberal ideology. His harsh condemnation of Western democracy, which he says has produced nations of individuals more concerned about trivial pleasures than about genuine human happiness, caused him to lose favor with many who had been vocal supporters while he was still behind the Iron Curtain. What became apparent during his years in exile was his revulsion at the aims of the Enlightenment; in his view, the spirit of rationalism has led not only to the evils of Communism in the East, but also to the state of moral laissez-faire in the West that has...