Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

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Article abstract: One of three persons to hold honorary U.S. citizenship, Solzhenitsyn has produced a striking body of literature and has led a long, heroic life, working for freedom in the Soviet Union. His nomination for the Lenin Prize affected de-Stalinization, and his Nobel Prize has positively influenced East-West relations.

Early Life

Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn scarcely had a childhood. He was born during the Russian Civil War as White and Red armies raced back and forth across the Caucasus, where his family had long resided. His understanding of family history and of the father who died in a freak hunting accident six months before Solzhenitsyn was born are detailed in Avgust chetyrnadtsatogo (1971, 1983; August 1914, 1971, 1989). His earliest memory (1921) is of Soviet soldiers looting a church. Growing up fatherless and with a mother (born Taissa Zakharovna Shcherbak) struggling to hold any kind of a job—her family’s wealth, although confiscated, made her “a social alien”—encouraged in Solzhenitsyn precocity, self-reliance, and self-discipline. Living in harsh circumstances was valuable preparation for the rigors of war and the camps. Private penury merged with public penury after termination of the New Economic Policy in 1928, giving Solzhenitsyn another reason to feel sorry for the Soviet Union (the reason his father had enlisted) and to be attracted to the vision of Leninism.

Solzhenitsyn labored harder on household chores than most boys, read voraciously, always made top marks in school in Rostov-on-Don, and wrote tales and journals regularly from age ten. He read Leo Tolstoy’s Voyna i mir (1865-1869; War and Peace, 1886) ten times and drank in Vladimir Dahl’s collection of Russian proverbs. Other of his favorites were William Shakespeare, Friedrich Schiller, Charles Dickens, Jack London, and the Russian poet Sergei Yesenin. Though Solzhenitsyn idolized Tolstoy, he termed Maxim Gorky Russia’s greatest writer. In 1936, Solzhenitsyn began to research World War I in preparation for a history of the Russian Revolution, his main task in life, as he had known from early childhood.

Top marks earned for Solzhenitsyn admittance to the University of Rostov on scholarship and without entrance examinations or inquiry into his social origins, and continued top marks along with his activities in Komosol (youth wing of the Communist Party) earned for him a Stalin scholarship paying two and a half times as much. In the summer of 1939, he was enrolled in the Moscow Institute of Literature, Philosophy, and History (MILFI), and he was moved by his first visit to that city. On April 27, 1940, he married fellow-student Natalia Reshetovskaya. He was graduated from the University of Rostov in June, 1941, and applied for a position as a village schoolmaster instead of for one of the prestigious positions that his top marks warranted. On June 22, 1941, war was declared. Solzhenitsyn was not permitted to enlist, because of an old groin injury, but total mobilization on October 16, 1941, made him a private soldier.

Life’s Work

Solzhenitsyn’s military career began as a farce and ended as a tragedy, but he regarded it as a central part of his life’s work. He was defending the Soviet Union and Leninism, and he studied and wrote, not knowing his letters were being intercepted. Assigned to the Seventy-fourth Horse-Drawn Transport Battalion of the Stalingrad Command, Solzhenitsyn spent the winter mostly mucking stables. On March 22, 1942, he learned through an old friend of the need of a courier to Stalingrad. Solzhenitsyn volunteered and managed to get assigned to artillery school. Commissioned as a lieutenant in October, 1942, Solzhenitsyn served in several locations through the winter and in April, 1943, was assigned...

(This entire section contains 2135 words.)

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to Orel, about midway between Rostov and Moscow. Now a battery commander, he was always on the front lines, because his mission was to locate enemy gun positions by measuring their sounds. He served in the decisive Battle of Orel in July, 1943, was decorated with the Order of the Patriotic War, and pursued the Germans toward Poland. The Soviets crossed the Dnieper River in February, 1944. Solzhenitsyn was wounded and promoted to captain, and the advance continued. “The Last Offensive,” aimed at Berlin, began in January, 1945. Solzhenitsyn, disobeying Stalin’s orders to loot everything in just revenge, felt sympathy for conquered peoples and restrained his battery, although he did take some rare Russian books from a house and appropriated stacks of white, blank paper from a Prussian post office. Solzhenitsyn was stunned by the sight of liberated Soviet prisoners of war and was totally shocked on February 9, 1945, to be summoned to his commanding general’s office, where he was arrested by Smersh agents and stripped of his insignia.

Solzhenitsyn arrived at the famous Lubyanka Prison in Moscow on February 20, 1945, where procedures for receiving prisoners had been crafted into a fine art over twenty-five years. The process is described in the arrest of Volodin at the end of V kruge pervom (1968; The First Circle, 1968). Solzhenitsyn was charged with creating anti-Soviet propaganda (disparaging remarks about Joseph Stalin had been found in his letters) and of founding a hostile organization. On July 27, 1945, he was sentenced to eight years by the Special Court.

Solzhenitsyn served eight years in various prison camps, which are immortalized in The First Circle, the three volumes of Arkhipelag GULag, 1918-1956: Opyt Khudozhestvennogo issledovaniya (1973-1975; The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, 1974-1978), and other writings. Like Gleb Nerzhin in The First Circle, he accommodated himself to camp society. Seen from outside, Nerzhin’s life was unhappy—nearly hopeless—but he was secretly happy in that unhappiness. In the camps he got to know people and events he could have learned nowhere else. Solzhenitsyn’s sentence was officially ended February 9, 1953, and he was exiled in perpetuity to Kok Terek, Kazakhstan, 250 miles from China. He slept in ecstasy in the open on March 5, 1953, heard of Stalin’s death the next day, and wrote the poem “The Fifth of March.” After administrative technicalities, in May, 1953, he began teaching math, physics, and astronomy in the high school at Kok Terek, population four thousand, about equally divided between natives and exiles. His teaching was interrupted at the end of 1953 by the diagnosis of cancer and by his two treatments in Tashkent, a thousand miles to the west, in 1954. It is not known how literally autobiographical the case of Oleg Kostogolotov in Rakovy Korpus (1968; Cancer Ward, 1968) is, but his own tumor was most serious (one had been removed in the camps) and treatment and recovery were difficult.

The political climate changed in 1956, beginning with the secret speech of First Secretary Nikita S. Khrushchev admitting crimes of Stalin and announcing the end of Gulag and exile. In April, 1956, Solzhenitsyn’s sentence and exile were ended. He went to Moscow and was amazed to find bureaucrats almost friendly and to be able to see his file in Lubyanka Prison and to see a prosecutor laugh at it. Solzhenitsyn found a teaching job in Torfoproduct on the rail line a hundred miles east of Moscow. Natalia joined him there, and they were remarried February 2, 1957. In 1958, Boris Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize, and there was a furor in the Soviet Union. While polishing The First Circle, Solzhenitsyn began a tale entitled “One Day in the Life of a School Teacher”—Solzhenitsyn was then an excellent and happy teacher—but in May, 1959, he changed the title to Shch-854 and the scene to a labor camp in Ekibastuz. He completed it in six weeks, burned the drafts, and hid the finished copy. His first published writing “Post Office Curiosities,” on the failings of the Soviet postal service, appeared in Priokskaya Pravda in Ryazan in March, 1959, and a year later the newspaper Gulok published his article on rail service. Times were changing, yet Literaturnaya Gazeta, the organ of the Union of Soviet Writers, and other periodicals rejected his work. Solzhenitsyn had read the journal Novy mir since December, 1953, when an article entitled “On Sincerity in Literature” had appeared in it and on November 4, 1961, he took Shch-854 to Novy mir in Moscow. The editor of Novy mir loved the story. How it became Odin den’ Ivana Denisovicha (1962; One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, 1963) and got on Khrushchev’s desk is legendary and embellished, but it was printed in Novy mir in November, 1962, and was nominated for the Lenin Prize in 1964. The vote was close, but conservatives, fearing that de-Stalinization was proceeding too rapidly, struck it from the list. Even so, Solzhenitsyn was now famous, and publishers scrambled for his works. Publication of his works in the Soviet Union, however, was denied.

Solzhenitsyn’s works circulated in samizdat (underground literary network), The First Circle and Cancer Ward were published in the West without authorization, and he was expelled from the Union of Soviet Writers in 1969. He refused to go to Sweden in 1970 to receive his Nobel Prize in fear of not being readmitted to the Soviet Union. In 1974, he was arrested and exiled. After a brief time in West Germany, he moved to Zurich, Switzerland. In 1976, he settled in a rural retreat in Vermont, where he made his home in closely guarded privacy with his second wife, Natalia Svetlova (they had met in 1967), until returning to his homeland in 1994 following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

While in exile, Solzhenitsyn began working on a project that he first conceived in 1937, when he was still in his teens: a multivolume fictional chronicle of Russian history in the years leading up to the Revolution of 1917. To write this massive work, collectively entitled Krasnoe koleso (The Red Wheel), he assembled a historical archive that includes documents of all kinds from that period. The first installment, or “knot” (uzel), to use Solzhenitsyn’s own term, is the revised version of August 1914, which is more than half again the length of the original. The second knot, Oktiabr shestnadtsatogo (1984; October, 1916), was actually published after the third, Mart semnadtsatogo (1983; March, 1917). Aprel’ semnadtsatogo appeared in 1991. In general, critical reaction to this ambitious work, which the author regarded as his most important, was negative. In response, Solzhenitsyn said that he was writing for readers fifty or a hundred years in the future.


Students and critics will be sorting out Solzhenitsyn’s distinctive contributions for many years. The volume of his works, the copies sold, and the different languages into which his works were translated are enormous and growing. Solzhenitsyn was a poet and a prophet; he was a master storyteller with an incredible capacity for details; he was accomplished in many genres; and he had a mission to tell the truth about what happened in the Soviet Union in his lifetime. Solzhenitsyn believed that his experiences and knowledge of eyewitness sources justify the placing of August 1914 and subsequent volumes in a category beyond historical fiction.


Allaback, Steven. Alexander Solzhenitsyn. New York: Taplinger, 1978. A short discussion of Solzhenitsyn’s four best-known works, this work provides an easy way to become acquainted with the basics of these stories by Solzhenitsyn.

Berman, Ronald, ed. Solzhenitsyn at Harvard: The Address, Twelve Early Responses, and Six Later Reflections. Washington, D.C.: Ethics and Public Policy Center, 1980. This work is important to any student of world affairs. Most Americans were hurt that the famous victim of Soviet dictatorship did not love the United States as much as he hated dictatorship. Most of Solzhenitsyn’s points are probably more valid than they were ten years ago; much of the criticism is less relevant.

Brown, Edward J. Russian Literature Since the Revolution. Rev. ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982. Describes the literary environment in which Solzhenitsyn wrote and provides helpful background and context. Solzhenitsyn’s prose is discussed. Contains a selected bibliography.

Burg, David, and George Feifer. Solzhenitsyn. Briarcliff Manor, N.Y.: Stein & Day, 1972. The best early biography, clearly written and easy to read. Written while Solzhenitsyn was still in Russia, so it is incomplete in several respects. Includes a short bibliography, eight pages of illustrations, and a very helpful chronology.

Clément, Olivier. The Spirit of Solzhenitsyn. Translated by Sarah Fawcett and Paul Burns. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1976. A thought-provoking thesis on the universality of Solzhenitsyn seeing him as speaking for every man, for everyone’s freedom to speak the truth.

Dunlop, John B., Richard S. Haugh, and Alexis Klimoff, eds. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: Critical Essays and Documentary Materials. Belmont, Mass.: Nordland, 1973.

Dunlop, John B., Richard S. Haugh, and Michael Nicholson, eds. Solzhenitsyn in Exile: Critical Essays and Documentary Materials. Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press, 1985. These works constitute an excellent source for the serious student. Contains a select bibliography.

Scammell, Michael. Solzhenitsyn: A Biography. New York: W. W. Norton, 1984. As close to a definitive biography as can be done of a living and working writer in only a thousand pages. Thoroughly researched, including interviews with Solzhenitsyn, and remarkably dispassionate in treating controversies. Very helpful in translating and explaining terms and things Russian. Includes an excellent bibliography and an excellent index.


Critical Essays