Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

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 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...

(The entire section is 2135 words.)

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Biography

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn grew up fatherless and poor in Rostov-on-Don, where he took his university degree in mathematics in 1941, having also studied literature by correspondence from Moscow University. After four years of unbroken service as a frontline artillery officer, he was sentenced in 1945 to eight years of hard labor in gulag, the Soviet prison system, for criticizing Joseph Stalin in a private letter. Inexplicably exiled to Kazakhstan from 1953 to 1956, Solzhenitsyn recovered from a near-fatal cancer, taught mathematics and physics in a high school, and began to set his prison experiences down as fiction. Rehabilitated in 1956, he moved to Ryazan, near Moscow, where he continued to write. The publication of his camp novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich marked a brief thaw in Soviet literary restrictions under Nikita S. Khrushchev in 1962. Upon the retightening of censorship, Solzhenitsyn’s work was banned from publication in the Soviet Union. After being expelled from the Soviet Writers’ Union in 1969 and barred from formal acceptance of the Nobel Prize in Literature he had won in 1970, Solzhenitsyn was ejected from the Soviet Union in 1973. He settled in Vermont with his second wife and children. In his later years, Solzhenitsyn experienced some misgivings in the West on account of his uncompromising stand against the regime in his country and “conservative” views on the future of Russia. He retired from public life, spending all his time writing the Red Wheel novels. Solzhenitsyn returned to Russia and lived on an estate outside of Moscow until his death on August 3, 2008 at the age of 89.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn was born in Kislovodsk, a city in the north Caucasus, on December 11, 1918, one year after the Russian Revolution. His father, whose studies at the university were interrupted by World War I, died in a hunting accident six months before his son was born. Solzhenitsyn’s mother, Taisiya Zakharovna Shcherbak, worked as an office clerk throughout Solzhenitsyn’s childhood, earning very little money. In 1924, Solzhenitsyn and his mother moved to Rostov-on-Don, a city at that time of nearly a quarter million people. Because of financial considerations and the poor health of his mother, Solzhenitsyn was to continue his education there until he graduated in 1941 from the University of Rostov-on-Don, specializing in mathematics and physics. From an early age, Solzhenitsyn dreamed of being a writer. Having displayed a natural talent for math and finding no adequate literary institution in Rostov-on-Don, however, Solzhenitsyn studied mathematics and physics. Nevertheless, in 1939, Solzhenitsyn decided to pursue his literary interests and began a two-year correspondence course in literature at the Moscow Institute of History, Philosophy, and Literature while continuing his studies in mathematics and physics. He finished this course of study in 1940, the same year that he married Natal’ya Alekseyevna Reshetovskaya (the apparent prototype of Nadya in The First Circle). Reshetovskaya, a specialist in physical chemistry and biochemistry, taught at the Agriculture Institute in Rostov-on-Don. On October 18, 1941, Solzhenitsyn was drafted into the Soviet army; he hardly saw his wife for the next fifteen years.

Solzhenitsyn served in the army in various capacities, working his way up to battery commander. He was a decorated and inspiring leader, but his army duty was cut short in February, 1945, when he was summoned to his commanding officer’s quarters and arrested. The charges, as was typical throughout the Stalinist era, were not made clear to Solzhenitsyn at that time. Later, he determined that he had been arrested for oblique, derogatory remarks concerning Joseph Stalin and his mismanagement of the war that he had made in a personal journal and in a letter to a friend. Upon his arrest, he was taken to the Lubyanka, the notorious prison in Moscow. On July 7, 1945, after four months of interrogation, he was sentenced to eight years of hard labor. Solzhenitsyn’s novella One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, his novel The First Circle, and his multivolume work The Gulag Archipelago are all based on his firsthand experience of the Stalinist labor camps. He, like countless other Soviet citizens, was sentenced, under section 58 of the Soviet penal code, for counterrevolutionary crimes. Solzhenitsyn spent the beginning of his term at Butyrka, a Moscow prison, laying parquet floors, as does Nerzhin, theprotagonist of The First Circle. Later in 1946, because of his training in mathematics and physics, he was transferred to a sharashka (a prison where scientists work on special projects for the state) very similar to the one depicted in The First Circle. After one year in the sharashka, Solzhenitsyn was sent to a labor camp in northern Kazakhstan. During his stay there, he had a tumor removed; the prisoner was not told that it was malignant.

In February, 1953, Solzhenitsyn was released...

(The entire section is 1388 words.)

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Biography

(Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

Author Profile

While confronted with mounting censorship from Soviet authorities during the 1960’s and his eventual arrest and forced exile in 1974, Solzhenitsyn maintained an ethical identity with his homeland and his image of its historical traditions. Solzhenitsyn’s ethical base was predicated on a renewal of traditional Russian Christian values; he was not attracted to the individualism or democratic institutions of the West. Solzhenitsyn condemned the oppression of the Soviet (and especially the Stalinist) phase in Russian history and described the ethical and moral bankruptcy of the Soviet regime and its institutions. In particular, he condemned the depersonalization of Russian life under the Soviets....

(The entire section is 1780 words.)

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn (sohl-zuh-NEET-suhn) was born on December 11, 1918, in Kislovodsk, a small Caucasus town near Rostov-on-Don in the Soviet Union (now in Russia). Six months before he was born, his father died in World War I in an accident while serving in the czarist army, for which he had volunteered. His mother, Taissa Zakharovna Shcherbak, had a difficult time rearing her family because of their social origin and because of the turmoil in Russia during the revolution and after the war. The family moved to Rostov in 1924, where Solzhenitsyn attended high school and the University of Rostov, studying mathematics and physics. He discovered early that his true love was literature and enrolled in a correspondence...

(The entire section is 1135 words.)

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn considered his vocation as a mission toward the obtainment of the truth. All of his works serve this goal in one way or another. That he had an ax to grind against the system, which at one point almost cost him his life, was overshadowed by a higher purpose of fulfilling the noble mission of an artist—to serve the truth.

Solzhenitsyn was to a large degree successful in this endeavor, thanks primarily to his powerful artistic qualities, through which he rendered invalid the assertion that he was basically a writer of political and historical works. His meteoric rise to the status of a leading writer in world literature speaks for itself.

(The entire section is 114 words.)

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn (sohl-zeh-NEET-sihn) is widely regarded as the most significant Russian writer of the twentieth century. Many critics see in his writings a revival of nineteenth century Russian realist literature. He was born on December 11, 1918, in Kislovodsk, Soviet Union. His father, an artillery officer in the Russian army, died six months before Aleksandr’s birth. His mother worked as a typist and stenographer. As a youth, Solzhenitsyn felt a desire to become a writer but did not receive any encouragement. From 1939 to 1941 he studied mathematics at the University of Rostov. He was drafted into the army in 1941, where he served with distinction. In February, 1945, the Soviet secret police (KGB) intercepted...

(The entire section is 1074 words.)

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Biography

(Short Stories for Students)

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was born on December 11, 1918, in Kislovodsk, Russia. His father, an artillery officer in World War I, died in an...

(The entire section is 439 words.)