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.)