Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn 1918-
(Full name Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn) Russian novelist, short story writer, poet, dramatist, journalist, essayist, critic, and nonfiction writer.
Best known for his Odin den' Ivana Denisovicha (1962; One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich) and Arkhipelag Gulag, 1918-1956: Op' bit khudozhestvennopo issledovaniia (1973-75; The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation), Solzhenitsyn confronts in his short fiction and longer works the oppressive actions of the former Soviet Union, while in his later essays he regards the political and moral problems of the West as well. Rejecting the precepts of Socialist Realism, he writes from a Christian perspective, depicting the suffering of innocent people in a world where good and evil vie for the human soul; in this he is thematically linked to such nineteenth-century Russian writers as Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov. Although Soviet authorities frequently banned his writings, Solzhenitsyn received the 1970 Nobel Prize for what the Nobel committee termed "the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature."
Born in 1918 in Kislovodsk, Russia, Solzhenitsyn never knew his father, who died in a hunting accident before he was born. His mother, the daughter of a wealthy landowner, was denied sufficient employment by the Soviet government, forcing the family into poverty from 1924 to 1936. Solzhenitsyn harbored literary ambitions early in life, resolving before he was eighteen to write a major novel about the Bolshevik Revolution of 1918. After earning degrees in philology, mathematics, and physics, Solzhenitsyn began teaching in 1941. In 1945, while serving as the commander of a Soviet Army artillery battery, counterintelligence agents discovered personal letters in which Solzhenitsyn had criticized Communist leader Josef Stalin. Found guilty of conspiring against the state, he was confined to numerous institutions over the course of a decade, including a labor camp at Ekibastuz, Kazakhstan, and Marfino Prison—a sharashka, or government run prison and research institute. While in Moscow's Lubyanka prison, Solzhenitsyn began reading works by such authors as Yevgeny Zamyatin, a notable Soviet prose writer of the 1920s, and American novelist John Dos Passos, whose expressionist style later influenced Solzhenitsyn's own writing. During his imprisonment in Ekibastuz, Solzhenitsyn was diagnosed with intestinal cancer and underwent surgery. Due to bureaucratic incompetence, however, he did not receive radiation and hormone treatments until he was near death, but miraculously recovered from the disease. In 1953 he was released from prison and exiled to Kok-Terek in Central Asia. There he taught mathematics and physics in a secondary school and began writing prose poems, short stories, plays, and notes for a novel.
Freed from exile in 1965, Solzhenitsyn returned to central Russia. He then submitted several of his stories to the Russian periodical Novy Mir, which had published One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in 1962. Appearing during a period of openness fostered by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, the work proved a considerable success. However, with the decline of Khrushchev and the rise of less tolerant regimes, Solzhenitsyn fell from official favor. When he was granted the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970, he was unable to attend the awards ceremony because the Soviet government would not guarantee his reentry into Russia. The French publication of The Gulag Archipelago led to his arrest, and in 1974 he was expelled from his homeland and eventually settled in the United States. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, however, has since afforded Solzhenitsyn the opportunity to return to Russia.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Set in Stalinist Russia, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich focuses on a simple prisoner, a peasant named Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, who wants only to serve his sentence of hard labor with Christian integrity. In it Solzhenitsyn strove to avoid the aims of Socialist Realism, which reflected the official directives of the state and so imposed thoughts and feelings on its readers. Instead he rendered his tale in an understated, elliptical manner intended to elicit spontaneous feelings. Similar in tone to One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the stories of Sluchai na stantsii Krechetovka [i] Matrenin dvor (1963; We Never Make Mistakes) offer subtly ironic views of life in the mid-twentieth century Soviet Union. With the second World War as its background, "An Incident at Krechetovka Station" presents the patriotic, devoutly Marxist, and steadfastly "vigilant" army lieutenant Zotov, a railroad station commander at Krechetovka. While assisting a misplaced soldier named Tveritinov, who has been separated from his unit, Zotov discovers the man does not know that the city of Tsaritsyn in now called Stalingrad, and suspects he is a German spy. Turning Tveritinov over to the secret police for questioning, Zotov later regrets his decision, realizing the soldier will likely never see his family again. The title character of "Matryona's Home," an impoverished peasant woman, endures her drab life until she is killed in a train accident. Figuring into a long tradition, Matryona is alternately seen by critics as a symbolic depiction of the idealized Russian peasant—innocent, infinitely patient, and hard-working—or a personification of a quietly suffering Mother Russia. The title of Dlia pol'zy dela (1963; For the Good of the Cause) alludes to the practice of Soviet collective labor, in this case to a group of students' construction of a new school building, which is taken from them to be transformed into a research institute by the opportunistic Knorozov—who hopes to become director of the new facility. For the Good of the Cause illustrates Solzhenitsyn's contention that despite Stalin's death a multitude of "little Stalins" like Knorozov dotted the landscape of the modern Soviet Union.
Among Solzhenitsyn's other works of short fiction are a series of prose poems, sketches designed to convey a simple idea or image and generally regarded as of lesser artistic interest. Along with these are several short pieces—almost journalistic in character—collected in English in Stories and Prose Poems by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1971). "The Right Hand" features a homeless man who, possessing only a decades-old commendation for "counter-revolutionary service," is neglected medical treatment. "Easter Procession" dramatizes the mocking attitude toward religion and spirituality exhibited by many Russians of a younger generation, and depicts the dangers of hooliganism and anti-Semitism. "Zakhar-the-Pouch," Solzhenitsyn's last story published in the Soviet Union recollects a bicycle trip to Kulikovo, site of a significant fourteenth-century Russian victory against the Tatars, now marred by vandalism. Culled from omitted chapters of his novel Avgust chetyrnadtsatogo (1971; August 1914), the novella Lenin v Tsiurikhe (1975; Lenin in Zurich) represents one of Solzhenitsyn's most unabashedly political works of short fiction, and offers a scathing portrait of the Russian leader Vladimir Lenin.
In his writings Solzhenitsyn asserts the strength of the human spirit and the responsibility of the writer. The task of the writer, he believes, is "to treat universal and eternal themes: the mysteries of the heart and conscience, the collision between life and death, the triumph over spiritual anguish." Such is the thrust of Solzhenitsyn's shorter pieces of fiction, including One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and "Matryona's Home," both of which are counted among his most accomplished works. Regarding these and other writings, critics generally agree that Solzhenitsyn's perceptive analysis of the human condition elevates his fiction above ordinary political or polemical works, and thus continue to place him among Russia's greatest writers.