Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

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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.


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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.

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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).


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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...

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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 ofOne 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 House” contributed to the tremendous upsurge and success of the village theme in contemporary Soviet literature. “Village prose,” as the movement has been called, treating the concerns of the Soviet Union’s vast rural population, represents one of the dominant and interesting trends in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Solzhenitsyn’s initial success undoubtedly encouraged other writers to turn to such subjects as a means of speaking the truth, a means of “acceptable” protest.

The nomination of Solzhenitsyn for the Lenin Prize in 1964 demonstrates the height of popularity and prestige that the author attained in his own country. Although he was not to receive his country’s highest literary honor, six years later, in 1970, he was accorded worldwide recognition when he received the Nobel Prize in Literature. In his Nobel lecture, Solzhenitsyn stressed the writer’s responsibility to the truth, a responsibility that he took seriously throughout his career. Solzhenitsyn took it upon himself to record—in both his fiction and his nonfiction works—events that would otherwise be lost to the world. His history of the Stalinist camps (The Gulag Archipelago) as well as his writings on the prerevolutionary politics of Russia (such as August 1914, Lenin in Zurich, and November 1916) and on the workings of the Soviet literary machine in Bodalsya telyonok s dubom (1975; The Oak and the Calf, 1980) will serve as historical sources for future generations. Solzhenitsyn’s works had been translated into more than forty languages only ten years after his first publication. Popularity and politics aside, Solzhenitsyn will be remembered as a master of Russian prose whose works are among the finest of the twentieth century. His preoccupation with the profound issues confronting humankind and his search for a literary means to express these themes mark him as a great writer.

Discussion Topics

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Investigate the concentration camps in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s works as microcosms of Soviet society.

Relate One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich to other novels that describe only a single day in the life of a protagonist.

In what significant ways is Shukhov unlike his creator?

Explain the significance of Gleb Nerzhin being a mathematician in The First Circle.

Explain the appropriateness of the title The First Circle.

Explain this statement: Kostoglotov in Cancer Ward is a character who can best be understood by cancer patients.


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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 been equally destructive to the human spirit.

Fans of Solzhenitsyn who have read novels such as One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962) or The First Circle (1968), his accounts of forced-labor camps in The Gulag Archipelago (1973-1975), his autobiography The Oak and the Calf (1975), or his tributes to those who assisted his efforts in Invisible Allies (1995) will not be surprised at the descriptions of censorship, harassment, and torture he faced from the time he was arrested for anti-Soviet behavior during World War II until his expulsion from the Soviet Union.

The focus of Thomas’s biography is on Solzhenitsyn’s personal relationships, principally those with his two wives. The portrait of Natalya Reshetovskaya, who married the young Solzhenitsyn shortly before he was sent to the front in World War II, is especially well done. She emerges from Thomas’s text as a character equally complex as her more famous husband. Perhaps because he relies so heavily on her memoirs, Thomas finds her a long-suffering helpmate who was treated shabbily by a husband more committed to his writing than to being a good marriage partner. She is not without faults, however, and Thomas is willing to bring out her tendencies to overdramatize her own plight as the rejected woman. Similarly, he attempts to be evenhanded in his portrayal of Natalya Svetlova, whom Solzhenitsyn met in 1968 and married in 1973. The much younger woman fulfilled the writer’s desire for a wife who would cater to his unusual demands, while remaining a strong figure who could deal with outsiders forcefully, keeping them at arm’s length from Solzhenitsyn so he would remain free from distractions.

While he clearly admires Solzhenitsyn as a writer, Thomas is willing to take his subject to task over personal failings. Certainly his portrait of Solzhenitsyn’s relationships with women is hardly flattering. Although not a philanderer, Solzhenitsyn seemed to view marriage not as a union of equals but rather as a way for him to obtain dedicated help for his ongoing literary endeavors. From both of his wives—and from nearly a half-dozen other women whose assistance he sought during the decades when he was preparing multiple copies of his works for secret distribution—he demanded unquestioning loyalty and a willingness to take on tasks which he felt distracted him from his mission. These included household chores and a host of other everyday functions, such as answering the telephone.

In Thomas’s view, Solzhenitsyn did not deal much better with men. The extent of his loyalty toward friends can be seen in his interactions with Alexander Tvardovsky, the editor who placed his reputation and job on the line to publish One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in the U.S.S.R.’s premier literary journal Novy Mir in 1962. Initially much enamored with Tvardovsky’s courage, over the next two decades Solzhenitsyn cooled about the extent to which he was indebted to the editor, finally belittling his assistance in rather dismissive language inThe Oak and the Calf and Invisible Allies. Thomas is quick to point out the shift and to fault Solzhenitsyn for his change of heart. In similar fashion, he criticizes Solzhenitsyn for abandoning other old friends who stood by him in tough times, noting that for Solzhenitsyn only complete loyalty to his own brand of anti-Soviet ideology merited praise and reciprocal display of solid friendship.

Thomas is distanced enough from his subject to admit that as Solzhenitsyn grew older he gradually became more obsessed with documenting the evils of the Soviet state than with creating works of literary merit. By the time he began compiling the epic he would call The Red Wheel, Solzhenitsyn’s mania for including every detail about Soviet atrocities had begun to distract from his ability to tell a story that readers would find aesthetically satisfying. In effect, Thomas acknowledges that the novelist had moved from being an interpreter of human suffering to a mere chronicler of information about the repressive Soviet regime.

In some ways, the problems surrounding the appearance of Thomas’s work, evidenced by Solzhenitsyn’s efforts to stymie publication, make this biography particularly noteworthy. The controversy has been further inflamed by the widely divergent opinions expressed in initial reviews. Noted critic George Steiner and others have taken Thomas to task for his propensity to apply Freudian analysis to Solzhenitsyn’s character and to resort to novelistic techniques when direct evidence is lacking. On the other hand, a number of reviewers have been exceedingly high in their praise, including British critic A. N. Wilson, who claims that this is the definitive biography of the Soviet writer.

Whether Solzhenitsyn deserves the status Thomas affords him as the most important writer of the century may remain open to debate. Nevertheless, there is no question that his works were of great influence in exposing the evils of the totalitarian state under Stalin and his successors. In a number of his novels, most notably One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Cancer Ward (1968), and August 1914 (1971, rev. 1983), Solzhenitsyn used the materials of history and personal experience to create novels of lasting merit, novels that explore the foibles of humanity and the resilience of the human spirit in the face of great adversity. Hence, any responsible study of his life is valuable as a document offering insight into one of the greatest creative minds of modern times.

What is especially valuable about Thomas’s work is that he is able to look back retrospectively on Solzhenitsyn’s career at a time when the Soviet Union, the evil empire against which he struggled for five decades, has disappeared. In Alexander Solzhenitsyn: A Century in His Life, Thomas is able to place Solzhenitsyn’s personal struggles within the larger context of the internal campaign waged by a number of dissidents to topple the Communist government, which was built on a series of lies and a willful distortion of political and social realities. Because what Solzhenitsyn would characterize as the victory over Communism has been achieved, the measure of his accomplishments both as a novelist and a propagandist for change can be adequately measured. Thomas’s biography is an important first step in that direction.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCIV, December 15, 1997, p. 666.

The Christian Century. CXV, June 17, 1998, p. 613.

Contemporary Review. CCLXXIII, August, 1998, p. 105.

The Economist. CCCXLVI, February 14, 1998, p. R14.

Library Journal. CXXIII, January, 1998, p. 101.

Maclean’s. CXI, March 16, 1998, p. 60.

New Statesman. CXXVII, March 13, 1998, p. 52.

The New York Review of Books. XLV, December 3, 1998, p. 36.

The New York Times. CXLVII, March 13, 1998, p. 40.

The New York Times Book Review. CIII, March 1, 1998, p. 9.

Newsweek. CXXXI, February 16, 1998, p. 69.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, December 1, 1997, p. 37.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVIII, March 1, 1998, p. 4.


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