In a comment to refer to himself, Anton Chekhov advised: “write how this youth squeezes the slave out of himself drop by drop, and how, waking up one fine morning, he feels that in his veins flows no longer the blood of a slave but that of a real man.” Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn has undergone much the same process, although cast in a much different context, and Michael Scammell’s biography of the exiled Soviet author and polemicist records the tests of character and physical ordeals which led Solzhenitsyn from an ideological position of comfortable conformity to one of uncompromising opposition.
This is a big book (1051 pages) about a person who seems larger than life; both Solzhenitsyn’s virtues and vices, almost Homeric in scope, are recorded in detail and with objectivity. In fact, Scammell prefaces his work by stating that both opponents and supporters of Solzhenitsyn will probably criticize this book. The author visited Solzhenitsyn at his Vermont estate for a week, although the biography is not authorized, and he has recorded the work habits of the reclusive Solzhenitsyn as he labors to complete his cycle of historical novels.
As befits a biography, Scammell treats Solzhenitsyn’s life chronologically, weaving biographical detail with copious background information concerning the Soviet Union and critical reaction to Solzhenitsyn’s fiction and nonfiction works. Scammell is really writing a much broader work than the title might suggest; Solzhenitsyn holds center stage, but he is also the means by which the reader is introduced to all sorts of Soviet phenomena and personalities.
Solzhenitsyn’s early life was made difficult by poverty and the fact that his social origins were of the wrong sort in proletarian times. After doing well at school, he matriculated at Rostov University to study mathematics and physics, a decision which, years later, would prove beneficial, as it saved him for a time from being sent to a hard-regime labor camp. He also studied Marxism-Leninism and, in his own words, “was carried away.” Solzhenitsyn remained a Marxist until the latter half of the 1940’s, defending Lenin while blaming Stalin for the excesses and shortcomings of the Soviet system. In April, 1940, he married his fellow student, Natalia Reshetovskaya; in June, 1941, they were graduated as the Germans invaded the Soviet Union.
In the fall, Solzhenitsyn entered the Soviet army as an enlisted man; after a series of semicomic adventures within the army bureaucracy, he completed artillery school and was commissioned an officer. For two and a half years, he fought at the front, becoming a captain in the process. He recalls that he enjoyed the privileges of an officer, an attitude which he seems now to regret, but by all accounts was popular with the men in his command. During this time, he corresponded with Nikolai Vitkevich, a friend from school and university days, who was also an officer in the Soviet army. In these letters, Solzhenitsyn criticized Stalin for his conduct of the war, and in February, 1945, he was arrested by the counterespionage service, Smersh. This arrest began an odyssey through the Soviet camp system, the gulag, which would be the basis of much of Solzhenitsyn’s fiction. After interrogations in Moscow, Solzhenitsyn worked briefly on construction projects in Moscow, then spent about three years in a Sharashka, a prisoner-staffed scientific-technical institute, housed in what was formerly a theological seminary on the outskirts of Moscow. This period of relative calm allowed Solzhenitsyn to prepare himself, mentally and physically, for the rigors of the hard-labor camp in Central Asia to which he was transferred in 1950.
Despite the privations of Solzhenitsyn’s incarceration, the period from 1945 to 1953 was a time of tremendous intellectual and spiritual growth for him. The disgraced officer began his prison career in a state of confusion, completely bewildered by the course of events, confident that a mistake had been made and would soon be rectified. As time went by and expected amnesties did not materialize, Solzhenitsyn buckled down and learned the complex routines of camp life, sometimes as a result of painful mistakes and miscalculations. He even briefly became an informer, which he later regretted and considered the low point of his prison life.
At the same time, Solzhenitsyn began his unofficial education, meeting forcibly returned émigrés, imprisoned scientists, vocal Christians, and political dissidents, all of whom began to shake his faith in Leninism. During long and free discussions, all sorts of topics were discussed: religion, Marxism, life in the West, and life in Russia before the Revolution. Solzhenitsyn gradually shed his belief in Marxism-Leninism and began his journey toward his present belief in Russian Orthodox Christianity. By the time of his release in March, 1953, Solzhenitsyn was thoroughly prison-wise and completely convinced that his survival depended solely upon his own efforts, an attitude...
(The entire section is 2053 words.)