The Writer Who Destroyed an Empire

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn traveling to Oslo by boat on Feb. 25, 1974, soon after his expulsion from the Soviet Union.CreditCreditEmil Christensen/Keystone, via Getty Images
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn traveling to Oslo by boat on Feb. 25, 1974, soon after his expulsion from the Soviet Union. Credit Emil Christensen/Keystone, via Getty Images

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, pundits offered a variety of reasons for its failure: economic, political, military. Few thought to add a fourth, more elusive cause: the regime’s total loss of credibility.

This hard-to-measure process had started in 1956, when Premier Nikita Khrushchev gave his so-called secret speech to party leaders, in which he denounced Josef Stalin’s purges and officially revealed the existence of the gulag prison system. Not long afterward, Boris Pasternak allowed his suppressed novel “Doctor Zhivago” to be published in the West, tearing another hole in the Iron Curtain. Then, in 1962, the literary magazine Novy Mir caused a sensation with a novella set in the gulag by an unknown author named Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn.

That novella, “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” took the country, and then the world, by storm. In crisp, clear prose, it told the story of a simple man’s day in a labor camp, where he stoically endured endless injustices. It was so incendiary that, when it appeared, many Soviet readers thought that government censorship had been abolished.

Solzhenitsyn was no youthful beginner. Born a hundred years ago, on Dec. 11, 1918, just 14 months after the Bolshevik Revolution, he was virtually the same age as the Soviet state and had experienced every phase of its development. As a youth and college student he had been swept up in the revolutionary euphoria of the communist experiment and fervently believed in the premises of Marxism-Leninism. In World War II he served as the commander of an artillery sound-ranging battalion and was awarded two medals for valor.

But Solzhenitsyn’s promising career was brutally cut short by his arrest in February 1945 on a charge of anti-Soviet activities; he was swiftly sentenced to eight years of hard labor in the gulag. His crime? Criticizing Stalin and the Soviet Army in letters exchanged with a school friend on another front.

This Dickensian reversal of fortune plunged Solzhenitsyn into despair, but it also opened his eyes to the hideous underbelly of Soviet communism and gave him glimpses of the reign of terror and lies that had kept it going for so long. He had already written poems, stories and half a novel, most of them on patriotic themes; he now resolved to dedicate the rest of his writing life to exposing the monstrous machine that had, as he later discovered, murdered or incarcerated millions like himself.

After publishing two more tales focused on the plight of simple peasants, Solzhenitsyn was blacklisted by the censors, but he was able to complete the two big autobiographical novels he had been working on: “The First Circle” and “Cancer Ward.” “The First Circle” was about a group of privileged prisoners, including Solzhenitsyn, chosen to work in a secret lab run by the gulag authorities, while “Cancer Ward” described the circumstances in which Solzhenitsyn, while working as a schoolteacher in administrative exile after his release, was successfully treated for abdominal cancer in Tashkent.

Both novels were notable for their ethical scrutiny of Soviet society and discussion of the government’s crimes, and both were denied publication in the Soviet Union. Like “Doctor Zhivago,” they were quickly smuggled to the West and, like “Doctor Zhivago” and “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” they became instant best sellers.

For his critical approach to Soviet life, Solzhenitsyn was evicted from the state-sponsored Writers’ Union and became a virtual outlaw in his own country. But he was far from alone. Many talented and independent writers — Varlam Shalamov (a fellow chronicler of the Gulag), Andrei Sinyavsky, Yuli Daniel and Joseph Brodsky — were circumventing the Soviet censorship with a new publication format called samizdat. It consisted of self-published poems, stories, novels, human rights appeals and political manifestoes that were secretly circulated in typed and mimeographed copies; in many cases, they were also sent abroad.

By the end of the 1960s, the leading writers and activists came to be known as the Dissident Movement. Their goal was to bring about freedom of expression and peaceful political change in the Soviet Union, and they garnered a global audience of readers. Besides writers, their ranks included scientists, engineers, academics, lawyers, even rebellious workers; their unofficial leader was the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Andrei Sakharov.

Solzhenitsyn sympathized and cooperated with Sakharov and the other dissidents, but he didn’t always agree with them, and he continued to follow his own path. In 1973, still in the Soviet Union, he sent abroad his literary and polemical masterpiece, “The Gulag Archipelago.” The nonfiction account exposed the enormous crimes that had led to the wholesale incarceration and slaughter of millions of innocent victims, demonstrating that its dimensions were on a par with the Holocaust. Solzhenitsyn’s gesture amounted to a head-on challenge to the Soviet state, calling its very legitimacy into question and demanding revolutionary change.

In response, the Soviets stripped Solzhenitsyn of his citizenship and expelled him to the West; he landed in America, and spent most of the next 19 years in Vermont. He was able to collect the Nobel Prize he had been awarded in 1970; he also wrote four more historical novels in his grand series called “The Red Wheel,” centered on the Russian Revolution and its aftermath.

He continued to blast Soviet leaders for their corruption and offered reams of advice for the future, but it was not an altogether happy time for the writer. His broadsides carried less weight in the Soviet Union than when he had still lived there. Strident attacks on America and Western democracy soon alienated his liberal supporters in the West, while his fierce criticisms of former allies in his memoirs seriously damaged his reputation at home.

None of this diminished Solzhenitsyn’s desire to see the Soviet system brought down, and when the government of Mikhail Gorbachev collapsed in 1991 he enjoyed both the thrill of success and the satisfaction of being proved right in his predictions of disaster. Three years later, he returned to Russia and received a hero’s welcome. But he didn’t much like what he saw there.

President Boris Yeltsin’s government was chaotic, and Solzhenitsyn disapproved of what he saw as the new regime’s adulation of the West and its foolish desire to introduce a form of Western democracy. What he advocated was a strong leader, who maintained strict order in the country, encouraged more religion and state support for the Orthodox church, together with a revitalized patriotism and a return to traditional values.

He seemed to get his wish in 2000, when Mr. Yeltsin handed the presidency over to a man who shared Solzhenitsyn’s nationalist views and personified his ideal of a strong leader: Vladimir Putin. The new Russian leader made a show of welcoming Solzhenitsyn to his residence and seeking his advice, and in 2007 he bestowed a state award on the author for his humanitarian activities (Solzhenitsyn had refused similar awards from Mr. Gorbachev and Mr. Yeltsin).

Solzhenitsyn died in 2008, before Mr. Putin showed his true colors with the coldblooded murders of opposition figures, the creation of an authoritarian state, the invasion of Ukraine and the Crimea, and the whittling down of local democracy in the provinces. (Solzhenitsyn might well have approved of the Ukrainian measures, since he was half-Ukrainian by birth, but not the others.)

After his death Solzhenitsyn was given a sumptuous funeral and buried at the Donskoy Monastery in Moscow. In 2010 “The Gulag Archipelago” was made required reading in Russian high schools. Moscow’s Great Communist Street has been renamed Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Street, his centennial is being celebrated with great pomp this week in Russia, and a statue of him in Moscow is planned for the near future.

All this would give the writer great satisfaction. But though feted and exploited by questionable allies, Solzhenitsyn should be remembered for his role as a truth-teller. He risked his all to drive a stake through the heart of Soviet communism and did more than any other single human being to undermine its credibility and bring the Soviet state to its knees.

Michael Scammell is the author of Solzhenitsyn: A Biography and Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth Century Skeptic.

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