The death of Solzhenitsyn

The Ukrainian novelist Andrey Kurkov on how the author of the <em>Gulag Archipelago</em>, who relate

On the death of such figures as Solzhenitsyn, the phrase ‘end of an era’ is bound to come up, but Alexander Isaevich outlived his era and never truly accepted the new ‘post-soviet’ epoch.

Having sincerely dedicated his life to a desperate struggle against communism, in 1991 Solzhenitsyn suddenly found himself without a battle to fight.

From that moment his activities grew less noticeable. He was less and less asked for his commentary on developments. A note of irony appeared in the use of his nickname: the ‘Vermont Recluse’. Then in 1994 he came out of seclusion and returned to Russia.

He returned to the country he had literally torn apart in 1962 with his short story “A Day In the Life Of Ivan Denisovich”. During a meeting of the Politburo Khrushchev himself insisted on the story’s publication. It contained no direct criticism of the Soviet system. It was a simple but detailed description of one day in a camp prisoner’s life, one almost happy day.

Solzhenitsyn was immediately made a member of the writer’s Union. More of his work was published. He felt his time had come and he tried to write as much as possible, perhaps fearing that any ‘thaw’ would be temporary. However you look at it, Solzhenitsyn was of great use to Krushchev in his efforts to ‘de-Stalinize’ the Soviet Union.

Solzhenitsyn had been sent to a camp three months before the end of the Second World War for having referred to Stalin and Lenin disrespectfully in a letter to an old school friend who was serving on the front line.

Solzhenitsyn spent eleven years in camps, special prisons, secret KGB institutions and internal exile. During that time he twice overcame cancer.

It seems he was destined to be hardened through the cruellest of suffering. He admitted that having overcome cancer for the second time, he lost all fear of death and after the publication of his first stories he lost his fear of the Soviet system.

Kruschev had been overthrown, but Solzhenitsyn still believed in the possibility of democracy in the Soviet Union. Publication of his work ceased in 1965 and, two year later, in an open letter to the Fourth Congress of the Writers’ Union of the USSR he said: “I call upon the Congress to demand and insist on the abandonment of all forms of censorship…”

In May 1967 the Soviet authorities decided to ‘deal with’ Solzhenitzyn, but the writer himself saw it the other way round; he was dealing with the Soviet Authorities.

His 1968 novels “Cancer Ward” and “In the First Circle”, which were banned from publication in the USSR, were published abroad. At the same time, Solzhenitsyn smuggled out to the west a microfilmed manuscript of his most important work – the three volumes of research into the Soviet system of repression and punishment, “The Gulag Archipelago”.

A Samisdat (homepublished) copy of this work appeared in my home at the beginning of the eighties. My older brother had managed to get hold of a copy for a couple of days. I remember trying to read it as quickly as possible.

Anyone found by the KGB in possession of it would get five years in a prison camp. By that time the author was already living in Vermont, where he had bought a house with 20 hectares of land around it to guarantee his creative isolation.

He had already won the Nobel Prize for Literature. In 1974 he had been stripped of his Soviet citizenship and sent into exile as a traitor. This was the “humane face” of the Brezhnev era. After all, instead of a special flight to Germany, he could have been thrown into a train wagon bound for the camps.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn never fell in love with the USA or the west in general and, having returned to his homeland he was disappointed to discover that his compatriots no longer read his books. Disenchantment with the Yeltsin’s form of democracy encouraged pro-Putin sympathies.

Putin himself would go to ‘take tea’ with Solzhenitsyn and discuss what was to be done with Russia. But Putin’s visits were more representative than practical – a ritual attendance at a ‘living monument’ to the fight against Communism and Stalinism.

Solzhenitsyn was unable to influence contemporary Russia, although he did provoke further discussion of the “Jewish question” in one of his last works, “Two Hundred Years Together”. That book will continue to stir emotion within Russia, but on the international plane, Solzhenitsyn will forever remain the author of “Gulag Archipelago” - that terrible and truthful book about the Soviet totalitarian regime.