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Solzhenitsyn, Alexander Isayevich


(b. 1918), Nobel Laureate for Literature, one of the most prominent Soviet dissidents of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn was born in the southern resort town of Kislovodsk. His father, a tsarist officer, died before his birth, and he was raised by his mother in Rostov-On-Don. He studied math and physics at Rostov University and was married in 1940 to his first wife, Natalia Reshetovskaya. Solzhenitsyn served as an artillery officer in the Red Army during World War II and was arrested by the secret police in February 1945 for criticizing Josef Stalin in his personal correspondence.

Solzhenitsyn was sentenced to eight years, which he served in a number of facilities, including a sharashka (a special scientific installation/prison) and a labor camp in Kazakhstan. He was released from the camp system in February 1953, and then was sent into enforced internal exile in rural Kazakhstan, where he taught high school. Solzhenitsyn was diagnosed and treated for cancer during this period. He also reconciled with his wife, from whom he was divorced during his imprisonment. He was allowed to move to Ryazan, where he taught physics, after his conviction was over-turned in 1957.

one day in the life of ivan denisovich

Solzhenitsyn burst abruptly onto the national and international stages in November 1962, with the publication of his novella One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, in the journal Novy mir (New World). This deceptively simple novella describes a normal day in the life of a prisoner in a Soviet forced-labor camp in the early 1950s. It was the first work he had submitted for publication, though he had been writing for thirty years. Novy mir 's chief editor, Andrei Tvardovsky, passed the story on to one of Nikita Khrushchev's aides. Khrushchev, who had started a second round of de-Stalinization in 1961, personally approved its publication, which would have been impossible otherwise.

The publication of Ivan Denisovich caused a sensation. Although millions of Soviet citizens had been released from the camps or internal exile in the late 1950s, the topic had never been discussed publicly. The novella immediately sold out several press-runs totaling almost a million copies, provoking widespread discussion. Many liberal Soviet intellectuals hoped, in vain, that its appearance presaged a further loosening of artistic controls. It was also translated into numerous foreign languages and held up as a triumph of Soviet art. The combination of the novella's content and artistic quality made Solzhenitsyn an internationally recognized writer. He published several short stories in the months that followed, all in Novy mir.

solzhenitsyn as a dissident

The ten years after 1963 saw a rapid deterioration of the relationship between Solzhenitsyn and the Soviet leadership, devolving into open hostility by 1969. A crackdown against outspoken writers began in late 1963 and intensified greatly after Khrushchev was ousted from power in 1964. In this new environment, Solzhenitsyn was unable to publish anything, including two new semi-autobiographical novels: The First Circle, based on his sharashka experiences, and Cancer Ward, both of which were highly critical of the Soviet system. Their publication, even in revised form, was blocked by Party hardliners, who instead tried to coerce Solzhenitsyn to write more positive works about the Soviet Union.

In the meantime, some of Solzhenitsyn's works began to circulate in samizdat, and a few were published abroad without his permission. These developments, along with the accidental discovery by

the KGB of some of his most critical writings in 1965, led to a hardening of official attitudes towards Solzhenitsyn. In 1967, Solzhenitsyn attacked the powerful Union of Soviet Writers, criticizing it for persecuting writers on behalf of the state, instead of protecting their artistic freedom. Solzhenitsyn's approval of the foreign publication of Cancer Ward, The First Circle, and other works, created further friction. Party and state officials responded by launching an escalating campaign of harassment, slander, and threats, including his expulsion from the Writers' Union in 1969.

Although Solzhenitsyn was part of a larger dissident movement of the 1960s and 1970s, he was unique in a number of ways. His international prominence, which only grew after he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, protected him from arrest, and allowed him to be more confrontational in his actions than most other dissidents. It also allowed him access to Western reporters.

Solzhenitsyn also had his own unique political agenda. While most Soviet dissidents focused on the need for basic human rights, by the early 1970s Solzhenitsyn began to focus on the issue of morality. He believed that the Russian people could only be saved by a rejection of Bolshevik ideas and the resurrection of what he considered a unique set of moral values developed in Russia over centuries under the influence of Orthodox Christianity. He looked to pre-Revolutionary Russia for guidance, not to the West; indeed, he believed that these Russian spiritual values could save the West as well.

Solzhenitsyn criticized Western culture for its decadence and argued it was weakening the United States to the point where it would soon no longer be able to stand up to the communist threat. He denounced the policy of détente, saying that the Soviet Union was using the process to take advantage of the United States' weakness. Solzhenitsyn's religiously tinged nationalism was similar to that of the nineteenth-century Slavophile movement. Although hinted at in interviews, Solzhenitsyn's philosophical opinions only became widely known after his arrival in the West in 1974.

the gulag archipelago

In the mid-1960s, Solzhenitsyn began work on a project titled The Gulag Archipelago. The title referred to the extensive system of prisons and forced-labor camps that had begun shortly after 1917 and expanded dramatically under Stalin; the term Gulag was the Russian acronym for the Main Directorate for Camps. The book, which Solzhenitsyn termed "an experiment in literary investigation," was based on his own experiences and those of over two hundred former prisoners. This epic work eventually ran to three large volumes. Although the manuscript was completed and copies smuggled to the West in 1968, Solzhenitsyn delayed its publication abroad until the end of 1973, when his hand was forced by the KGB's seizure of a manuscript copy.

The Gulag Archipelago was by far Solzhenitsyn's most damning work on the Soviet system. It described, in horrifying detail, the ordeal that prisoners underwent, from arrest through life in the camps, including the systematic use of torture and attempts to dehumanize prisoners. It also argued that the organized use of state terror was an integral part of Soviet communism from the start, and that Stalin only expanded the system created by Vladimir Lenin. Solzhenitsyn predicted, correctly, that the appearance of this work would intensify state actions against him; he was arrested and expelled from the Soviet Union shortly after its publication in the West.

The publication of the Gulag Archipelago 's first volume had a huge impact outside the Soviet bloc, particularly in Europe and the United States, where it sold millions of copies. It is widely considered to have done more than any other single book to shatter Western illusions about the nature of the Soviet dictatorship. The term Gulag entered widespread use in many languages. The book's influence was particularly strong in France, where many intellectuals had remained sympathetic to Soviet communism until its publication. The book's impact was heightened by its presentation, which mixed fiery rhetoric with literary skills, separating it from standard historical writings. Appropriately, Solzhenitsyn used his profits from the project to aid the families of jailed Soviet dissidents.

Many readers were overwhelmed by the book's size, however, and sales of the next two volumes were considerably lower. Although some of Solzhenitsyn's specific facts and details are now contested, the Gulag Archipelago remains one of the definitive works on the Soviet prison system.

exile and return

In February 1974 Solzhenitsyn was arrested, charged with treason, stripped of his Soviet citizenship, and expelled to West Germany. Party leaders believed that exiling Solzhenitsyn would be less damaging to their international reputation than sending him to prison. His second wife, Natalia Svetlova, and their sons were allowed to follow him a short time later. After a brief period in Europe, Solzhenitsyn moved to the United States, settling in Vermont.

After a tumultuous reception, Western sympathies towards Solzhenitsyn cooled after he articulated his moral philosophy in a series of articles and lectures, which concluded with his 1978 Graduation Address at Harvard. His attacks on Western culture alienated many, and he eventually withdrew into self-imposed seclusion in Vermont, where he worked on his Red Wheel series of novels. Solzhenitsyn also engaged in heated polemics with members of the dissident and emigré communities who disagreed with his views and tactics.

In 1989 Solzhenitsyn's writings began to appear in the Soviet Union, starting with The Gulag Archipelago. Although he published some additional articles in the Soviet press, his absence from the scene limited his influence during the period of transition. Solzhenitsyn finally returned to Russia, amid great publicity, in 1994. Upon his return, he had a short-lived television talk show (19941995) and published several books. His didactic style has limited his audience, however, and he has had relatively little influence on Russian society since his return. Solzhenitsyn continues writing; one of his works, Dvesti let vmeste (Two Hundred Years Together, 2000), revived old accusations of anti-Semitism, charges which Solzhenitsyn and many observers reject as false.

See also: dissident movement; gulag; nationalism in the arts; novy mir; samizdat; slavophiles; union of soviet writers


Pearce, Joseph. (1999). A Soul in Exile. London: Harper-Collins.

Remnick, David. (1997). Resurrection: The Struggle for a New Russia. New York: Random House.

Scammell, Michael. (1984). Solzhenitsyn: A Biography. New York: Norton.

Scammell, Michael, ed. and intro. (1995). The Solzhenitsyn Files, tr. Catherine A. Fitzpatrick et. al. Chicago: Edition.

Solzhenitsyn, Alexander Isaevich. (1963). One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, tr. Ralph Parker. New York: Dutton.

Solzhenitsyn, Alexander Isaevich. (1968). Cancer Ward, tr. Nicholas Bethell and David Burg. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Solzhenitsyn, Alexander Isaevich. (1968). The First Circle, tr. Thomas P. Whitney. New York: Harper & Row.

Solzhenitsyn, Alexander Isaevich. (19741978). The Gulag Archipelago. 3 vols., tr. Thomas P. Whitney (vol. 12), H. T. Willets (vol. 3). New York: Harper & Row.

Solzhenitsyn, Alexander Isaevich. (1980). East and West >New York: Harper Perennial.

Solzhenitsyn, Alexander Isaevich. (1980). The Oak and the Calf: A Memoir, tr. Harry Willetts. New York: Harper & Row.

Solzhenitsyn, Alexander Isaevich. (1995). The Russian Question at the End of the Twentieth Century, tr. Yermolai Solzhenitsyn. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Thomas, D. M. (1998). Alexander Solzhenitsyn: A Century in His Life. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Brian Kassof

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"Solzhenitsyn, Alexander Isayevich." Encyclopedia of Russian History. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

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Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr Isayevich

Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn (əlyĬksän´dər ēsī´əvĬch sôl´zhənēt´sĬn), 1918–2008, Russian writer widely regarded as one of the greatest and most influential authors of the 20th cent., b. Kislovodsk.

Solzhenitsyn grew up in Rostov-na-Donu, where he studied physics and mathematics at Rostov State Univ. During World War II he served in the Red Army, rising to the rank of artillery captain, and was decorated for bravery. In 1945, while still serving on the German front, he was arrested for mildly criticizing Stalin in letters to a friend. In the Moscow prisons he was for the first time confronted with the tragic fates of political prisoners. Sentenced to eight years in labor camps, he worked as a menial laborer and was stricken with cancer (from which he later recovered).

After completing (1953) his prison sentence, he was exiled to the Kazakh SSR (now Kazakhstan). Stalin died in 1953 and Solzhenitsyn's citizenship was restored in 1956. He moved to the Russian city of Ryazan, S of Moscow, where he taught in a local high school and wrote. His early fiction describes the grimness of life in the vast Soviet labor-camp system. His short novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was permitted publication in 1962 through the personal intervention of Nikita Khrushchev, in an effort to further encourage anti-Stalinist feeling and to promote his own liberalizing reforms. The book was hailed as a brilliant exposé of Stalinist methods, and it placed the author in the foremost ranks of Soviet writers. Three more short novels were published in 1963. However, with Khrushchev's removal from office (1964), Solzhenitsyn's manuscripts were confiscated, his succeeding works were banned, and he was continually censured by the Soviet press and denounced as a traitor.

With subsequent novels—The First Circle (1968), detailing the lives of scientists forced to work in a Stalinist research center, and Cancer Ward (1968), concerning the complex social microcosm within a government hospital—censorship tightened, and Solzhenitsyn was increasingly regarded as a dangerous and hostile critic of Soviet society. His books found publication and an enormous audience abroad, where he was hailed as a successor to Russia's 19th-century literary giants. In the USSR his works were circulated in samizdat [self-publishing, underground] editions. In 1969 Solzhenitsyn was expelled from the Union of Soviet Writers and prohibited from living in Moscow. His cause was championed by prominent writers and scholars worldwide and his treatment became one of the most notorious cases of intellectual persecution and literary censorship of the cold-war period.

In 1970 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, but government pressure, specifically the threat of not being allowed to return from Stockholm, compelled him to decline the prize. His next novel, August 1914 (1971, rev. ed 1983, tr. 1972, 1989), published abroad, is a compelling exposition of the internal strife in Russia leading to the Revolution of 1917. It and its sequels, October 1916 (1984, tr. 1999 as November 1916), March 1917 (1986), and April 1917 (1991), form the monumental four-volume series of historical novels that describe the Russian Revolution and are collectively titled The Red Wheel. Solzhenitsyn considered it his major work.

In 1973, fearing that he might soon be imprisoned again, Solzhenitsyn authorized foreign publication of The Gulag Archipelago, a vast work he had started in 1963 and completed in 1968 documenting, with personal interviews and reminiscences, the operation of the oppressive Soviet labor-camp system (see Gulag) from 1918 to 1956. Widely acclaimed as his masterpiece, it is a powerful and searing indictment of the Soviet regime. In Feb., 1974, Solzhenitsyn was arrested, formally accused of treason, stripped of his citizenship, and forcibly deported to the West. In exile he personally accepted his Nobel Prize in Stockholm (1974).

Solzhenitsyn ultimately settled in the United States, living in rural Cavendish, Vermont. He rarely appeared in public, but when he did speak out he tended to condemn the moral weakness and materialism he found in the United States. In 1980 two nonfiction works were published, The Oak and the Calf, a memoir, and The Mortal Danger: How Misconceptions about Russia Imperil America. The last three volumes of The Red Wheel were also completed during his years in Vermont. In 1990 Mikhail Gorbachev restored the writer's citizenship and the following year treason charges were dropped, laying the groundwork for Solzhenitsyn's 1994 return to his homeland. After touring the country, he denounced the new Russia and what he saw as its spiritual decline, and he called for a return to a paternalistic, autocratic government rooted in the Orthodox Church and Russian nationalism, a view that many deemed anachronistic and antithetical to the aspirations of the modern nation. In later years he publicly supported President Putin, whom he hailed for restoring Russian greatness, while also accusing Western nations of trying to encircle Russia.

Solzhenitsyn's works also include a number of short stories, a play, film scripts, and numerous essays. Some have criticized his writing as old-fashioned and his world view as rigid, reactionary, harsh, authoritarian, overly moralistic, and irrelevant to the contemporary world. However, he remains widely read (during his lifetime more than 30 million of his books were sold and his works were translated into more than 40 languages). Moreover, he continues to be profoundly respected not only as a fearless novelist who convincingly described techniques of terror and the resulting moral debasement in the USSR, but also as a leader of a small but vociferous group of intellectual dissidents who successfully endeavored to expose the nature of the Soviet system.

See biographies by H. Björkegren (tr. 1972), M. Scammell (1984), and D. M. Thomas (1998); studies by A. Rothberg (1971), C. Moody (1973), K. Feuer, ed. (1976), F. Barker (1977), S. Allaback (1978), A. Kodjak (1978), J. M. Curtis (1984), J. B. Dunlop et al., ed. (1985), E. E. Ericson, Jr. (1993), and H. Bloom, ed. (2001); bibliography ed. by D. M. Fiene (1973); L. Labedz, ed., Solzhenitsyn: A Documentary Record (1973).

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Solzhenitsyn, Alexander Isayevich

Solzhenitsyn, Alexander Isayevich (b. 1918). Russian novelist. Born in Rostov-on-Don, he studied mathematics at Rostov University. During the Second World War he served in the army. In 1945 he was arrested and spent the next eight years in labour camps. Released on Stalin's death in 1953, he was exiled for three years. On his return he taught and began to write. His first novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962), was an immediate success. After increasing tension with the Soviet authorities, he was expelled in 1974, having received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970. His voice is a voice from the Gulags, the labour camps, where he was converted to Christianity: the voice of profound faith in God and in his image in human beings, equally critical of Soviet inhumanity, Western lack of values, and ecclesiastical frailty. He returned to Russia in 1994.

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