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The Writer Who Destroyed an Empire

By December 13, 2018No Comments

Source : The New York Times

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, born Dec. 11, 1918, did more than anyone else to bring the Soviet Union to its knees.


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.

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