It’s an indication of our easy access to freedom that we sometimes take it for granted, leading lives of work punctuated by leisure while missing important current events. Such was the case when I learned that Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn passed away nearly two days before I heard the news.
I was introduced to Solzhenitsyn’s work by the mother of a high school friend in the 1970s; as a guest, I was asked to read a passage from "The Gulag Archipelago" before dinner. While empirical memory does not reveal exactly which passage I read, the emotional memory is indelible: I was stunned that writing of such uplifting brilliance could emanate from the pen of someone so badly treated over such arbitrary and seemingly trivial transgressions. In fact, I learned later that he was arrested for the first time in 1945 for referring to Joseph Stalin as "the man with the mustache" in a personal letter to a friend.
Perhaps the greatest Russian writer since Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn documented what passed for life under Soviet rulers Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev. He wrote fiction that depicted the horrible transformation of his country, earning a Nobel Prize for literature, incurring the opprobrium of the KGB and a host of Soviet apparatchiks, and alerting the world at large that the former U.S.S.R. was a hellish nightmare for many, if not most, of the people who suffered at the hands of the Communist Party.
The author of two 20th century literary classics, "The Gulag Archipelago" and "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," was 89 when he died in his native Russia Aug. 3. During his life he witnessed perhaps the most widespread loss of personal freedoms in modern history — when an estimated 60 million men and women were sentenced to hard labor in brutally cold conditions as guests of the state.
Millions of prisoners died, either from broken bodies or execution, and the survivors’ lives were more often than not irrevocably changed for the worse. Solzhenitsyn’s first wife, for example, divorced him during his first period of incarceration (they later remarried, then divorced again), and he had to resort to extraordinary means to perform the simple act of writing. From watching Catholic prisoners, Solzhenitsyn borrowed the idea of creating rosary beads made out of prison bread. But instead of corresponding beads to prayers as the Catholics did, Solzhenitsyn memorized complete literary passages of his own making that he was only able to capture on paper at a much later date.
After publishing "The Gulag Archipelago" in the 1970s, the Soviets exiled Solzhenitsyn. He settled in Vermont with his second wife and sons, and continued to write novels about life under communism.
Living in America, he gained a degree of notoriety for his disapproval of U.S. culture, including his abhorrence of American popular music and what he perceived as the intrusive nature of Western journalists. He also disparaged the United States as cowards for exiting the Vietnam War. His outspokenness resulted in some cultural critics labeling Solzhenitsyn a crank, but to others it displayed how much the writer had embraced the Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of speech. He also embraced his newfound freedom by focusing the majority of his time completing his four-volume literary epic "The Red Wheel," which is comprised of "August 1914," "November 1916," "March 1917" and "April 1917." It is indisputable that he never would have completed the 500,000-word work had he remained in the U.S.S.R.
After 18 years in America, Solzhenitsyn returned to the former Soviet Union, where he rejected nearly all political replacements for communism. For a writer who had witnessed firsthand the cheapening of human life at the hands of Stalin and his successors, it is understandable that he would prefer to spend the remainder of his life out of the public eye. He had opted to live his last days as an ordinary man who was expected "not to participate in lies." Contrast this with the literary lion who had once declared, "It is within the power of writers and artists to do much more: to defeat the lie!"
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, due in no small part to his literary works, perhaps Solzhenitsyn deserved the break.
Bruce Edward Walker is communications manager for the Property Rights Network at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.