If, as now appears to be the case, the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature must possess not only great literary skill but also great political courage, then there has been no worthier recipient than Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who was named the winner of that prize this week (Oct. 8) in 1970. A worthy heir to the great Russian writers of the past — Tolstoy, Dostoyevzky, Checkov — Solzhenitsyn’s early novels, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The Cancer Ward and The First Circle stand on their own as monumental literary achievements.
But it was his unabashed defiance and criticism of the oppression and violence practiced by leaders of the Soviet Union, from the Stalin era on, that makes Solzhenitsyn among the most admired writers in history. Sent to a forced-labor camp in 1945 for criticizing Stalin, Solzhenitsyn wrote Ivan Denisovich as a fictional account of his life as a “zak” — a political prisoner — deep in the bowels of the Soviet police state, and his follow-up novels further explored the universal theme of man pitting his courage and instinct to survive against the brutality of an unthinking, unfeeling dictatorial machine.
Although Solzhenitsyn was “rehabilitated” briefly during the de-Stalinization period of the early ’60s, his constant criticism of the Soviet system soon caused his works, published widely in the West, to be banned at home. In 1974, after accusing him of treason, the Soviet government expelled him. Immigrating to America, he settled in Vermont.
The last straw for Soviet leaders was publication of Solzhenitsyn’s greatest work, The Gulag Archipelago, a non-fictional account of the other great holocaust of the 20th Century, the imprisonment, torture and murder of countless millions of innocent Soviet citizens in an “island chain” (archipelago) of Soviet prison camps (gulags). Having survived the gulag himself, Solzhenitsyn had a “messianic” obligation to remember those who died and caution those yet born.
In the wake of the Cold War’s end, and the “democratization” that had occurred in the Soviet Union, Solzhenitsyn was allowed to return to his country in 1994, where he continued to write and agitate the Soviet government to acknowledge and atone for its past. “I am confident that I will fulfill my tasks as a writer in all circumstances,” he once wrote, “from my grave even more successfully and more irrefutably than in my lifetime. No one can bar the road to truth, and to advance its cause I am prepared to accept even death. But may it be that repeated lessons will finally teach us not to stop the writer’s pen. At no time has this ennobled our history.”
What has ennobled Russian history, and that of the world, was the life — he died in 2008 — of Aleksandr Isaevich Solzhenitsyn.