Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr Isayevich

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr Isayevich
(1918– )
   Arrested while serving as an artillery captain at the front in 1945, Solzhenitsyn was sentenced to eight years imprisonment for his criticism of Joseph Stalin. Over the next eight years, he served his sentence in jails and forced labor camps in Central Asia and Siberia. In 1952 he was released and sentenced to internal exile in Kazakhstan, where he found work as a mathematics teacher and began to write. After being amnestied, Solzhenitsyn returned to the Moscow region as a teacher and developed as a writer. In 1962 his novella One Day of Ivan Denisovich was published in Novy Mir, the preeminent Soviet literary journal, with the permission of Nikita Khrushchev. The novella chronicled one day in the life of an ordinary political prisoner, and it was embraced as a masterpiece of Russian fiction within and outside the Soviet Union. The Soviet political scene in the early 1960s was becoming increasingly reactionary, however, and Solzhenitsyn was able to publish only one more piece legally in the Soviet media. Beginning in the mid-1960s, Solzhenitsyn began to write about the Stalinist terror and the forced labor camps. Several novels were smuggled abroad and published to critical acclaim, but the author was now under the scrutiny of the KGB. KGB Chair Yuri Andropov and his deputies saw Solzhenitsyn as a major threat to the regime and authorized close surveillance of him and his few supporters. The KGB code name for him was “Pauk” (Spider). Solzhenitsyn’s few friends were the target of surveillance and torture: the interrogation of one of Solzhenitsyn’s secretaries led to the woman’s suicide. With rumors that Solzhenitsyn’s masterpiece, The Gulag Archipelago, a history of the gulag, or forced labor camp system, was about to be published in the West, Andropov successfully lobbied the Communist Party Politburo for the author’s arrest and exile from the Soviet Union.
   Solzhenitsyn settled in the United States and continued to write. He was a difficult émigré, misunderstood by many liberals, who were offended by his criticism of American society. It also was hard for Westerners to understand that Solzhenitsyn had not written out of a desire for fame or glory. Rather, as he explained in The Oak and the Calf, he was the calf butting his head against the mighty oak. He acted not to dislodge the oak, but because he had to act— if nothing else—as a witness against the brutality of the Stalinist system. His three-volume history of the gulag was a literary success for the author and a major ideological defeat for the Soviet Union. The book discredited the communist parties of western Europe, forcing intellectuals to consider the crimes of the Stalin era with the moral and intellectual rigor they had once reserved only for Adolf Hitler’s Germany.
   Following the fall of the Soviet Union, Solzhenitsyn returned to Russia in 1994. While respected as a historian and intellectual, he has not played a major role in the development of a new Russia under Boris Yeltsin or Vladimir Putin. Rather, he has been seen as a relic of an ancient and forgotten age. Nevertheless, Solzhenitsyn in his novels and by personal example forced millions of Americans and Europeans to consider the human cost of the Soviet regime. He was one of the few to realize that ideas could shatter a regime’s legitimacy.

Historical dictionary of Russian and Soviet Intelligence. . 2014.

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