Monday, August 04, 2008

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, voice of the gulag, dead at 89

One of the keys to the fall of the Soviet empire died this week. Alexander Solzhenitsyn was the "voice of the gulag." (The Soviet system of labor camps for political prisoners he descibed as an archipelago - system of island) He was imprisoned suffering cancer but survived. He wrote about his prison experience in A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, so the world learned of the cruelty of the Soviet system. Not that there weren't plenty of clues before, but he shocked the world. Telegraph:
In his lecture of acceptance of the Nobel prize for Literature in 1970, Solzhenitsyn quoted a Russian proverb: "One word of truth shall outweigh the whole world." Those words succinctly encapsulated his literary creed. In a country where autocratic leadership had long obliged the populace to seek more inspiring government, Solzhenitsyn, like Tolstoy, Dostoevsky or Akhmatova before him, became a vital source of spiritual succour to his huge circle of readers. Despite the ban imposed on all his works after the publication of his masterly A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962), he was very widely read – in photocopied samizdat form – in his native Russia. He was also the only Russian writer to achieve the best-seller lists in the West, and sold more than 30 million books in more than 30 languages. Not that fame or fortune held much temptation for Solzhenitsyn.
He was expelled to the US in 1974 because he was reaching the people of Russia despite his writings being banned. But he didn't take to Western capitalism. He criticized it widely. He was invited to address the Harvard University 1978 commencement. He shocked his hosts by observing that the West was suffering a collapse of our civic courage:
Political and intellectual functionaries exhibit this depression, passivity, and perplexity in their actions and in their statements, and even more so in their self-serving rationales as to how realistic, reasonable, and intellectually and even morally justified it is to base state policies on weakness and cowardice. And the decline in courage, at times attaining what could be termed a lack of manhood, is ironically emphasized by occasional outbursts and inflexibility on the part of those same functionaries when dealing with weak governments and with countries that lack support, or with doomed currents which clearly cannot offer resistance. But they get tongue-tied and paralyzed when they deal with powerful governments and threatening forces, with aggressors and international terrorists.
He returned to Russia in 1994 for the rest of his life.

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