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Nobel Winner Chronicled Tyranny of Soviet Union
A member of the first generation to be raised entirely under communism, Solzhenitsyn had experienced in his life much of what he related in his books.
As a young man he was a communist in heart and soul, although he never joined the party.
He had a brilliant career at Rostov State University, studying physics and mathematics, and won a Stalin scholarship. Through correspondence courses he earned a degree in literature from the University of Moscow. During World War II, he was a decorated captain in the Red Army. But in 1945, while at the front, he was arrested on a charge of anti-Soviet activity for mildly critical remarks about Stalin in letters to a boyhood friend. He served eight years in labor camps and three more years in exile in a remote corner of Soviet Central Asia.
"The Gulag Archipelago" was described by George F. Kennan, a former ambassador to the Soviet Union and the chief architect of postwar U.S. foreign policy, as "the greatest and most powerful single indictment of a political regime ever to be leveled in modern times."
Although not published in Russia until after the Soviet collapse, excerpts and copies made their way around. For ordinary Russians, it was a searing indictment of their regime. In the West, "The Gulag" was a runaway bestseller, dramatizing the terrors and abuses of Soviet totalitarianism and cutting the ground from apologists for Moscow.
Solzhenitsyn's other books included two novels, "Cancer Ward" and "The First Circle," both successes with the public and critics; "Prussian Nights," a narrative poem about World War II; "The Love-Girl and the Innocent" a play about life in the camps; the highly acclaimed short stories "Matryona's House" and "Incident at Krechetovka Station." He also wrote film scripts and essays.
He regarded "The Red Wheel" as his major work. Decades in the making and not completed until 1991, it contains four massive volumes, "August 1914," "November 1916," "March 1917" and "April 1917." Part novel and part history, it is an account of the Russian Revolution.
Alexander Isayevitch Solzhenitsyn was born in Kislovodsk, a mountain resort in the north Caucasus, on Dec. 11, 1918. His father, Isaaki, was an artillery officer in the Imperial Russian Army in World War I. He survived the war but was killed in a hunting accident six months before his son was born. His mother, Taissia Scherbak, the daughter of a wealthy landowner, a member of a despised class, struggled to provide for herself and her son.
In 1944, she died of tuberculosis. Growing up, Sanya, as he was called, had learned the prayers and observances of the Russian Orthodox Church from his mother and an aunt. A family friend encouraged him in science. At 9, the boy decided on a career as a writer, and at 10 he read "War and Peace."
"Everyone, of course, was anti-Bolshevik in the circle in which I grew up," Solzhenitsyn told Michael Scammell, his biographer.
He also told Scammell that the conflict between school indoctrination and what he heard at home created "such social tension within me that it somehow defined the path I was to follow for the rest of my life."
By the time he was a teenager, he had embraced communism. He also was an idealist who rejected possible privilege to become a village schoolteacher.