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Nobel Winner Chronicled Tyranny of Soviet Union

By J.Y. Smith
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, August 4, 2008

Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn, 89, the Russian writer and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature whose pitiless and searching chronicles of Soviet tyranny made him a symbol of freedom and the durability of the human spirit, died yesterday in Moscow.

A son told the Associated Press that he died of heart failure. Details were not immediately available.

Driven, principled, frequently arrogant, a bearded figure with the fierce visage of a prophet, Solzhenitsyn was regarded as one of the greatest and most influential writers of the 20th century.

Like Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the 19th century masters of Russian letters, his subject was considered to be the struggle between good and evil in the Russian soul. The line separating the two, he said, ran through every heart.

His text was the nightmare of Marxism-Leninism, and he exposed its flaws in ways from which it never recovered. The task he set for himself was no less than restoring to the Russian people the history of the Bolshevik Revolution and the subsequent years of communism that had been kept from them by their leaders.

In "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch" and "The Gulag Archipelago," his acknowledged masterpieces, and a vast outpouring of other works, he chronicled the sufferings of his countrymen and bore lasting witness to the fate of millions of otherwise forgotten victims of Soviet misrule. Literature, he declared in his Nobel lecture, "is the living memory of a nation. It sustains within itself and safeguards a nation's bygone history.

"But woe to that nation whose literature is cut short by the intrusion of force."

In the 1960s and early 1970s, Solzhenitsyn struggled against the Soviet leadership almost in the shadow of the Kremlin. In 1974, he was charged with treason and exiled to the West, where he received a hero's welcome, although his attacks on Western culture and politics drew detractors.

After leaving the Soviet Union, Solzhenitsyn lived in Zurich and then in Cavendish, Vt., where he spent what he described as some of his happiest years, working in peace in surroundings that reminded him of home.

In 1994, having completed "The Red Wheel," a massive series of historical novels on the Russian Revolution, he attended a town meeting to thank his Yankee neighbors for their hospitality and returned to his beloved Russia, as he always believed he would.

Received as a national treasure, he made a triumphant whistle-stop cross-country train trip. But in later television appearances he was viewed as gloomy and out of touch, and he retreated to his Moscow home.

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.

When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, he enlisted in the army.

On Feb. 9, 1945, while commanding an artillery reconnaissance battery, he was arrested. He was found guilty of "anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda."

In "The Gulag," which he called an "experiment in literary investigation," Solzhenitsyn not only exposed the camp system in horrifying detail but also explored what he considered his own complicity -- and that of the Russian people -- in the disasters that befell them. "We didn't love freedom enough," he declared.

"We purely and simply deserved everything that happened afterward."

While a prisoner, Solzhenitsyn gradually abandoned Marxism-Leninism and turned to Orthodox Christianity.

Released from prison on Feb. 9, 1953, he spent the next three years as an exile in the village of Kok-Terek in Kazakhstan. In February 1956, Nikita S. Khrushchev made the famous "secret speech" to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party in which he denounced Stalin and his "personality cult."

The policy change meant release for Solzhenitsyn and thousands of others. He settled in Ryazan, 120 miles southeast of Moscow, taught high school physics and wrote.

In 1961, he decided that the time had come to "tell the truth to the party and our people" about the past. Encouraged by friends, Solzhenitsyn submitted "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch" to Novy Mir, the country's leading literary journal. It was the story of how an ordinary "zek," or prisoner, survived a winter day in a hard-labor camp under Stalin.

The book received Khrushchev's personal blessing and appeared in November 1962. Solzhenitsyn gained instant fame and was nominated for a Lenin Prize, the Soviet Union's highest cultural honor.

But in October 1964, Khrushchev was deposed. His successor, Leonid I. Brezhnev, began an effort to reverse reform: In 1965, the police seized an archive of Solzhenitsyn's work. In 1969, he was expelled from the Writers Union.

"The Gulag" was written between 1963 and 1967, in seven parts organized into three volumes. Much of it was based on material supplied by 227 former prisoners. When it was finished, Solzhenitsyn had a copy smuggled out of the country. To protect his sources, he forbade publication.

In November 1970, the Nobel committee announced that Solzhenitsyn had been awarded the prize for literature. But negotiations with the Kremlin on acceptance were unsuccessful, and he did not receive it formally until after his exile.

In summer 1973, two events heightened the years of tension between Solzhenitsyn and the regime: Solzhenitsyn denounced detente between Moscow and Washington and the secret police arrested one of his volunteer typists, Elisovna Denisovna Voronyanskaya, and obtained a copy of "The Gulag Archipelago."

A few days later, she was found hanged in her small communal apartment, an apparent suicide. With the need for protecting sources gone, Solzhenitsyn authorized publication of a Russian-language edition of "The Gulag" in Paris.

Through his writing, Solzhenitsyn had made himself intolerable to the Soviets.

In a 1973 essay he said of Soviet principles and acts: "It is precisely because our state, through sheer force of habit, tradition and inertia, continues to cling to this false doctrine, with all its tortuous aberrations, that it needs to put the dissenter behind bars."

On Jan. 7, 1974, the Politburo decided to exile him. He was arrested Feb. 12 and flown to Germany the next day.

Mstislav Rostropovich, the late cellist and former music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, had supported and sheltered Solzhenitsyn before Rostropovich himself went into exile.

In 1974, Solzhenitsyn established the Russian Social Fund to Aid Political Prisoners and Their Families and gave it all the royalties from "The Gulag Archipelago," by far his most profitable work.

Although he normally worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week, Solzhenitsyn had a warm and loving family life with Natalia Svetlova, his second wife, and their sons, Yermolai, Ignat and Stepan, all of whom survive him.

In contrast to his relations with his second family, Solzhenitsyn's treatment of his first wife, Natalia Reshetovskaya, revealed streaks of cruelty and pettiness. Once in the 1960s, he told her an affair he was having was necessary to his art. She objected, and he ended the relationship but not his womanizing.

Solzhenitsyn's views and abrasive style stirred controversies that plagued him in later years.

At a time when efforts were underway to achieve detente with the Soviets, his presence in this country was viewed as something of an embarrassment, and at one point, President Gerald R. Ford declined to invite him to the White House.

Undeterred, Solzhenitsyn did not soften his tone or change his views.

In a scathing 1978 televised address at the Harvard University commencement exercises, he said the West lacked the moral fiber to oppose communism and blamed the United States for failing to "win" the Vietnam War. He also complained about "the revolting invasion of commercial advertising . . . TV stupor and . . . intolerable music." Back home, he urged Slavic solidarity and said such non-Slavic regions as Chechnya should be cut loose.

In the West, his nationalism and views on religion and politics drew suggestions of anti-Semitism.

"Anti-Semitism is a prejudiced and unjust attitude toward the Jewish people as a whole. My own work has no such attitude," he told an interviewer.

As scholars saw it, the controversies did not diminish his great literary achievement and his contribution to understanding some of the seminal events of the 20th century.

His work promoted appreciation of the ties between Russia and its people in the face of everything.

In the opening scene of "August, 1914," a character based on his father goes to join the Army, although he might have avoided service. He gives this explanation:

"I feel sorry for Russia."

And, through his own experiences, the author said, "gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either -- but right through every human heart."

Staff writer Martin Weil contributed to this report.

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