The Giant Of Russian Literature

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the influential Nobel Prize winning writer, died on Aug. 4, 2008, of heart failure.
By Robert G. Kaiser
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The great Russian writer who died in Moscow on Sunday night played a leading role in a Russian drama that has been captivating audiences for nearly 200 years. We might call this morality play "The Author, the Power and the People."

It was gripping in the 1820s and '30s when Alexander Pushkin played the part of the author, and when Dostoevski and Tolstoy took up his mantle in the second half of the 19th century; yet again when the early 20th-century poets took their turn, and in the 1960s and '70s, when Alexander Isayevich Solzhenitsyn assumed the leading role. Only in Russia, probably, could such a drama remain a hit -- and remain relevant -- for so long.

In Moscow in the early 1970s, when I knew Solzhenitsyn, writers and intellectuals had a one-word name for him that was used by nearly everyone: "Classic." Members of the literary intelligentsia, as they called themselves, agreed that of all their contemporaries, Solzhenitsyn was "our classic," the one who would be remembered as the Pushkin or the Tolstoy of their time. He was the writer who most eloquently and effectively spoke the truth to the power of the day, the Soviet Communist Party. In authoritarian Russia, under both czars and commissars, that was the writer's role, and history would remember Solzhenitsyn for performing it so well.

But his stature did not make him a popular figure among Moscow's intellectuals and dissidents. No one so exasperatingly single-minded and self-centered could be popular. "It's too bad we don't have a better one," said Lev Kopelev, an important figure in Solzhenitsyn's career, "one with better manners or more patience or something else. But this is the only one we've got, the only one! So we've got to take him the way he is."

In 1985, Kopelev publicly broke with Solzhenitsyn, one of a string of old friends and allies who were alienated by the writer's insistent rewriting of history and disdain for those, including Kopelev, who had been so helpful to Solzhenitsyn in the years when he needed a lot of help. It was almost as though needing help was a weakness he wanted to forget, and insulting his helpers was a way to accomplish the forgetting.

Kopelev and his wife, Raisa Orlova, had introduced Solzhenitsyn's work to the editors who would eventually make literary history by publishing "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," a nuclear bomb of a novella that appeared in the literary journal Novy Mir (New World) in 1962. The story, based on the author's experiences in a prison camp in Soviet Kazakhstan, described -- in detail so vivid the reader could feel it -- "a good day" in the life of an inmate in the cruel and mindless world of Joseph Stalin's prison camps. The book's last words capture its haunting quality:

The end of an unclouded day. Almost a happy one.

Just one of the three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days of his sentence, from bell to bell.

The extra three were for leap years.

"Ivan Denisovich" may well be the Solzhenitsyn book with the longest literary life, because it is so accessible and so powerful.

At the time Novy Mir published "Ivan Denisovich," Moscow's literary world was a closed society. Solzhenitsyn was a provincial schoolteacher with no standing and few acquaintances in that community. But he knew Kopelev well -- after World War II they had served time together in a "sharashka," or special prison, where they worked on a top-secret project to try to perfect the art of identifying voices picked up by telephone taps. This effort is described in "The First Circle," another wonderful re-creation of the madness of the camps. The character called Lev Rubin in that novel is an eerily evocative portrait of Kopelev.

This shared history was not enough to sustain a friendly relationship. Solzhenitsyn wrote sharply critical letters to Kopelev, as he did to many of his onetime friends. In 1985, Kopelev replied, describing his sad realization that "our friendship was always one-sided." In fact, wrote Kopelev, a lovable bear of a man with boundless curiosity and enthusiasm, "You were friends with no one."

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