Mourners Pay Respects to Solzhenitsyn

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the influential Nobel Prize winning writer, died on Aug. 4, 2008, of heart failure.
By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 6, 2008

MOSCOW, Aug. 5 -- Mourners braved heavy rain Tuesday to file past the body of former Soviet dissident and Nobel Prize-winning author Alexander Solzhenitsyn, which lay in an open coffin at the Russian Academy of Sciences, flanked by an honor guard of four Russian soldiers.

"I admired him for his internal honesty and his willingness to stand up very intensively for his own views," said Gennady Malinka, 68, general director of a small engineering company, who began to weep as he described his affection for the writer. "Of course nothing is eternal, but I hope every generation will have a person such as him."

Solzhenitsyn died Sunday at age 89 of heart failure. He will be buried Wednesday in the cemetery of Moscow's Donskoy monastery after a funeral service in the monastery's cathedral.

A large portrait of Solzhenitsyn was placed at the head of the coffin; the writer's wife, Natalia, and sons stood to the side. Among the mourners was Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who placed a bouquet of red roses at the foot of the coffin before speaking with Solzhenitsyn's widow. Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev also paid his respects.

Solzhenitsyn has been the subject of glowing tributes, including long, respectful reports on state-controlled television. But there is little sense of national grief for one of the giants of 20th-century literature.

The large police presence and barriers for crowd control around the academy suggested that the authorities were expecting many more people at the public viewing than actually came. Officials said thousands of people attended. Many were elderly.

"It's a disgrace so few people came," said Tatiyana Nikolayeva, 59, a retired civil servant. "You get the impression that the younger generations know nothing about him."

Indeed, for some of the younger generation Solzhenitsyn was an entry in a school textbook, if that, and a hero only to their grandparents. "I may have read something by Solzhenitsyn in school, but I don't remember," said Alexei Tulsky, 32, a bank clerk in Moscow. "I don't know him, so why should I go and pay last respects to him?"

Solzhenitsyn spent 20 years in exile, much of it in the United States. When he returned to Russia in 1994, he was dismayed by Russia's wild capitalism and, later, its feverish consumerism. To the consternation of some in the country's small opposition, he warmed to Putin, who was president from 2000 to 2008, viewing him as agent of the country's return to greatness.

In Solzhenitsyn's writing, both fiction and nonfiction, he took an unflinching look at the Soviet prison system. He shot to fame with the publication in 1962 of "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," an unsparing exposé of life in a prison camp. Solzhenitsyn knew that life firsthand, having been arrested in 1945 and sentenced to eight years after he criticized Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in a letter he wrote from the front during service with the Red Army.

Among his most famous works is the "The Gulag Archipelago," a monumental account of the experiences of Solzhenitsyn and other inmates of the Soviet Union's vast network of prison camps.

Some communists continued Tuesday to rail against it and Solzhenitsyn's other exposés. A commentary in Pravda, the communist newspaper, called "The Gulag Archipelago" a "bucket of tendentious muck" and accused the writer of "biological anti-Sovietism."

"He became one of the main battering rams in destroying both the state and nation. . . . That is why he is being applauded so rapturously by both Russian President [Dmitry] Medvedev and U.S. President Bush!" Pravda wrote.

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