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Russia: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Categories: Eastern & Central Europe, Russia, Arts & Culture, Breaking News, Freedom of Speech, History, Human Rights, Language, Literature, Politics

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn [1], the Nobel Prize-winning author of The Gulag Archipelago [2], has died on Sunday. He was 89.

Reactions to Solzhenitsyn's death are already beginning to appear in the Russophone blogosphere, and here's one post on the writer's legacy [3] (RUS), by LJ user markgrigorian:

Solzhenitsyn has died

This kind of news always comes unexpectedly. He was 89 years old.

For me Solzhenitsyn began from the kitchen radio set. Week after week, every evening, my grandfather listened to The Gulag Archipelago being read. I was listening, too, understanding little of Solzhenitsyn's text, but catching episodes that [were so powerful they left one breathless] – due to the facts, eyewitness accounts and the sequence of events [presented in them].

Of course, I couldn't have known then the already famous story with [One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich [4]], [Novyi Mir [5] literary magazine, which first published Solzhenitsyn's story in November 1962], [Aleksandr Tvardovsky [6], editor of Novyi Mir]…

For a long time, Solzhenitsyn was mainly and only the author of The Archipelago for me.

This feeling grew even stronger when photographer Misha Kalantar spent several nights photographing page after page of The Archipelago text, printed in Paris, and it was then that I could see – see but not read – a fat pile of photo pages of this book.

I read it later. By fits and starts, because you could only borrow the book “for one night.” And how much can you manage to read in one night? Even though [I'm a fast reader], I was overwhelmed by emotions, had to put the book aside, catch my breath, wait before diving into the documentary description of the horrible Soviet camps, into the ruthless systematic description of the murders and crimes of the System.

Then there was [Cancer Ward [7]], and then [The First Circle [8]].

I liked the deliberately old-fashioned style and the solidness of his texts, the “pre-Soviet” heavy weight of the composition, the leisurely pace of the narrative.

Soviet readers used to begin their acquaintance with Solzhenitsyn from One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Matryona's Place, but for me these works supplemented what I'd already read and knew.

His essay on How to Make Russia Better repelled me immediately. I couldn't – and still can't – accept that open nationalism that was revealed in that little text. Though in 1990, the first phrase – “The clock of communism has stopped striking.” – read like a literary, artistic summary of what had happened. What had finally happened.

Around the same time, I began to understand that Solzhenitsyn represents the nationalistic wing of the Soviet dissident movement. And it somehow became clear to me that having to choose between him and [Andrei Sakharov [9]], who stood for democratic values, I've chosen Sakharov's direction.

[The Oak and the Calf [10]] – I read it as an example of uncompromising struggle of an individual against the System. Even though there are flaws in this book, it's an easy read. Which means it is written well.

[The Red Wheel [11]] was already beyond me.

Solzhenitsyn's [Orthodox Christian/patriotic] direction is something completely not mine. [August 1914 [12]] I perceive as the gradual loss of literary taste and writing skills.

But, leaving aside my inner rejection of the philosophy and, at times, the [literary style] of Solzhenitsyn, I'd still like to say that his Gulag Archipelago was a true feat. In the Soviet conditions, having to fight censorship and persecution, despite searches, Solzhenitsyn managed to collect the unique material, systematize it and convey it in form that's absolutely striking in its clarity.

This should not be underestimated. The Archipelago is a great book.

Photo of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn from Wikimedia Commons [13]