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Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr

Abstract and Keywords

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918–2008) is best known as a Soviet dissident and novelist and for being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Keywords: labor camps, Nobel Prize

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918–2008) was an only child whose father died in a battle during World War I, six months before his birth. He was reared by his young widowed mother, living in poverty in the town of Rostov, Russia. He desired at an early age to become a writer; however, literary education suitable to his wishes was not available in Rostov and it was not possible for him to relocate to Moscow. Instead, he studied mathematics and physics at Rostov University and discovered he had a natural aptitude for mathematics. At the same time, he studied by correspondence at the Institute of History, Philosophy, and Literature. He graduated from Rostov University in 1941, several days before the beginning of World War II. He joined the military shortly after graduation. Because of health problems, he was initially assigned to be a driver of horse-drawn vehicles but later rose to the rank of artillery captain and was decorated for bravery. He remained in the military until he was arrested in 1945 on the grounds of censorship because of disrespectful remarks made about Stalin in correspondence with a friend. Found guilty, he was sentenced to eight years in labor camp. Solzhenitsyn’s first wife, Natalia Reshetovskaia, whom he married and divorced twice, believed that the censorship was brought on by his being critical of the government.

Sentenced to hard labor during the first year of imprisonment, he worked as a miner, bricklayer, and factory worker. He later served three years in the scientific research institutes of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Ministry of State Security, where his skills in mathematics and physics were utilized by the government and afforded him a privileged position and humane living conditions. It appeared that Solzhenitsyn did not find the work, his position, or the living conditions to his liking and he was forced to serve the remainder of his sentence at a hard labor camp in the Soviet East. Immediately after completion of his sentence in 1953, Solzhenitsyn was exiled for life to southern Kazakhstan. Concurrently, Solzhenitsyn suffered from and received treatment for intestinal cancer.

In exile he taught mathematics and physics in a primary school. In secret, he wrote manuscripts and prose about human resilience and endurance. Although he was fearful of sharing these writings, he longed to have them reviewed by professionals with literary knowledge. In 1956 he was declared rehabilitated and returned to live in European Russia. Shortly afterward, Solzhenitsyn submitted and gained approval for the publication of his first short novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, chronicling his experience in the hardest of the labor camps in which he served. This work was initially banned until Nikita Khrushchev intervened and it was published in 1963. Cancer Ward, based on his experience as a cancer patient, was published in 1968. Another of his works, The First Circle (1968), often described as his greatest literary achievement, is based on his three-year stay in the scientific research institutes and what is likely his reflection on being privileged while others suffered more dire consequences. In it, he is seemingly looking at himself and wondering whether it is possible to be both a victim of the system and an oppressor who transmits the regime’s impurities, in the end taking action that supposed that one individual, with determination and courage, can be instrumental in diminishing a seemingly impregnable regime. The Gulag Archipelago (1973) is a documentary account of Soviet camps that led to Solzhenitsyn being charged with treason, stripped of his citizenship, and deported from the Soviet Union. Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970 but was not allowed to collect it until 1974.

He was expelled from the Soviet Writer’s Union in 1969 and deported to Moscow. Solzhenitsyn was deported from the Soviet Union in February, 1974. He and his second wife, Natalya, lived first in Switzerland for 2 years and later in Vermont for 17 years before his citizenship was restored by President Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990. He returned to his homeland in 1994.

Solzhenitsyn will best be remembered for his literary work that helped to expose repression in the Soviet Union and the labor camps throughout the USSR. His work is believed to have some influence on the 1989 collapse of Communism and the Soviet Union. He is described by his biographer, D. M. Thomas (2008), as “independent and unafraid.” Perhaps the driving force behind Solzhenitsyn’s literary work was his conviction that the spoken work can lead to change.