“One word of truth shall outweigh the whole world.” Alexander Solzhenitsyn cited that Russian proverb in his 1970 acceptance speech as he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. He did not deliver that speech in person, for he knew that if he left the Soviet Union he would never be allowed to return. Even after he was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974, his great wish and absolute determination was to die in Russia, the land and people of his birth.
Solzhenitsyn died in Moscow on Sunday, ending a life of 89 years—one of the monumental lives of the twentieth century.
Few writers have exerted so great an influence on contemporary events. David Remnick of The New Yorker described Solzhenitsyn as “the dominant writer of the 20th century.” As he explained, “Who else compares?”
He was born in 1918, the very year following the Soviet Revolution. That same year the Communist Party began to create an extensive system of political prisons and concentration camps known as “gulags.” Solzhenitsyn would bring the reality of Soviet oppression to the world’s attention through his writings, including a 300,000-word history of the camps, published as The Gulag Archipelago. As author Joseph Pearce reflected, “Thus it was that Alexander Solzhenitsyn and the Gulag Archipelago were born within weeks of each other, children of the same revolution.”
Solzhenitsyn knew the Gulag Archipelago from first-hand experience. He had been sent to the prison camp system after service as a captain in the Soviet Army during World War II. In 1945 the Soviet spy system uncovered a letter in which Solzhenitsyn had criticized “the man with a moustache”—Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. He served eight years in the system, and those years of political, physical and spiritual oppression became the foundation for Solzhenitsyn’s great literary and historical achievement.
A term spent in one of the most brutal prisons became the basis for his short novel, “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.” Solzhenitsyn revealed not only the physical deprivation and spiritual degradation that marked the camps, but the coldly calculated methods by which the Soviet authorities sought to break the spirits of the prisoners.
Solzhenitsyn was released from the gulag system the very day of Stalin’s death. He then became a teacher and used his time to write the books that would change the world. Some of these works had actually been written in prison, though Solzhenitsyn was forced to memorize his composed passages until he could write them down only after his release from the gulags.