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Russian Author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Dies at 89

August 4, 2008 at 6:45 PM EDT
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Acclaimed Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who wrote extensively about the gulag prison system and won the Nobel literature prize for his books on abuses in the Soviet Union, died Sunday at age 89 after a reclusive life fraught with challenges.

JEFFREY BROWN: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was first a prisoner in the Soviet Union’s vast Gulag system and then a writer who exposed the horrors of that system to the world.

He was born into the first generation following the 1917 Russian revolution and served in the Red Army during World War II. But in 1945, he was arrested by Joseph Stalin’s secret police. His crime: disparaging the Soviet dictator in a letter to a friend.

In 1962, during the short-lived liberalization under Nikita Khrushchev, Solzhenitsyn was permitted to publish “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.” The searing tale of the struggle to survive a winter day’s imprisonment drew international acclaim.

Solzhenitsyn would go on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, but renewed scrutiny and then censorship from the soviet state. His most famous work, “The Gulag Archipelago,” part memoir, part history of the prison system in which millions of Russians lost their lives, was smuggled out of the Soviet Union on microfilm and first published in the West.

One of Solzhenitsyn’s sons spoke today of his father’s motivation in writing.

STEPAN SOLZHENITSYN, Son of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The misery of people here and the lack of freedom under the Soviet regime, their impoverishment after the Soviet regime was always a source of great pain to him. That is why he opposed the Soviet regime.

JEFFREY BROWN: Solzhenitsyn was charged with treason in 1974 and forced to leave his country. He lived in the United States for almost 20 years and continued to write about the Soviet Union, while also criticizing what he saw as the failings of the West.

In 1994, he received a hero’s welcome upon return to his native land. It was there that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn died yesterday, outside Moscow, as his wife said he had wished: at home in the summer. He was 89 years old.

Author showed power of the word

JEFFREY BROWN: And more now from Michael Scammell, a biographer of Solzhenitsyn, translator of many Russian literary works, and author of a forthcoming biography of the writer Arthur Koestler; and Nina Khrushcheva, a professor of international affairs at the New School and author of "Imagining Nabokov: Russia Between Art and Politics." She's the great granddaughter of former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.

Well, Michael Scammell, can you take us back in time to give us a sense of the power and impact of Solzhenitsyn's works when they first appeared? What did they do?

MICHAEL SCAMMELL, Columbia University: Well, you have to realize that the censorship of the Soviet Union was extremely expert and extremely professional, so that anything that was coming out of official literary circles had been thoroughly vetted beforehand and was generally dead and dull.

When Solzhenitsyn managed to publish "One Day in the life of Ivan Denisovich," it exploded like a bomb. And it had people in Moscow and even in the Soviet provinces saying, "The Soviet censorship is gone. Censorship is dead. We are approaching a new era."

Well, of course, that wasn't true. The censorship was softened for a short period, particularly while Nikita Khrushchev was in power, but it was gradually re-enforced. And, unfortunately, one of the reasons that it was, was the success in Solzhenitsyn in reaching not only a very wide public in the Soviet Union, but a worldwide public, as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask Nina Khrushcheva, you were a student, I understand, at the time when he was sent into exile. What do you remember of that time? And how do you assess his impact?

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA, The New School: I was in school. It wasn't even middle school. I remember I was very, very young, but the impact was tremendous.

I remember we were walking the school corridors. And everybody was buzzing about the fact that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was ousted out of the country and he was declared a traitor.

And I'm sure that everybody felt something more than just what was declared by the authorities. And I remember our teacher was saying he was a horrible man, he betrayed the country, that writers shouldn't behave this way.

But since I was brought up in a family where Solzhenitsyn was a hero, where the "One Day in the Life Ivan Denisovich" was read, and I'd already read it by then, I'm pretty sure -- I struggled very hard, I guess, to reconcile these two absolute polarities.

One is that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is a great writer and my great-grandfather thought of him as a genius, and then my Soviet school, where I was told that he was a horrible traitor and it was unseeming to a Russian writer to behave this way.

Experience led to new genre

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Scammell, what about the man himself? He grew up in this system. What was there about him, in addition to his experience, of course, in the camps that turned him into this great truth-teller?

MICHAEL SCAMMELL: Well, ironically, he was an idealist. As a very young man, he believed in the system. He believed in what he was told by the Soviet regime. He believed in true communism.

What he discovered, of course, through his experiences was that true communism was a distant ideal and that the Soviet regime had turned into virtually its opposite, but like many idealists he wasn't prepared just to stop there.

He had a burning desire both to expose this hypocrisy and to bear witness to what he himself had experienced, particularly in the labor camps.

And this witness took the form of stories like a "Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" we've heard about, but also in two magnificent novels, "The First Circle," which described his three years in a special camp just outside Moscow, and "Cancer Ward," in which he chronicled his experiences when he was very close to death with cancer himself.

JEFFREY BROWN: And then Ms. Khrushcheva, in the most famous work, in "The Gulag Archipelago," it is a mix of memoir and of history. He called it an experiment in literary investigation. What did he mean by that?

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: Well, this book, I think, is probably one of the greatest Solzhenitsyn books. And he's going to go into history as the greatest writer of the 20th century of Russia.

And what Michael Scammell said just now is very important. I think Solzhenitsyn's incredible talent -- genius, really -- was that he was a great witness. He wrote what he saw.

And because he was such a talented witness, I think this book, as an experiment or as a new literary genre, and actually in this Solzhenitsyn wasn't particularly very original, because all great Russian writers always come up with a new genre and then make them into something that the world basically stunned by and in awe of.

I mean, Gogol created new genres, Pushkin, and whatnot. And Solzhenitsyn did, indeed, do the same.

But it wasn't a diary. It was just an incredible witness, monolithic account of the horrors of Stalinism. And I think that is probably the greatest monument of Solzhenitsyn's legacy that would be left behind.

Independent, abroad and at home

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Scammell, as we said, he came to the U.S. He lived largely as a recluse. I think you met him here. He got most attention, really, for a famous speech at Harvard in which he was critical, very critical of the West. What happened? What was that about?

MICHAEL SCAMMELL: Well, I think that his main impulse in making that speech was to inform the West what was needed for Russia, what was needed to rescue Russia from the Soviet Union. And that was his overwhelming concern.

When he lived in Vermont, he shut himself away in his study, mainly so that he could write his series of historical novels, called "The Red Wheel," to explain, he hoped, the origins of the Soviet revolution.

But his main concern was to find ways to encourage the West, to help the West, and to help the Russian people get rid of that system.

In my view, his remarks on the West, which caused so much controversy, were almost throwaway remarks. Solzhenitsyn was not interested in America for its own sake. He wasn't interested in Western democracy for its own sake.

He was interested in what they could do to help Russia get free of the Soviet tyranny. And to that extent, I think it wasn't exactly he was misreported, but he didn't understand the Western media and he didn't understand what would be seized upon and commented upon the most.

In this case, it was his rather disparaging remarks about America and about the West in general.

JEFFREY BROWN: And just in our last minute, Ms. Khrushcheva, he went back to Russia, he had a hero's welcome, but that didn't last, either. How will he be remembered, do you think, in Russia?

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: It didn't last, either, because Solzhenitsyn was a very interestingly -- he was sort of one-line man, so to speak. I mean, maybe he wasn't interested in the West, per se, but he was very interested in Russia as a unique civilization.

And, therefore, as everybody who thinks that Russia is a unique civilization, the West is by definition an enemy. So I actually think it's fair to say that he was remarkably critical of the West.

When he came to Russia and saw what "democratic" -- and I put it in quotes, that's how he believed democratic Russia was under President Yeltsin, he was even more disparaged, because he felt that it was the West's fault in many ways that Russia ended in that particular situation.


NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: And his message of pushing Russia into greatness really didn't lay well with the Russian public at the time.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. We'll have to leave it there. Nina Khrushcheva and Michael Scammell, thank you both very much.

MICHAEL SCAMMELL: You're welcome.