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As the first opponent of Soviet communism inside Russia whose views became widely known, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is a hero to numerous people around the world. Throughout a life packed with drama, Solzhenitsyn remained a political personality and historian vitally engaged with the central issues of his era. A survivor of eleven years of Soviet prisons, forced-labor camps, and exile, he was one of the most visible Soviet dissidents influential in exposing human-rights violations in the Soviet Union. He inspired many to voice their own dissent, advocate for free speech, and circulate clandestine literature. Like his predecessors Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Solzhenitsyn focused predominantly on Russia, yet he addressed concerns that resonate far beyond any national boundaries.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Raised in Squalor by a Single Mother
Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn was born in 1918 in Kislovodsk, Russia. Solzhenitsyn never knew his father, who died in a hunting accident before Solzhenitsyn was born.
Solzhenitsyn’s mother was denied sufficient employment by the Soviet government, and the family lived in squalor. Solzhenitsyn had some sense of his literary ambition by the age of nine, and before he was eighteen he resolved to write a major novel about the Russian Revolution of 1917, which led to the overthrow of the previous czarist Russian government and ultimately to the formation of the Soviet Union. After earning degrees in linguistics, mathematics, and physics, Solzhenitsyn began teaching physics in 1941.
Military Imprisonment and Exile
With the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union during World War II, Solzhenitsyn was drafted into the Red Army to help repel the German forces. In 1945, while serving as the commander of a Soviet army artillery battery, counter-intelligence agents discovered letters in which Solzhenitsyn had criticized Stalinism, the sometimes brutal system of government practiced by Soviet ruler and dictator Joseph Stalin. Found guilty of conspiring against the state, he was confined for more than a decade in numerous institutions, including a labor camp in Kazakhstan, and Marfino Prison, a Sharashka, or government-run prison and research institute. It was while in Moscow’s Lubyanka prison that he read otherwise unobtainable works by such authors as Yevgeny Zamyatin, the great Soviet prose writer of the 1920s, and American novelist John Dos Passos, whose expressionist style later influenced Solzhenitsyn’s own writing. On March 5, 1953, the day Stalin died, he was released from prison and exiled to central Asia. There, Solzhenitsyn taught mathematics and physics in a secondary school and began writing poems and plays as well as taking notes for a novel. During this time he was also diagnosed with cancer, which nearly led to his death; his experiences during treatment inspired his later novel Cancer Ward (1968).
Freed from exile in 1956, Solzhenitsyn returned to central Russia, where friends encouraged him to submit his writings to the Russian periodical Novy Mir, which published One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Odin den’ Ivana Denisovicha) in 1962. Appearing during a period of openness fostered by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, the novel proved a considerable success. However, with the fall of Khrushchev and the rise of much less tolerant regimes, Solzhenitsyn quickly fell from official favor and was closely monitored by security forces. When he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970, he was unable to attend the award ceremony because the Soviet government would not guarantee his reentry into Russia. The French publication of The Gulag Archipelago (Arkhipelag Gulag) in 1973—a sweeping history of forced labor camps in the Soviet Union—led to his arrest, and in 1974 he was expelled from his homeland and eventually settled in the United States. In May 1994, after twenty years of exile in Vermont, Solzhenitsyn and his wife Natalia returned to live in Russia. Though in frail health, Solzhenitsyn continued to work until his death from heart failure in 2008.
Works in Literary Context
Socialist realism was the official artistic doctrine approved by Stalin in 1934. It dictated that the creative artist should serve society by being realistic, optimistic, and heroic. Creativity and freedom of expression were more than discouraged; they were illegal, forcing Solzhenitsyn to disguise his political and social messages in many of his best-known works.
Set in Stalinist Russia, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962), the first published Soviet work of its kind, focuses on a simple prisoner who wants only to serve out his sentence with a certain integrity. In the novel, Solzhenitsyn strove to reverse the usual procedure of socialist realism, which imposed thoughts and feelings on its readers. Therefore, he rendered his tale in an ironic, understated, elliptical manner intended to elicit spontaneous feelings unrelated to official propaganda.
An appraisal of Solzhenitsyn’s life and work must address irresolvable paradoxes—he acquired fame as a protest writer, but at heart he was an aesthete. His moral and spiritual authority came from the way he has bore witness to twentieth-century totalitarianism, but his dislike of publicity and his reclusiveness made him an anachronism. Solzhenitsyn’s work needs to be discussed in relation to the tradition from which it came, for he responds to socialist realism, which was proclaimed in
1932 as the only acceptable form of art in the Soviet Union. Because the literature of socialist realism resembles many Western best sellers in its accessible style, positive heroes, and happy endings, it cut off Russian literature from its rich heritage of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
In his own way, Solzhenitsyn engaged in an ongoing attempt to restore wholeness to Russian society by reconnecting the pre- and postrevolutionary periods. He wrote to make sense of the evolution of twentieth-century Russia in terms of the lives and works of the nineteenth-century Russian classics. Accordingly, he knew intimately the works of Russian masters such as Aleksandr Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol, Yury Lermontov, Ivan Turgenev, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Anton Chekhov. Solzhenitsyn’s efforts were rewarded in 1970 when he received the Nobel Prize in Literature for what the Nobel committee termed ”the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature.”
Works in Critical Context
As a writer and a public figure, Solzhenitsyn has evoked strong reactions, from crude abuse to enthusiastic admiration. Critical responses to Solzhenitsyn have consistently depended on the commentator’s ideological sympathies in regard to Soviet communism. During the Cold War era in which Solzhenitsyn’s most important works appeared in the West, he was praised for the courage of his stance toward Soviet authorities. More rarely have critics probed substantially into the philosophical and moral dimensions of his message.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
Written in sparse, plain prose, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich tells of one prisoner’s typical activities. ”Ivan Denisovich,” affirmed Shirley J. Paolini in Reference Guide to Short Fiction, ”represents the common individual incarcerated in a Soviet camp for an insignificant crime; his energies are devoted entirely to survival under brutal conditions.” Lauren Livingston, writing in the English Review, summarized One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich as a ”haunting read,” and Gleb Zekulin, writing in Soviet Studies, recommended it as ”a mine of information.” Still another enthusiast, Vladimir J. Rus, wrote in Canadian Slavonic Papers that ”Solzhenitsyn has given the world a moving picture of …a genuine joy in one’s own existence, even when so limited in time, space, and one’s own consciousness.” Abraham Rothberg’s Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The Major Novels acknowledges that in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Solzhenitsyn ”explored new terrain in the use of language, exploiting a combination of prison slang, peasant and pornographic slang,” and Christopher Moody, in Solzhenitsyn, deemed the story an ”eloquent protest.” Similarly, Robert L. Yarup observed in the Explicator that the novel concerns ”man’s irrepressible instinct for freedom.”
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich proved an immense success with Soviet readers, and Solzhenitsyn followed it in Novy Mir with short stories, including ”Matryona’s House,” in which a former prisoner befriends an aging peasant woman who serves as his landlady. Andrej Kodjak, in his study Alexander Solzhenitsyn, noted that ”Solzhenitsyn draws on his own experience to create the narrator, Ignatich.” John Clardy, in a Cimarron Review essay, expressed particular praise for Solzhenitsyn’s handling of characterization in ”Matryona’s House,” declaring that ”Matryona, like Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, stands out in our minds as a real personality.” Leonid Rzhevsky, meanwhile, quoted another reader, in Solzhenitsyn: Creator and Heroic Deed, who considered Matryona ”the most brilliant image of the peasant woman in all of the Russian literature I have read.” Still another critic, Stephen S. Lottridge, wrote in Russian Literature Triquarterly that ”Matryona’s House” relates ”the trials and loss endured by an innocent and righteous person,” while Robert Louis Jackson, in a piece featured in Solzhenitsyn: A Collection of Critical Essays, summarized the tale as ”significant art.” Sheryl A. Spitz, meanwhile, described the short work in a Russian Review essay as ”the story of one individual’s moral maturation.”
The First Circle
The First Circle was described by an essayist in Encyclopedia of World Biography as ”harshly satiric.” In the novel, according to David M. Halperin in an essay included in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: Critical Essays and Documentary Materials, Solzhenitsyn ”examines both the omnipresence of lying as a demonstrable feature of Soviet society and as a metaphysical, demonic device.” Furthermore, Solzhenitsyn, in his characterization of Stalin, emphasized that the dictator, however monstrous and however powerful, was nonetheless human. ”In his portrait of Stalin in The First Circle, wrote Paul N. Siegel in Clio, ”Solzhenitsyn, in cutting the towering figure of the Stalin of Stalinist myth-making down
- Barker, Francis. Solzhenitsyn: Politics and Form. New York: Holmes and Meier, 1977.
- Bloom, Harold, ed. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Modern Critical Views. Philadelphia, Pa.: Chelsea House, 2001.
- Burg, David and George Feifer. Solzhenitsyn: A Biography. New York: Stein and Day, 1972.
- Dunlop, John B., Richard Haugh, and Alexis Klimoff, eds. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: Critical Essays and Documentary Materials. New York and London: Collier-Macmillan, 1975.
- Ericson, Edward E., Jr. Solzhenitsyn and the Modern World. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway, 1993.
- Feuer, Kathryn, ed. Solzhenitsyn: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1976.
- Labedz, Leopold, ed. Solzhenitsyn: A Documentary Record. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973.
- Mahoney, Daniel J. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The Ascent from Ideology. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001.
- Pearce, Joseph. Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2001.
- Scammell, Michael. Solzhenitsyn: ABiography. New York: Norton, 1984.
- Thomas, D. M. Alexander Solzhenitsyn: A Century in His Life. New York: St. Martin s Press, 1998.
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