Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn died August 3, 2008. He was 89 years old. He had been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970, an award he had not been able to accept until 1974 when he was expelled from the Soviet Union.
I had first learned about him from the news while I still in high school and followed his travails with some interest. When it was announced that his book, The Gulag Archipelago had been published, I made a point of getting a copy and reading it. It was an enormous book of small print filling over six hundred pages in paperback. A few years later, I learned that it was only the first of three volumes. I subsequently read them, too; they were equally hefty.
The Gulag Archipelago described the Soviet system of labor camps which were spread out like little islands across the face of the Soviet Union. Solzhenitsyn spoke of the history and character of the system, both from his research, as well as his first hand experience of living in a concentration camp for eight years after having been arrested for something he wrote to a friend in a letter while he was serving as a soldier in the Soviet army near the end of the Second World War. The book had a profound impact on my understanding of the Soviet Union. But I also developed a great interest in Russian literature, and wound up reading Tolstoy and Dostoevsky as well.
Over the years, I have read most of Solzhenitsyn’s other books, ranging from Cancer Ward—his experiences of being treated for his cancer following his release from the Gulag, but while he was still sentenced to internal exile—to One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which tells the tale of one prisoner in a concentration camp, describing a single, rather ordinary day in the camp, from the time he got up in the morning, until the time he went to bed at night. It is a relatively short book, the only book of Solzhenitsyn’s which was ever published in the Soviet Union. It was published during the era of Khrushchev, and it was for that book that he won the Nobel Prize. All of Solzhenitsyn’s other books were first published outside his homeland. Not until the collapse of the Communist state in 1991 would his other books become officially published and available in his homeland.
Expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974, he spent the next twenty years living in exile in Vermont. Finally, in 1994 he was able to return to his transformed country, where he settled in a house outside of Moscow. Ironically, the house had once belonged to a member of the KGB from the time of Stalin, the era when he was first arrested.
In college as an undergraduate, I took a course my senior year in the history of Russia, focusing on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. One of the required texts for the course was Solzhenitsyn’s first volume of the Gulag Archipelago. When my wife took the course a few years later, it was still required reading. She rejected my offer to let her read the subsequent two volumes.
Enjoying the writings of a Russian author is an acquired taste. My wife never developed a liking for it. Still, I believe the effort in reading Solzhenitsyn’s work is worthwhile. Of his books, I would recommend that those new to him should start with One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. The book is short and fascinating. Then, Solzhenitsyn’s memoir, The Oak and the Calf, is quite accessible to those who haven’t before read Russian literature. His other works of fiction should come next. The Gulag Archipelago is an academic, in depth history of a horrible system: it is not an easy to read tome, but will reward those who put in the effort to study it.
Although Solzhenitsyn’s death was front page news in many newspapers, the reality is that for most who read about him, his obituary was their first exposure to his life and his work. Since the collapse of the regime that arrested and oppressed him, few think about what he and millions of others endured. Over the seventy year history of the Soviet Union, the communists were responsible for the deaths of twenty million men, women and children.
In fact, more people have died at the hands of communist governments than have died from any other political ideal or movement. According to the Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression, edited by Stéphane Courtois and published by Harvard University Press in 1999, all told, about 94 million people were murdered by communist systems, with the bulk of those deaths coming from the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China.