One of the truly great writers—a moral teacher and thinker—died Sunday, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who had as much to do with the downfall of the Soviet empire than anyone else through his prophetic writing about the tyranny of Soviet Russia and the Gulags, scene of his most memorable work.
An excerpt from the New York Times obituary.
“Mr. Solzhenitsyn outlived by nearly 17 years the Soviet state and system he had battled through years of imprisonment, ostracism and exile.
“Mr. Solzhenitsyn had been an obscure, middle-aged, unpublished high school science teacher in a provincial Russian town when he burst onto the literary stage in 1962 with “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.” The book, a mold-breaking novel about a prison camp inmate, was a sensation. Suddenly he was being compared to giants of Russian literature like Tolstoy, Dostoyevski and Chekhov.
“Over the next five decades, Mr. Solzhenitsyn’s fame spread throughout the world as he drew upon his experiences of totalitarian duress to write evocative novels like “The First Circle” and “The Cancer Ward” and historical works like “The Gulag Archipelago.”
“Gulag” was a monumental account of the Soviet labor camp system, a chain of prisons that by Mr. Solzhenitsyn’s calculation some 60 million people had entered during the 20th century. The book led to his expulsion from his native land. George F. Kennan, the American diplomat, described it as “the greatest and most powerful single indictment of a political regime ever to be leveled in modern times.”
“Mr. Solzhenitsyn was heir to a morally focused and often prophetic Russian literary tradition, and he looked the part. With his stern visage, lofty brow and full, Old Testament beard, he recalled Tolstoy while suggesting a modern-day Jeremiah, denouncing the evils of the Kremlin and later the mores of the West. He returned to Russia and deplored what he considered its spiritual decline, but in the last years of his life he embraced President Vladimir V. Putin as a restorer of Russia’s greatness.
“In almost half a century, more than 30 million of his books have been sold worldwide and translated into some 40 languages. In 1970 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature."