Monday, August 4, 2008

Solzhenitsyn, Literary Giant Who Defied Soviets, Dies at 89

Some of the best books I have ever read were by Solzhenitsyn, and I considered him an heir to the Russina traditio of great books written by giants: Tolstoy, Turgenev, Dostoievskii. Cancer Ward and The First Circle were titanic. Later, when he wrote Gulag Archipelago, I lost interest, because it wasn't literature. Surely Gulag was important; I never doubted that. Yet I had already read a great deal about the Stalin crimes; I did not need or want to be informed about the monstrosity of that regime.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn DiesPhotographs Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Dies

“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.

He looked the way a great Russian writer should have looked.

... he was awarded the 1970 Nobel Prize in the face of Moscow’s protests. The Nobel jurists cited him for “the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature.” Mr. Solzhenitsyn dared not travel to Stockholm to accept the prize for fear that the Soviet authorities would prevent him from returning. But his acceptance address was circulated widely. He recalled a time when “in the midst of exhausting prison camp relocations, marching in a column of prisoners in the gloom of bitterly cold evenings, with strings of camp lights glimmering through the darkness, we would often feel rising in our breast what we would have wanted to shout out to the whole world — if only the whole world could have heard us.”

Exiled in 1974, the Soviet government sent him to Germany; at that time I thought it was telling that the destination chosen was Germany, Russia's great enemy. He eventually landed in the US, and holed up in a small village in Vermont.

in the hamlet of Cavendish, Vt. he kept mostly to himself for some 18 years, protected from sightseers by neighbors, who posted a sign saying, “No Directions to the Solzhenitsyns.” He kept writing and thinking a great deal about Russia and hardly at all about his new environment, so certain was he that he would return to his homeland one day.

Interesting that his chosen home, a small hamlet in cold Vermont, became such a coccoon; amazing that people became so protective of him.

His rare public appearances could turn into hectoring jeremiads. Delivering the commencement address at Harvard in 1978, he called the country of his sanctuary spiritually weak and mired in vulgar materialism. Americans, he said, speaking in Russian through a translator, were cowardly. Few were willing to die for their ideals, he said. He condemned both the United States government and American society for its “hasty” capitulation in Vietnam. And he criticized the country’s music as intolerable and attacked its unfettered press, accusing it of violations of privacy.

He became a cantankerous old fart. He was spot-on about the lack of courage of Americans, but, at least in part, for the wrong reasons: Americans didn't, then, have to die to defend their ideals or way of life. 23 years later the WTC attack would show that that had changed.

The writer Susan Sontag recalled a conversation about Mr. Solzhenitsyn between her and Joseph Brodsky, the Russian poet who had followed Mr. Solzhenitsyn into forced exile and who would also become a Nobel laureate. “We were laughing and agreeing about how we thought Solzhenitsyn’s views on the United States, his criticism of the press, and all the rest were deeply wrong, and on and on,” she said. “And then Joseph said: ‘But you know, Susan, everything Solzhenitsyn says about the Soviet Union is true. Really, all those numbers — 60 million victims — it’s all true.’ “

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