by David Gemperle


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"But the blindness of superiority continues in spite of all and upholds the belief that vast regions everywhere on our planet should develop and mature to the level of present day Western systems which in theory are the best and in practice the most attractive. There is this belief that all those other worlds are only being temporarily prevented by wicked governments or by heavy crises or by their own barbarity or incomprehension from taking the way of Western pluralistic democracy and from adopting the Western way of life. Countries are judged on the merit of their progress in this direction. However, it is a conception which developed out of Western incomprehension of the essence of other worlds, out of the mistake of measuring them all with a Western yardstick. The real picture of our planet's development is quite different."  -- From the Address by Alexander Solzhenitsyn  at Harvard University Thursday, June 8, 1978.


Aleksander Isaevich Solzhenitsyn was born in Kislovodsk, a town north of the Caucas mountains, to Taissia Solzhenitsyn in 1918. His father, Isais, died shortly before his birth. Aleksander was raised in poverty in the industrial city of Rostov. There he entered Rostov University in 1936. He concentrated on Physics and Mathematics while also studying literature through a separate school. A year before he graduated and was sent to war, Solzhenitsyn married Natalya Reshetovskaya.

Solzhenitsyn was assigned to drive transport wagons for the war effort. Though he was inadequate at this task, his potential as an officer was recognized and he was promoted. Solzhenitsyn eventually advanced to the position of Captain and Battery Commander. Solzhenitsyn received the Order of Patriotic War and the Order of the Red Star for his bravery. On February 9, 1945 Solzhenitsyn was arrested by a Soviet counter-espionage service for the content of the letters he wrote while at war. He and a friend disparaged Stalin in their correspondence. Solzhenitsyn was sentenced to eight years in a correction camps.


Solzhenitsyn learned of the ideas and experiences of a variety of prisoners during his punishment. Solzhenitsyn later described this time in The First Circle, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and Cancer Ward. In The First Circle Solzhenitsyn describes aspects of the period in his life from 1946-1950. During this time Solzhenitsyn worked at a prisoner run scientific research institute under favorable conditions. In One Day, Solzhenitsyn details the harsh conditions and manual labor of the camp for political prisoners in Kazakhstan that he was sent to next. After being released from prison, Solzhenitsyn was forced into exile in 1953. While exiled in Kazakhstan Solzhenitsyn taught math and physics, and began writing as much as possible. In Cancer Ward, Solzhenitsyn describes his brush with death while in exile. The cancer in his abdomen seemed terminal. A new cancerous mass appeared after the original tumor had been removed. However, doctors in Uzbekistan successfully treated the illness with radiation therapy.


In 1956, at the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party, Kruschev publicly criticized some of the appalling acts committed by Stalin. Kruschev denounced the purges and the handling of collectivization (Scammell, 353). A brief period of liberalization followed. Solzhenitsyn's exile was ended and he moved to Ryazan with his wife. He began writing seriously and once again taught math. In 1961, after the Twenty-second Congress, Kruschev's anti-Stalin campaign reached its peak(Klimoff, 90). In this relaxed atmosphere Solzhenitsyn submitted One Day to a literary magazine. After Kruschev himself had approved the book for its honesty and spirit, One Day was published (Klimoff, 99).


After an initial period of acclaim, criticism of Solzhenitsyn became increasingly harsh in the Soviet Union. In 1964 Brezhnev overthrew Kruschev and reversed the changes that began with the Twentieth Congress. Though Solzhenitsyn became prominent internationally during this period, his new works remained unpublished at home. Harassment by the KGB continued unchecked until Solzhenitsyn's deportation in 1974. He was accused of being from a wealthy family, and of being a "...tool of western intelligence agencies"(Scammell, 813). In 1970, Solzhenitsyn received the Nobel Prize for Literature. KGB harassment increased. Solzhenitsyn remained in the Soviet Union to do research for his works (Scammell, 813). In 1973, the KGB found a copy of The Gulag Archipelago, collection of accounts of Soviet labor camps. Solzhenitsyn had planned to wait awhile before having the work published. He wanted to protect the individuals whose stories he compiled. Instead, Solzhenitsyn responded to the KGB's acquisition of the manuscript by having The Gulag Archipelago published in the West(Scammell,825). Shortly after The Gulag Archipelago appeared in the West, Solzhenitsyn was convicted of treason and deported. Solzhenitsyn openly stated his political and social thoughts while living in the West. His accounts of Soviet labor camps had a strong effect of western opinions about the Soviet Union. However, he was not as persuasive while discussing the superiority of traditional rural life. He said that western democracy would not be right for Russia. He also said that life in the West, with its modern transportation and urbanization, is unpleasant and unnatural(Scammell, 866). He preferred small towns and carriages to cities and automobiles. Contrary to what one might have expected, Solzhenitsyn was unimpressed by the wealth and high consumption of the West(Scammell, 907).


In 1989, Gorbachev's policy of increased freedom allowed Solzhenitsyn's works to be published in the Soviet Union. In 1991, the charges against Solzhenitsyn were dropped. Solzhenitsyn moved back to Russia in 1994. Today, among other things, he participates in the presentation of an award bearing his name.



  1. Bjorkegren, Hans "Alexander Solzhenitsyn: A Biography" The Third Press, NY 1972

  2. Klimoff, Alexis "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich: A Critical Companion" Northwestern University Press, Evanston, Il 1997

  3. Kodjak, Andrej "Alexander Solzhenitsyn" Twayne Publishers, Boston 1978

  4. Pontuso, James F. "Solzhenitsyn's Political Thought" University Press of Virginia, Charlottsville 1990

  5. Scammell, Michael "Solzhenitsyn: A Biography" W.W. Norton & Company, NY 1984


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