Alexander Solzhenitsyn, author of a number of groundbreaking works including: Gulag, The First Circle and A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, is dead at age 89. A Russian nationalist who was both a torch bearer of its greatness and simultaneously its largest critic, Solzhenitsyn established himself as both societal Pariah (in America and the USSR alike) and a fabulously gifted writer.
In the same way that the Russian composer group: “The Mighty Handful” of Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Balakriev and Borodin defined what it meant to be a Russian in music, Solzhenitsyn takes his place among brilliant minds and realist Russian philosopher/writers such as Tolstoy and Doestoevsky.
Having brought the world around to see the terrors of the Gulag, the prison system in Russia, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in literature in 1970. Like Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn was increasing critical of the cultural systems of the west (particularly lashing out against rock music when he was exiled to the US) but fixed on a goal of ameliorating a situation many had given up hope on in his home country, then the USSR.
The amazing part about him though, is the time and tenor under which he wrote his works. Today, if someone as prolific as Solzhenitsyn were to go to a publisher he would be awarded a lucrative book deal and a massive marketing campaign, but because his work was deemed “subversive to the Russian state” he stated this in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “…during all the years until 1961, not only was I convinced I should never see a single line of mine in print in my lifetime, but, also, I scarcely dared allow any of my close acquaintances to read anything I had written because I feared this would become known…” But luckily for us, his works would see the light of day and cause a huge uproar in the USSR and USA alike when the three volume Gulag Archipelago came out and rocked the public in a fashion similar to if a prisoner were to release a tell-all about Guantanamo (and there were even less info about it currently).
Hitchens writes that “Solzhenitsyn lived as if there were a thing as human dignity” and one is tempted to believe him.
Find his works here. My suggestion would be not to start with Gulag, but rather with A Day in the Life… or if you love Dante’s Inferno try on The First Circle which is about the first circle of hell where the writers and intellectuals are cursed to stay for eternity. His writing The Cancer Ward is also unique as he spent time in a ward while cancer almost took his life in 1954.