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Solzhenitsyn Shook Soviet System's Foundation

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Next, let's remember of the great writers of the 20th century. Alexander Solzhenitsyn recorded some of that century's brutality and violence, and he died over the weekend of heart failure. He was a Nobel laureate. He rose to fame with novels and non-fiction that exposed the horrors of Stalin's labor camps in the old Soviet Union. He also exposed the criminal nature of the Soviet regime.

NPR's Martha Wexler has more on this writer who shook the foundations of the Soviet system.

MARTHA WEXLER: "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" is must reading for every student of modern Russian literature. The novella brought Alexander Solzhenitsyn to the attention of the world and the Nobel committee, which awarded him the literature prize in 1970.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

WEXLER: For years, Solzhenitsyn had written with scant hope of seeing his works in print. Then, in 1962, during the brief post-Stalin thaw, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev ordered the publication of "Ivan Denisovich." It was a grueling tale of one inmate's survival, rich in prison camp slang.

Liudmila Alexeeva, a human rights activist in Moscow, recalls the work's appearance in an official journal as a great event in Soviet public life.

Ms. LIUDMILA ALEXEEVA (Human Rights Activist): It was very important for us that such a story was published. It means that this topic, after this event, wouldn't be a forbidden topic.

WEXLER: And so, Alexander Isayevich Solzhenitsyn, an unknown math teacher from the provinces, leapt to literary fame. Solzhenitsyn didn't start out as an anti-Soviet crusader. He was born in southern Russia in 1918, one year after the revolution. He grew up fatherless, in extreme poverty, during the tumultuous formative years of the Soviet Union - an era of civil war, famine and repression.

At the outbreak of World War II, Solzhenitsyn joined the Red Army. Then, in February 1945, while serving as an officer at the front, he was arrested. The secret police had intercepted his correspondence with a school friend criticizing Stalin.

Solzhenitsyn, though, had not yet lost faith with the Soviet system, as his biographer, Michael Scammell, notes.

Mr. MICHAEL SCAMMELL (Biographer): Solzhenitsyn was not your average communist or a token believer. I mean, it's quite clear he was fire-breathing, extreme communist when he became a communist. What got him into trouble was that, you know, he was holier than the pope.

WEXLER: He believed Stalin had betrayed the revolution.

And so he spent the next decade in prison, labor camps and internal exile in Kazakhstan. These ordeals would provide the material for his greatest works. "The Cancer Ward" was inspired by his own affliction with the disease while still a prisoner. "The First Circle" drew on his internment at a scientific research station. It was there, in heartfelt discussions with other inmate intellectuals, that Solzhenitsyn began to question not just Stalinism, but the entire communist state founded by Lenin.

The atrocities he witnessed propelled him to write "The Gulag Archipelago." The three meticulously researched volumes documented the torture, hunger and numbing cold suffered in the vast Soviet network of prisons and labor camps. Biographer Michael Scammell sees this as Solzhenitsyn's masterpiece - a narrative that crystallized a particular form of evil.

Mr. SCAMMELL: It turned a mealy-mouthed, bureaucratic, obscure term describing the state management of labor camps - that crazy little word Gulag has now become a metaphor on the scale, almost, of the Holocaust.

WEXLER: Solzhenitsyn had "The Gulag Archipelago" published abroad. It was smuggled back into the Soviet Union, reproduced and circulated underground. This proved too much for the Soviet authorities, and in February of 1974, they put him on a plane for Frankfurt. He was later joined by his second wife and chief editor, Natalia Svetlova, and their young children. They settled into exile in Cavendish, Vermont.

The author established the Solzhenitsyn Fund, sending his Nobel award money and "Gulag" royalties back home to the families of political prisoners. He also plunged into a project he had conceived of as a young man, a project he saw as his most important work.

It was a densely written series - more history than fiction - about the Russian Revolutionary period.

(Soundbite of radio broadcast)

Mr. ALEXANDER SOLZHENITSYN (Author): (Russian spoken)

WEXLER: From exile, he read this series, "The Red Wheel," over the Voice of America, sending his words back into Russia.

Mr. SOLZHENITSYN: (Russian spoken)

WEXLER: Biographer Michael Scammell, who teaches writing at Columbia University, calls "The Red Wheel" a dreadful falling off of Solzhenitsyn's literary talent.

Few Russians would plow through the entire "Red Wheel." What's more, critics said it revealed a deep, antiliberal bias. In 1978, Solzhenitsyn shocked his admirers with a commencement speech he delivered at Harvard University, heard here through an interpreter.

Mr. SOLZHENITSYN: (Through translator) How has this unfavorable relation of forces come about? How did the West decline from its triumphal march to its present sickness?

WEXLER: Solzhenitsyn thundered against the West's materialism, its boundless freedom, its reliance on secular law, and its spiritual and moral weakness.

Many observers said the author never really got to know America, that he shut himself off from the country like a recluse at his Vermont estate.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, Solzhenitsyn was able to realize his dream and return home. He flew first to Russia's far east, the heartland of the Gulag Archipelago.

Unidentified Man: I'd like to be the first to welcome you to Magadan, Russia.

Mr. SOLZHENITSYN: (Russian spoken)

WEXLER: As he stepped off the plane in 1994 in Magadan, in Siberia's frigid Kolyma region, Solzhenitsyn remembered the victims of the camps.

Mr. SOLZHENITSYN: (Through translator) I pay homage to the land of Kolyma, where many hundreds of thousands, even millions of our murdered countrymen are buried. The land where innocent marshes rest has become sacred, and we will honor it as sacred.

WEXLER: After traveling across his homeland, Solzhenitsyn settled in Moscow. He hosted a TV show where he railed against the greed and corruption of post-Soviet Russia. With poor ratings, though, it was canceled.

His final big work, a history of the Jews in Russia, gave rise to charges of anti-Semitism and was not widely read.

He was a bitter critic of Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, the men who finally broke the Communist system that he, too, had done so much to bring down. Ironically, Solzhenitsyn, the former Gulag inmate, was on cordial terms with Vladimir Putin, the ex-KGB officer. He praised Putin for trying to revive the Russian state.

But his political influence had waned. His later essays sounded preachy and irrelevant compared to the early banned works that had kept Russians up late at night, furtively reading typed carbon copies. These works are what prompted biographers to compare the influence of Solzhenitsyn with that of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy.

Martha Wexler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Martha Wexler