Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Russia's Dante of the gulag

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MOSCOW: Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who died Sunday aged 89, ranked with Nelson Mandela as a figure of towering moral authority who for a generation embodied his people s hopes for a livable future.

Born in 1918, two months after the October revolution, Solzhenitsyn succeeded in undermining the Soviet regime s moral foundations and helped indirectly in bringing about its collapse.

Setting himself in the prophetic tradition of Gogol and Dostoyevsky, he devoted his life with ruthless dedication to giving voice to Russia s conscience, in turn against the totalitarian repression of the Soviet Union and against the mafia-and-McDonald s materialism of the post-communist era.

Above all, in his self-appointed role as the memory of the gulag, he became, in the words of Russian poet Lydia Chukovskaya, a reborn Dante, who had brought the living word from the nether regions.

Born into the turmoil of the civil war that followed the Bolshevik seizure of power, Solzhenitsyn was sentenced to eight years in the camps in 1945, survived cancer and a KGB assassination attempt, spent two decades in exile in self-imposed isolation, and lived out his final years writing bitter jeremiads at what he saw as the moral squalor of post-Soviet Russia.

As an adolescent he was an ardent Leninist, and even later, as an artillery officer at the front shortly before his arrest for criticizing Stalin in a letter to a colleague, he could still write to his wife: I would gladly give my life for Lenin.

All that changed in 1945. By gulag standards, conditions at the camp near Moscow where he initially worked were relatively tolerable. He deliberately exchanged them for back-breaking physical toil in a camp in Kazakhstan so as to share the lot of ordinary prisoners, a typical act of self-mortification that almost killed him.

He was released, a human wreck, in February 1953, a few weeks before Stalin s death. He spent three more years in internal exile, contracted and overcame cancer, became a humble schoolteacher at Ryazan, and in 1961 burst onto the world of literature with One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

It is difficult now to appreciate fully the explosive impact of Solzhenitsyn s revelations of the world of the forced labor camps, published with official approval during Nikita Khrushchev s thaw.

There are three atom bombs in the world, said one of his friends who wept over the manuscript. Kennedy has one, Khrushchev has another, and you have the third.

After the novel s publication in the magazine Novy Mir, two subsequent editions totaling 850,000 copies sold out immediately. It was later estimated that if the Soviet planning system had allowed it, 8.5 million people would have bought the book.

Cancer Ward and – for many his greatest novel – The First Circle followed, appearing in English in 1968, although for 20 years Russians could read the texts only in illicit form.

His stature in 1970 was already such that he could be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, although he refused to travel to Stockholm to collect it for fear of not being allowed to return home.

By now Solzhenitsyn was working on his massive literary-historical investigation of the camps, The Gulag Archipelago – painstakingly (and covertly) collecting information from no less than 227 former prisoners.

His three-volume memorial, a vast testament to the millions of lives wasted and broken in the nightmare anti-world of the camps, was published in Paris between 1973 and 1976.

The Soviet authorities were at a loss to know what to do about Solzhenitsyn. In 1971 the writer suffered a bout of heat stroke which was later revealed by those involved to have been caused by ricin, a poison administered surreptitiously in a crowded shop, and intended to be fatal.

Finally in 1974 KGB chief Yuri Andropov had Solzhenitsyn expelled. After two years in Switzerland he moved to a remote village in the US state of Vermont, where he devoted himself to his epic Red Wheel cycle, a fictionalized history of the events leading up to the Russian Revolution.The world began to discover another Solzhenitsyn, one who inveighed against Western ways and institutions, prophesying doom from detente, and calling for moral renewal based on Christian values. This won him few friends on either side of the East-West divide, and he withdrew into the life of a recluse.

Solzhenitsyn s spectacular return home in 1994 heralded an anti-climax. The new Russia was as alien to him as the United States had been, a finding that he shared with television viewers in gloomy harangues in a regular broadcast until ORF, the country s main television channel, pulled the plug.

Demand for Solzhenitsyn s books fell away as suddenly as the Soviet Union itself, and his 1998 collection of essays Russia in Collapse received an initial print run of just 5,000 copies.

Solzhenitsyn continued to travel around provincial Russia, speaking to small audiences, and occasionally appeared on television, but otherwise retreated from the national stage as his audience dwindled.

His books became increasingly hard to find in bookshops. For the sons and daughters of the well-to-do new Russians, the world of Solzhenitsyn was as remote as that of Goethe or Racine.

In one final act of recognition, then President Vladimir Putin last year gave him the Russian state s highest honor, the State Prize – traveling personally to the writer s home to deliver the award. -AFP

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