Page last updated at 17:15 GMT, Tuesday, 5 August 2008 18:15 UK

Solzhenitsyn: A tortured patriot

By Michael Nicholson
Lecturer in Russian, Oxford University

Alexander Solzhenitsyn (image from 1976)
Solzhenitsyn owed much to the great Russian 19th-Century authors

As a 10-year-old Alexander Solzhenitsyn had already read Tolstoy's War and Peace and was trying his hand at writing stories and poems.

Later, as a student, he would embark upon a vast historical epic of his own, harking back to Tolstoy, but devoted to the 1917 Russian Revolution. For Solzhenitsyn was a passionate Leninist in those early years. His literary efforts continued throughout his youth and adolescence.

Even in a Stalinist hard labour camp in the 1950s, Solzhenitsyn managed to compose some 12,000 lines of poetry in his head, choosing verse as an aid to his already formidable memory.

His imprisonment in the Gulag system not only gave him a theme for his writings, but taught him valuable lessons. Hitherto, his life had been an enthusiastic gallop: he was bright, ambitious and confident of the triumph of world revolution and of his part in it.

By the time he emerged from camps and exile in the mid-1950s much had changed. His glib political views had given way to a new scepticism. His forward-thrusting optimism had been tempered by setbacks, by reflection and self-analysis.

Not only did Solzhenitsyn now rediscover his Russian patriotism and the Christian faith of his boyhood, but he came to realise that a strident, assertive and accusing voice was damaging to his literary efforts.

Ruins of a Gulag prison in Siberia
Gulag prisoners endured hunger, hard labour and bitter cold

At that time, Solzhenitsyn experimented with writing plays (again in his head), turning the confined settings of his imprisonment to advantage, confining the action to a single day, banishing himself from centre stage in favour of a wider cast of characters.

Microcosm of tragedy

It was in 1951, while still in Ekibastuz labour camp, that Solzhenitsyn conceived the idea of writing a work about the Gulag - not the heroic biographical fiction of his youth, but a short work, in which a single camp is seen through the course of one pretty good day, by a prisoner who had formerly been peasant.

Ivan Denisovich's story unfolds with little rage and accusation, and his experiences are not wrapped in intellectual, historical or moral generalisation. This tale of Ivan Denisovich's ordinary day launched Solzhenitsyn's career as a writer a decade later, when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev authorised its publication to bolster his own attacks on Josef Stalin and his legacy.

The novel's understatement involves and activates the reader: if this was a relatively good camp, and this day a comparatively happy one, then what must life have been like in the savage camps of the north and of Kolyma in the far east? And how many millions of days - bad and worse - were lived through by those millions of Soviet citizens banished to Stalin's camps over the years, very many of them never to return?

Alexander Solzhenitsyn (image from 1994)
Born: 11 December 1918
1945: sentenced to eight years for anti-Soviet activities
1962: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich published in Russia
1970: Awarded Nobel Prize for Literature
1974: First volume of The Gulag Archipelago published
13 February 1974: Exiled from his native Russia
1994: Returns to Russia
3 August 2008: dies in Moscow

Solzhenitsyn stands in a thoroughly Russian tradition, which imposes upon the writer a duty not simply to write well, but to voice the pains and aspirations of his society. This civic obligation is one Solzhenitsyn felt acutely, and the post-Modernist relativism of the late 20th Century is alien to him.

His is a tradition that can be used to justify a prophetic, didactic, even tub-thumping approach. Solzhenitsyn was, after all, one who, as much as anyone, agonized over the crimes and miseries endured by his compatriots, both before the collapse of the Soviet Union and in the turbulent new Russia of today.

For Solzhenitsyn, right and wrong, good and evil, undoubtedly do exist. However, as he first expressed it in a poem written in his head in the camps nearly 60 years ago, the dividing line between good and evil passes not between warring parties, ideologies, armies, but runs through the heart of each individual and flickers ceaselessly to and fro.

Solzhenitsyn's best writing draws its power and vitality from this tension between his sense of mission - the writer as "second government", as he once put it - and his awareness as a writer of the need to stifle his own rage, to exercise "self-limitation", to condense his experience and leave space in his fictional worlds for readers to enter and relive that experience for themselves.

Political fame and notoriety attended his entire career, but in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, as too in longer works, such as The First Circle, Solzhenitsyn still contrived to create books that outlived the political sensation of their debut. It is a very Russian achievement.

Michael Nicholson has published several works on Solzhenitsyn, including Solzhenitsyn in Exile: Critical Essays and Documentary Materials.

Solzhenitsyn in his own words
03 Aug 08 |  Europe

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