(For the Business Standard, August 3, 2008; my small tribute to the man.)
For Alexander Solzhenitsyn to die a normal death, of a heart attack in his autumn years, was no small achievement.
The Nobel Prize winner survived the Second World War, where he earned two decorations. In 1945, his ribbons and gongs didn’t prevent him from spending eight years in Russian detention camps after he called Stalin “Old Man Whiskers”. The camps killed many, but Solzhenitsyn made it through. In 1953, he almost died of cancer while still in internal exile. In later years he would survive less immediate threats—exile, disillusionment with the West.
Though his complete works run to almost 30 volumes, the ones that we most remember Solzhenitsyn by today are the remarkable One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and the indelible The Gulag Archipelago.
Ivan Denisovich, published in 1962, shook the Soviet Union and forced the world to acknowledge the truth of what had been happening in Soviet Russia. The novel follows prisoner 854 through the travails of a normal day, as his co-prisoners scrounge for tobacco, discuss God and deal with the severe hardships of life in camp. The Gulag Archipelago was savagely analytical: it was a three-volume analysis of how one goes about building a police state. It remains one of the most extraordinary testimonies against the power and organization of brutality in our time.
In retrospect, the most astonishing thing is not that Solzhenitsyn managed to get his writings published, but that he wrote at all. In his Nobel lecture, he would refer to those writers who “vanished into that abyss”. He wrote, “A whole national literature is there, buried without a coffin, without even underwear, naked, a number tagged on its toe.”
His struggle for many years was that he was a writer without an audience, a writer who wrote in an asphyxiating silence. For Solzhenitsyn, the essential silence enforced on him for many years by the Stalinist regime was intolerable, a gulag of the mind.
The story of how The Gulag Archipelago was written is well-known, but perhaps there is no better way to honour Solzhenitsyn’s passing than to retell it. Ivan Denisovitch had been published with the blessings of Krushchev; none of Solzhenitsyn’s later works, including Cancer Ward, were as lucky. The KGB kept an eye on this “non-person” who was also being turned, slowly, into a “non-writer” by the lack of publication.
Solzhenitsyn had legitimate fears that the manuscript of The Gulag Archipelago would be seized by the KGB. He wrote the first volume in short drafts; you could recreate a map of Moscow from where various parts of the book had been secreted, a few pages at a time hidden in the houses of different friends.
Though he managed to get copies out into the West, there were just three copies of the completed manuscript in Russia when he’d finished, all three compiled with no small effort. One copy was with a woman in Leningrad, who had carefully buried it in the ground. The KGB interrogated her relentlessly until she confessed. On her release, she hanged herself, distraught over what she saw as her betrayal of Solzhenitsyn.
The writer had to work equally hard to smuggle out the manuscript of his Nobel Lecture. He photographed it; his wife hid it in her baby carriage, and handed it over to the wife of a friend, similarly equipped with pram and baby. The friend managed to cut the photos into strips, hide them in the back of a radio and get them into Helsinki.
Solzhenitsyn’s Nobel Lecture contributed to his many years of exile from Russia, but looking back at what he had to do in order to write, I think I understand his words a little better.
“In order to mount this platform from which the Nobel lecture is read, a platform offered to far from every writer and only once in a lifetime, I have climbed not three or four makeshift steps, but hundreds and even thousands of them; unyielding, precipitous, frozen steps, leading out of the darkness and cold where it was my fate to survive, while others – perhaps with a greater gift and stronger than I – have perished. …
“Once pledged to the WORD, there is no getting away from it: a writer is no sideline judge of his fellow countrymen and contemporaries; he is equally guilty of all the evil done in his country or by his people. If his country’s tanks spill blood on the streets of some alien capital, the brown stains are splashed forever on the writer’s face.”
That was his creed; and those who have read it and read his works may be sure that Solzhenitsyn will rest in peace. He did what he had to do; a simple epitaph, but not one often earned.