Solzhenitsyn, restless chronicler of labor camps

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian literary giant Alexander Solzhenitsyn, opened the eyes of the world to the brutality of Stalin’s labor camps with searing writings that brought him the wrath of the Soviet authorities and years of persecution.

He went from outcast to hero, in a life whose suffering and triumph reflected the upheavals of 20th century Russia itself.

Solzhenitsyn, who died on Sunday at the age of 89, was a driven chronicler of Russian history, drawing on his blackest moments in dictator Josef Stalin’s camps for his most memorable works.

In a life of extraordinary swings of fortune, he served with the Red Army, endured eight years in the Soviet Gulag, beat cancer and in 1970, still hounded by the communist authorities, won the Nobel Prize for literature.

He spent 20 years of unhappy and forced exile in the West whose materialistic values he never ceased to denounce.

By the time he made a hero’s return to Russia in 1994, it was to a challenging new country that -- to his regret -- was espousing those same values and which he barely recognized.

The sometimes Messianic figure, with the mien of a biblical prophet, was an icon of resistance to communism in the Cold War.

But his pan-Slav nationalist views, his mystical passion for Russia and fervor for Russian Orthodoxy, and charges of anti-Semitism that dogged him, made him difficult to categorize.

He remained a rebel into his 80s, railing against Kremlin policies in the new Russia and what he saw as the loss of the Russian nation to moral and spiritual decay.

He refused to accept a high state award from Boris Yeltsin, post-Soviet Russia’s first president. He said he could not accept honors from a leader who brought misery to his people.

But he took the award from Yeltsin’s successor, Vladimir Putin, whom he chided for not curbing the powers of corrupt politicians.

In a television appearance in June 2005, a frail-looking Solzhenitsyn, bemoaned the state of politics in Russia. “We have nothing that resembles democracy,” he said.


Alexander Isayevich Solzhenitsyn was born on December 11, 1918, a year after the Bolshevik revolution, and raised in Southern Russia. He studied physics and mathematics until Hitler’s forces attacked the Soviet Union in 1941 and he became a frontline artillery captain, twice decorated for bravery.

In 1945 military censors found letters to a friend in which he criticized Stalin. That cost him eight years’ detention in the Gulag camps, where tens of millions people have perished.

Because of his mathematics background he was moved to a secret research institute -- recreated in his work “The First Circle” -- and in 1950 to labor camps in the Kazakh steppes.

Solzhenitsyn was released in 1953 to start a period of perpetual exile where he was stricken with a stomach cancer. Despite poor medication, he overcame cancer by the time he was released and fully cleared of all charges in 1956.

The swing toward public denunciation of Stalin’s crimes in 1961 initiated by Communist Party leader Nikita Khrushchev saw the unknown 43-year-old author admitted to the Writers’ Union.

Then in 1962, as part of Khrushchev’s anti-Stalin drive, Solzhenitsyn was allowed to publish “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”, a novel based on his camp experiences. A literary and political bombshell, it made the author a household name overnight.


But the political and cultural thaw did not last long.

The hardline Leonid Brezhnev replaced Khrushchev in 1964 and Solzhenitsyn’s works including “The First Circle” and the less explosive “Cancer Ward” became a target of the KGB persecution.

His works were withdrawn from public libraries. His name was erased from the history of Soviet literature and even the distribution of his works became a criminal offence.

In 1970 he angered the Soviet leadership for accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature. Three years later he published in Paris “The Gulag Archipelago”, smuggled out despite the best efforts of the KGB.

The epic work invested the international lexicon with a new word -- “gulag” (a Russian acronym for ‘Main Administration of the Labour Camps’) -- to describe the repressive system.

The communist authorities stripped him of his citizenship and in 1974 bundled him onto a plane to West Germany. His second wife, Natalia, whom he had only just married, followed him.

Solzhenitsyn spent the next 20 years in the United States working on what he saw as his main literary ambition, a vast historical epic on the formation of Soviet society.


But he always made clear he wanted to die in Russia.

Then a distant prospect, it became a reality when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev launched his liberal Perestroika reforms.

In 1989 his works were allowed in the Soviet Union and 27 million copies were printed of his anti-Soviet pamphlet.

But Solzhenitsyn put off his return to finish a multi-tomed history of the Russian Revolution called “The Red Wheel”. His return in May 1994, more than two years after the Soviet Union collapsed, was fittingly dramatic.

He arrived from the east in Magadan, a northern city at the centre of the most brutal chain of camps. He bowed to touch the earth in a tribute to the millions who perished in the camps.

He went on to the Pacific port of Vladivostok where he was mobbed by thousands and from there, with his family, took the trans-Siberia railway back to Moscow -- a journey of more than 5,500 miles and several weeks.

He served notice he would continue to act as Russia’s conscience and be as critical of the new capitalist Russia, in the grip of turbulent economic reforms, social hardship and violent crime, as of the old totalitarian system it replaced.

From his new home near Moscow he called for spiritual and moral regeneration in his homeland. He lamented the plight of Russians in other ex-Soviet republics, attacked the government for policies that he said drove the nation to poverty and scolded his compatriots for greed and venality.

But the man, who as an outcast under communism had been a beacon for thousands of marginalized people, failed to touch the same nerve in the new Russia.

State television soon axed a regular program it had given him because of lack of viewer interest. Russian media noted that his books were far less read than in late Soviet times.


He kept up a punishing work schedule regardless, finally producing the heavily-researched two-volume “Two hundred years together”, a history of Jews in Russia.

As he had feared, publication of the massive work inevitably revived old charges that he harbored anti-Semitic views which some critics say they had detected in earlier books.

Solzhenitsyn, an active backer of Israel as his supporters were quick to point out, always rejected these charges as unfounded and said they were often maliciously made.

He said he had for years avoided writing on the subject of Jews in Russia because of its incendiary nature -- but that in the end he could no longer avoid it.