Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

11 Dec 1918
3 Aug 2008
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Aleksandr Isayevich[a] Solzhenitsyn ( 11 December 1918 – 3 August 2008) (often Romanized to Alexandr or Alexander) was a Russian novelist, historian, and outspoken critic of the Soviet Union, especially its totalitarianism, who helped to raise global awareness of its Gulag forced labor camp system.

He was allowed to publish only one work in the Soviet Union, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962), in the periodical Novij Mir. After this he had to publish in the West, most notably Cancer Ward (1968), August 1914 (1971), and The Gulag Archipelago (1973). Solzhenitsyn was awarded the 1970 Nobel Prize in Literature “for the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature”.

Solzhenitsyn was afraid to go to Stockholm to receive his award for fear that he wouldn’t be allowed to reenter. He was eventually expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974, but returned to Russia in 1994 after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Solzhenitsyn was born in Kislovodsk, RSFSR (now in Stavropol Krai, Russia). His mother, Taisiya Solzhenitsyn (born Shcherbak) was Ukrainian. Her father had risen from humble beginnings to become a wealthy landowner, acquiring a large estate in the Kuban region in the northern foothills of the Caucasus. During World War I, Taisiya went to Moscow to study.

While there she met and married Isaakiy Solzhenitsyn, a young officer in the Imperial Russian Army of Cossack origins and fellow native of the Caucasus region. The family background of his parents is vividly brought to life in the opening chapters of August 1914, and in the later Red Wheel novels.

In 1918, Taisia became pregnant with Aleksandr. On 15 June, shortly after her pregnancy was confirmed, Isaakiy was killed in a hunting accident. Aleksandr was raised by his widowed mother and aunt in lowly circumstances. His earliest years coincided with the Russian Civil War.

By 1930 the family property had been turned into a collective farm. Later, Solzhenitsyn recalled that his mother had fought for survival and that they had to keep his father’s background in the old Imperial Army a secret. His educated mother (who never remarried) encouraged his literary and scientific learnings and raised him in the Russian Orthodox faith; she died in 1944.

As early as 1936, Solzhenitsyn began developing the characters and concepts for a planned epic work on World War I and the Russian Revolution. This eventually led to the novel August 1914 – some of the chapters he wrote then still survive.

Solzhenitsyn studied mathematics at Rostov State University. At the same time he took correspondence courses from the Moscow Institute of Philosophy, Literature and History, at this time heavily ideological in scope. As he himself makes clear, he did not question the state ideology or the superiority of the Soviet Union until he spent time in the camps.

On 7 April 1940, while at the university, Solzhenitsyn married Natalia Alekseevna Reshetovskaya. They had just over a year of married life before he went into the army, then to the Gulag. They divorced in 1952, a year before his release, because wives of Gulag prisoners faced loss of work or residence permits. After the end of his internal exile, they remarried in 1957, divorcing a second time in 1972.

The following year Solzhenitsyn married his second wife, Natalia Dmitrievna Svetlova, a mathematician who had a son from a brief prior marriage. He and Svetlova (born 1939) had three sons: Yermolai (1970), Ignat (1972), and Stepan (1973).

Solzhenitsyn’s adopted son Dmitri Turin died on March 18, 1994, age 32 in Cavendish, Vermont, shortly before he could return with his father to Russia.

Solzhenitsyn died of heart failure near Moscow on 3 August 2008, at the age of 89. A burial service was held at Donskoy Monastery, Moscow, on Wednesday, 6 August 2008. He was buried the same day at the place chosen by him in the monastery’s cemetery. Russian and world leaders paid tribute to Solzhenitsyn following his death.

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