Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
Teaser Image

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr (1918–)

Soviet-Russian dissident and writer. Born in Kislovodsk on 11 December 1918, the son of an artillery officer, Aleksandr Isaevich Solzhenitsyn studied mathematics and physics at the University of Rostov-on-Don. Graduating in 1941, he briefly worked as a physics teacher. Following the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, he was drafted and served as an artillery captain.

In February 1945, Solzhenitsyn was arrested in East Prussia for his criticism (in a private letter) of the policies of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin and sentenced to eight years of hard labor in a gulag. In 1953 Solzhenitsyn was exiled to a village in Kazakhstan. Following his release in 1956, he settled in Riazan in 1957, working as a high school math teacher, all the while writing furiously.

In 1962, the leading Soviet literary journal New World published Solzhenitsyn's novella One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. A sensational success, it made the author famous. Never before had the conditions in a Soviet labor camp been described in such gritty detail and laconic poignancy. The support of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev then allowed Solzhenitsyn to pursue a career as a freelance writer and essayist.

Solzhenitsyn proved a brilliant strategist, preparing a profound assault on the moral legitimacy of the Soviet system by analyzing its labor camp system in his three-volume The Gulag Archipelago (1973–1975). In his cat-and-mouse games with the Komitet Gosudarstvennoi Bezopasnosti (KGB) and its literary minions that he later described in The Oak and the Calf (1975), he was always mindful of the international position in which the Soviet Union found itself during the Cold War. After the confiscation of manuscripts in 1965 and subsequent harassment by Soviet officials, Solzhenitsyn employed dissident tactics such as writing an open letter to the Fourth Congress of Soviet Writers in 1967, having manuscripts smuggled to the West, and publishing them illegally through samizdat (chain mail–style self-publishing).

In the late 1960s, Solzhenitsyn's life became increasingly dramatic and regularly made international headlines. In 1969 he was excluded from the Soviet Writers' Union, but the following year he won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Soviet officials viewed the latter as a provocation, despite the backing that Solzhenitsyn received from leftist intellectuals such as Heinrich Böll, who had nominated him for the prize.

The publication of the first volume of Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago in 1973 caused a cultural and political uproar and left no doubt that the author was beyond reconciliation with the Soviet system. In 1974, Solzhenitsyn was charged with treason and forced to leave the Soviet Union. After living briefly in Zürich, in 1976 he settled in Cavendish, Vermont. During his years in the United States, he led a secluded existence, rarely granting interviews and concentrating on his multivolume chronicle The Red Wheel, which focused on World War I and the factors that led to revolution in Russia in 1917. His 1978 Harvard University commencement speech made it clear that he was not a liberal reformer but rather an archconservative who rejected communism because of his ethical, spiritual, and national outlooks.

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika and glasnost reforms permitted a gradual acceptance of Solzhenitsyn in the Soviet Union. In 1989 he was reinstated to the Soviet Writers' Union, and his citizenship was restored in 1990. Solzhenitsyn's book-length essay How We Can Rebuild Russia (1990) advocated grassroots democracy modeled after Switzerland and rejected a "consumerist civilization." Solzhenitsyn returned to Russia in 1994, visiting numerous cities on his triumphant sojourn to Moscow. Yet after several years, the writer's openly antimodern worldview turned him into an anachronism seemingly out of touch with postcommunist realities. He therefore rapidly lost his authority as a social visionary. Solzhenitsyn's nonfictional historical exploration Two Hundred Years Together (2001–2002) generated much controversy and led to accusations of anti-Semitism.

Peter Rollberg

Further Reading
Klimoff, Alexis, ed. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich: A Critical Companion. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1997.; Scammel, Michael. Solzhenitsyn: A Biography. New York: Norton, 1984.

©2011 ABC-CLIO. All rights reserved.

  About the Author/Editor
ABC-cLIO Footer