One of the most moving pieces of Russian literature is surely One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. It bears the distinction of being the only one of Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn’s works to be published in the Soviet Union when it appeared in the periodical Novy Mir. If you’ve never read it, you should. The haunting tale follows the titular character as he spends a day in one of Stalin’s infamous gulags. Solzhenitsyn himself had been a political prisoner in Karaganda in what’s now Kazakhstan, after writing critical comments about Stalin in letters to friends. Drawing on that first hand experience, he wrote his most famous work. Khrushchev himself authorised its publication, such was the impact it made on the Russian leader.
This December, on the 11th, marks the centenary of Solzhenitsyn’s birth. The Soviet regime was fickle in its treatment of the novelist, historian and short story writer. After the acclaim received for One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Fearful that he wouldn’t be allowed to return home and with his wife in Moscow expecting their first child, he didn’t travel to Stockholm to collect his award. Expelled from the Writer’s Union and hounded by the Soviet authorities life was very difficult for him, and his Nobel recognition didn’t help the situation. Not long after, he fell out of favour again and was expelled from his homeland in 1974. After the break up of the Soviet Union, he returned to Russia in 1994.
Life had started out so differently for the novelist. His mother was the daughter of a wealthy landowner and his father a young Cossack army officer. Tragedy struck while his mother was still pregnant when his father was killed in a hunting accident. Raised by his mother, times were hard; the family property had been transformed into a Communist collective farm. But his well educated mother impressed upon the young Aleksandr the importance of learning and he studied hard. Though he studied mathematics, he was keen to write and his novel August 1914 was already taking shape in 1936. Wartime came, and Solzhenitsyn served in the Red Army, twice decorated.
But his experiences affected him deeply and he questioned the war crimes that he witnessed and the regime that permitted them. He wrote to his friend about Stalin, criticising the decisions made by the Russian leader, and in 1945 wound up in Lubyanka Prison in Moscow as a result. On July 7th, he was sentenced to eight years in a labour camp. Upon his release in 1953, Solzhenitsyn was placed in internal exile in Birlik, Kazakhstan; a year later, he was diagnosed with cancer and sent to a Tashkent hospital where he beat it.
Exoneration came with a change of leadership. Khrushchev freed him from exile three years later. Respite ended with the removal of Khrushchev in 1964, and once again Solzhenitsyn found himself at odds with the State. He survived an attempt to poison him with ricin in 1971. In 1974, he was stripped of his Russian citizenship and deported to West Germany. From there, he moved to Switzerland, and later to the USA, where he received an honorary degree from Harvard for his contribution to literature. In 1990, his Russian citizenship was reinstated and four years later, he and his wife finally set foot on Russian soil again. Yet he continued to be outspoken, and critical when he felt he needed to be. This spirited individual would be tamed by no State, no matter what it threw at him.
His heart finally gave out in August 2008 and at the age of 89, he was laid to rest. Russian and world leaders paid tribute to him, bestowing on him the respect he had earned and so clearly deserved.