The notion that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is the most tragic figure of twentieth-century Russia has become a cliché. A man ennobled by suffering, whose courage and unique experience made him “a moral compass for the nation,” has been consumed by that same suffering. At the age of 80, Aleksandr Isaevich has become a living shell for his former artistic and political splendor. For a writer with real gifts, such a fate is tragic indeed.
In Russia, once you are “god” (a martyr, a czar, a president), you remain so forever. To step away from the spotlight in your lifetime, to recognize your limits, is something few Russians have been able to master. Ever since the publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in the early sixties, and more so after The Gulag Archipelago appeared in the West a decade later, Solzhenitsyn has stood as the most monumental, respected, even revered figure in contemporary Russian culture. The injustice of his being unable to receive his Nobel Prize in Literature in person (it was awarded in 1970) and his final expulsion from his homeland in 1974 made him also a historical figure of global importance.
After two years in Europe he moved to the United States, where the snows and birches of Vermont reminded the exiled writer of his native Russia. So great was the author’s desire to preserve his Russianness that he surrounded himself with a tall fence and refused to deal with America and the world altogether. The great icon of Russia’s samizdat dissident movement, aware of this powerful responsibility to remain “great,” was afraid to corrupt and Westernize his unique and mysterious Russian soul. This vanity and contempt for the outside world was revenged by fate–The Red Wheel, a four-part fictional work, which Solzhenitsyn spent almost all his exile writing, is sadly little more than a crank’s mausoleum within which his Nobel Prize-worthy talent has been interred.
Solzhenitsyn’s great gift was in witness. His best works are essentially autobiographical. The First Circle (which was circulated in clandestine form in 1966) came out of the author’s experience as a mathematician in a group attached to the scientific research institute of the secret police during his early postwar imprisonment. The gulag camp for political prisoners in which he found himself some years later became the setting for One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (published in the literary journal Novy Mir in 1962). In internal exile in Tashkent he was stricken with stomach cancer; having survived radiation treatments, he employed the hospital as setting for Cancer Ward (circulated clandestinely in 1966). Finally, monumentally, in 1973 The Gulag Archipelago appeared, topping them all with its great artistic truth. In Solzhenitsyn’s own words, “In this book there are no fictitious persons, nor fictitious events,” but the result nonetheless was infinitely powerful literature.
When in the early seventies the still-unpublished Gulag secretly circulated in Moscow, the retired Nikita Khrushchev, who had vigorously supported the first publication of Ivan Denisovich while still in power, read the manuscript. Khrushchev was pleased to see the righteousness of his political battle for de-Stalinization confirmed by great art. However, his wife, Nina Petrovna, refused to finish the book after glancing through only a few chapters. Her reasoning was, “It cannot be true. If it were true we wouldn’t be alive now.” Even knowing many of Stalin’s acts at first hand, she could not accept the artistic account of those crimes; such was the power of Solzhenitsyn’s incredible talent.