As the world pays its respects to one of the extraordinary writers of our times, I think back to my early visits to Moscow in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I knew many people then who, like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, had spent years or decades in Stalin’s Gulag of labor camps and remote places of harsh exile.
Around kitchen tables in the then-heavily censored Soviet Union, Russians often talked about “Aleksandr Isaevich,” as they respectfully called him. They asked what people in America, where Solzhenitsyn was then in forced exile, thought about his writings and occasional public statements–as, for example, his controversial speech at Harvard in 1978.
But I was struck–and remain so today–by how, for them, Solzhenitsyn remained above all else the author of the great novella One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. It had been published in November 1962 with the personal backing of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, at considerable political risk, as part of his “thaw”–the de-Stalinizing reforms he spearheaded after Stalin’s death in 1953 until his overthrow in 1964. Almost twenty years later, my Russian friends still spoke emotionally of how Ivan Denisovich had at last revealed to Soviet society their long-censored suffering.
Solzhenitsyn was forever frozen in time as one of them, a zek–as Gulag inmates were called.
Whatever had followed–the many friends and enemies Solzhenitsyn made, the controversies he aroused in the West and in Russia–mattered far less to them than that bare-bones, almost documentary account of one zek‘s day, in which he had so powerfully recounted his experiences and theirs. Many of my friends were of Solzhenitsyn’s generation, so only a handful are still alive today. One who remains is Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko, who spent almost thirteen years in the Gulag, and since has written voluminously about Stalin’s twenty-year terror. In 2005 he opened the first, and still only, official Moscow museum dedicated to the Terror and its victims.
It is worth reflecting on how Solzhenitsyn–whose writings, particularly the three volumes of The Gulag Archipelago, exposed the crimes of the NKVD–could fifty years later embrace then Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had headed its successor agency. Solzhenitsyn had always been a Russian nationalist and, like most of them, he was horrified by the destruction of the Russian state under Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s. He admired what Putin was doing to rebuild it.
Whatever the explanation, for my Moscow friends and millions of others who had been through the Gulag, Solzhenitzyn, like them, was forever Ivan Denisovich.