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Solzhenitsyn in 1974
|Born||Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn|
11 December 1918
Kislovodsk, Russian SFSR
|Died||3 August 2008 (aged 89)|
|Citizenship||Soviet Union (1922–1974)|
Soviet Union (1990–1991)
|Alma mater||Rostov State University|
Solzhenitsyn in 1974
|Born||Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn|
11 December 1918
Kislovodsk, Russian SFSR
|Died||3 August 2008 (aged 89)|
|Citizenship||Soviet Union (1922–1974)|
Soviet Union (1990–1991)
|Alma mater||Rostov State University|
Aleksandr Isayevich[a] Solzhenitsyn (//; Russian: Алекса́ндр Иса́евич Солжени́цын, pronounced [ɐlʲɪˈksandr ɪˈsaɪvʲɪt͡ɕ səlʐɨˈnʲit͡sɨn]; 11 December 1918 – 3 August 2008) was a Russian novelist, historian, and critic of Soviet totalitarianism. He helped to raise global awareness of the gulag and the Soviet Union's forced labour camp system. While his writings were often suppressed, he wrote many books, most notably The Gulag Archipelago, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Two Hundred Years Together. Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970, "for the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature". He was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974 but returned to Russia in 1994 after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was born in Kislovodsk, RSFSR (now in Stavropol Krai, Russia). His mother, Taisiya Solzhenitsyna (née Shcherbak) was Ukrainian. Her father had apparently risen from humble beginnings, as something of a self-made man. Eventually, he acquired 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 Alexandr. On 15 June, shortly after her pregnancy was confirmed, Isaakiy was killed in a hunting accident. Alexandr 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.
During the war Solzhenitsyn served as the commander of a sound-ranging battery in the Red Army, was involved in major action at the front, and twice decorated. A series of writings published late in his life, including the early uncompleted novel Love the Revolution!, chronicles his wartime experience and his growing doubts about the moral foundations of the Soviet regime.
In February 1945, while serving in East Prussia, Solzhenitsyn was arrested for writing derogatory comments in private letters to a friend, Nikolai Vitkevich, about the conduct of the war by Joseph Stalin, whom he called "Khozyain" ("the boss"), and "Balabos" (Yiddish rendering of Hebrew baal ha-bayiθ for "master of the house"). He was accused of anti-Soviet propaganda under Article 58 paragraph 10 of the Soviet criminal code, and of "founding a hostile organization" under paragraph 11. Solzhenitsyn was taken to the Lubyanka prison in Moscow, where he was interrogated. On 7 July 1945, he was sentenced in his absence by Special Council of the NKVD to an eight-year term in a labour camp. This was the normal sentence for most crimes under Article 58 at the time.
The first part of Solzhenitsyn's sentence was served in several different work camps; the "middle phase," as he later referred to it, was spent in a sharashka (i.e., a special scientific research facility run by Ministry of State Security), where he met Lev Kopelev, upon whom he based the character of Lev Rubin in his book The First Circle, published in a self-censored or "distorted" version in the West in 1968 (an English translation of the full version was eventually published by Harper Perennial in October 2009). In 1950, he was sent to a "Special Camp" for political prisoners. During his imprisonment at the camp in the town of Ekibastuz in Kazakhstan, he worked as a miner, bricklayer, and foundry foreman. His experiences at Ekibastuz formed the basis for the book One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. One of his fellow political prisoners, Ion Moraru, remembers that Solzhenitsyn spent some of his time at Ekibastuz writing. While there Solzhenitsyn had a tumor removed, although his cancer was not diagnosed at the time.
In March 1953, after his sentence ended, Solzhenitsyn was sent to internal exile for life at Kok-Terek in the northeastern region of Kazakhstan, very close to the current border with Russia, as was common for political prisoners. His undiagnosed cancer spread until, by the end of the year, he was close to death. However, in 1954, he was permitted to be treated in a hospital in Tashkent, where his tumor went into remission. His experiences there became the basis of his novel Cancer Ward and also found an echo in the short story "The Right Hand." It was during this decade of imprisonment and exile that Solzhenitsyn abandoned Marxism and developed the philosophical and religious positions of his later life, gradually becoming a philosophically-minded Christian as a result of his experience in prison and the camps. This turn parallels Fyodor Dostoyevsky's time in Siberia and his quest for faith 100 years earlier. He repented for some of his actions as a Red Army captain, and in prison compared himself to the perpetrators of the Gulag: "I remember myself in my captain's shoulder boards and the forward march of my battery through East Prussia, enshrouded in fire, and I say: 'So were we any better?'" His transformation is described at some length in the fourth part of The Gulag Archipelago ("The Soul and Barbed Wire"). The narrative poem The Trail (written without benefit of pen or paper in prison and camps between 1947 and 1952) and the 28 poems composed in prison, forced-labour camp, and exile also provide crucial material for understanding Solzhenitsyn's intellectual and spiritual odyssey during this period. These "early" works, largely unknown in the West, were published for the first time in Russian in 1999 and excerpted in English in 2006.
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, and 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. They divorced in 1972.
The following year (1973) he 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).
After Khrushchev's Secret Speech in 1956, Solzhenitsyn was freed from exile and exonerated. Following his return to European Russia, Solzhenitsyn was, while teaching at a secondary school during the day, spending his nights secretly engaged in writing. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech he wrote that "during all the years until 1961, not only was I convinced I should never see a single line of mine in print in my lifetime, but, also, I scarcely dared allow any of my close acquaintances to read anything I had written because I feared this would become known."
In 1960, aged 42, he approached Aleksandr Tvardovsky, a poet and the chief editor of the Novyi Mir magazine, with the manuscript of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. It was published in edited form in 1962, with the explicit approval of Nikita Khrushchev, who defended it at the presidium of the Politburo hearing on whether to allow its publication, and added: "There's a Stalinist in each of you; there's even a Stalinist in me. We must root out this evil." The book quickly sold-out and became an instant hit. In the 1960s, while he was publicly known to be writing Cancer Ward, he was simultaneously writing The Gulag Archipelago. During Khrushchev's tenure, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was studied in schools in the Soviet Union, as were three more short works of Solzhenitsyn's, including his acclaimed short story Matryona's Home, published in 1963. These would be the last of his works published in the Soviet Union until 1990.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich brought the Soviet system of prison labour to the attention of the West. It caused as much of a sensation in the Soviet Union as it did in the West—not only by its striking realism and candor, but also because it was the first major piece of Soviet literature since the 1920s on a politically charged theme, written by a non-party member, indeed a man who had been to Siberia for "libelous speech" about the leaders, and yet its publication had been officially permitted. In this sense, the publication of Solzhenitsyn's story was an almost unheard of instance of free, unrestrained discussion of politics through literature. Most Soviet readers realized this, but after Khrushchev had been ousted from power in 1964, the time for such raw exposing works came to an end.
Solzhenitsyn made an unsuccessful attempt, with the help of Tvardovsky, to get his novel, Cancer Ward, legally published in the Soviet Union. This had to get the approval of the Union of Writers. Though some there appreciated it, the work ultimately was denied publication unless it was to be revised and cleaned of suspect statements and anti-Soviet insinuations.
After Krushchev's removal in 1964, the cultural climate again became more repressive. Publishing of Solzhenitsyn's work quickly stopped; as a writer, he became a non-person, and, by 1965, the KGB had seized some of his papers, including the manuscript of The First Circle. Meanwhile Solzhenitsyn continued to secretly and feverishly work upon the most subversive of all his writings, The Gulag Archipelago. The seizing of his novel manuscript first made him desperate and frightened, but gradually he realized that it had set him free from the pretenses and trappings of being an "officially acclaimed" writer, something which had come close to second nature, but which was becoming increasingly irrelevant.
After the KGB had confiscated Solzhenitsyn's materials in Moscow, during 1965–67 the preparatory drafts of The Gulag Archipelago were turned into finished typescript in hiding at his friends' homes in Estonia. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had befriended Arnold Susi, a lawyer and former Estonian Minister of Education in a Lubyanka Prison cell. After completion, Solzhenitsyn's original handwritten script was kept hidden from the KGB in Estonia by Arnold Susi's daughter Heli Susi until the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In 1969 Solzhenitsyn was expelled from the Union of Writers. In 1970, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. He could not receive the prize personally in Stockholm at that time, since he was afraid he would not be let back into the Soviet Union. Instead, it was suggested he should receive the prize in a special ceremony at the Swedish embassy in Moscow. The Swedish government refused to accept this solution, however, since such a ceremony and the ensuing media coverage might upset the Soviet Union and damage Sweden's relations with the superpower. Instead, Solzhenitsyn received his prize at the 1974 ceremony after he had been deported from the Soviet Union.
The Gulag Archipelago was composed during 1958–67. This work was a three-volume, seven part work on the Soviet prison camp system (Solzhenitsyn never had all seven parts of the work in front of him at any one time). The Gulag Archipelago has sold over thirty million copies in thirty-five languages. It was based upon Solzhenitsyn's own experience as well as the testimony of 256 former prisoners and Solzhenitsyn's own research into the history of the penal system. It discussed the system's origins from the founding of the Communist regime, with Vladimir Lenin having responsibility, detailing interrogation procedures, prisoner transports, prison camp culture, prisoner uprisings and revolts, and the practice of internal exile.
According to fellow gulag historian Anne Applebaum, The Gulag Archipelago’s rich and varied authorial voice, its unique weaving together of personal testimony, philosophical analysis, and historical investigation, and its unrelenting indictment of communist ideology, made The Gulag Archipelago one of the most consequential books of the 20th century.
The Gulag Archipelago was met with extensive criticism by Party-controlled Soviet press, even though the book was not published in the USSR. An editorial in Pravda on 14 January 1974 accused Solzhenitsyn of supporting "Hitlerites" and making "excuses for the crimes of the Vlasovites and Bandera gangs." According to the editorial, Solzhenitsyn was "choking with pathological hatred for the country where he was born and grew up, for the socialist system, and for Soviet people."
In August 1971 the KGB allegedly made an attempt to assassinate Solzhenitsyn using an unknown biological agent (most likely ricin) with an experimental gel-based delivery method. The attempt left him seriously ill but ultimately was not successful.
On 12 February 1974, Solzhenitsyn was arrested and deported the next day from the Soviet Union to Frankfurt, West Germany and stripped of his Soviet citizenship. The KGB had found the manuscript for the first part of The Gulag Archipelago and, less than a week later, Yevgeny Yevtushenko suffered reprisals for his support of Solzhenitsyn. U.S. military attaché William Odom managed to smuggle out a large portion of Solzhenitsyn's archive, including the author's membership card for the Writers' Union and Second World War military citations; Solzhenitsyn subsequently paid tribute to Odom's role in his memoir "Invisible Allies" (1995).
In West Germany, Solzhenitsyn lived in Heinrich Böll's house in Cologne. He then moved to Zurich, Switzerland before Stanford University invited him to stay in the United States to "facilitate your work, and to accommodate you and your family." He stayed on the 11th floor of the Hoover Tower, part of the Hoover Institution, before moving to Cavendish, Vermont in 1976. He was given an honorary Literary Degree from Harvard University in 1978 and on Thursday, 8 June 1978 he gave his Commencement Address  condemning, among other things, anthropocentrism in modern western culture.
Over the next 17 years, Solzhenitsyn worked on his dramatized history of the Russian Revolution of 1917, The Red Wheel. By 1992, four "knots" (parts) had been completed and he had also written several shorter works.
Despite spending almost two decades in the United States, Solzhenitsyn did not become fluent in spoken English. He had, however, been reading English-language literature since his teens, encouraged by his mother. More importantly, he resented the idea of becoming a media star and of tempering his ideas or ways of talking in order to suit television. Solzhenitsyn's warnings about the dangers of Communist aggression and the weakening of the moral fiber of the West were generally well received in Western conservative circles (e.g. Ford administration staffers Richard Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld advocated on Solzhenitsyn's behalf for him to speak directly to then-President Gerald Ford about the Soviet threat), prior to and alongside the tougher foreign policy pursued by US President Ronald Reagan. At the same time, liberals and secularists became increasingly critical of what they perceived as his reactionary preference for Russian nationalism and the Russian Orthodox religion.
Solzhenitsyn also harshly criticised what he saw as the ugliness and spiritual vapidity of the dominant pop culture of the modern West, including television and much of popular music: "...the human soul longs for things higher, warmer, and purer than those offered by today's mass living habits... by TV stupor and by intolerable music". Despite his criticism of the "weakness" of the West, Solzhenitsyn always made clear that he admired the political liberty which was one of the enduring strengths of western democratic societies. In a major speech delivered to the International Academy of Philosophy in Liechtenstein on 14 September 1993, Solzhenitsyn implored the West not to "lose sight of its own values, its historically unique stability of civic life under the rule of law—a hard-won stability which grants independence and space to every private citizen."
In a series of writings, speeches, and interviews after his return to his native Russia in 1994, Solzhenitsyn spoke about his admiration for the local self-government he had witnessed first hand in Switzerland and New England during his western exile. He "praised 'the sensible and sure process of grassroots democracy, in which the local population solves most of its problems on its own, not waiting for the decisions of higher authorities.'" It was sometimes forgotten that Solzhenitsyn’s patriotism was inward-looking. He called for Russia to “renounce all mad fantasies of foreign conquest and begin the peaceful long, long long period of recuperation,” as he put it in a 1979 BBC interview with Janis Sapiets.
In 1990, his Soviet citizenship was restored, and, in 1994, he returned to Russia with his wife, Natalia, who had become a United States citizen. Their sons stayed behind in the United States (later, his oldest son Yermolai returned to Russia to work for the Moscow office of a leading management consultancy firm). From then until his death, he lived with his wife in a dacha in Troitse-Lykovo (Троице-Лыково) in west Moscow between the dachas once occupied by Soviet leaders Mikhail Suslov and Konstantin Chernenko. A staunch believer in traditional Russian culture, Solzhenitsyn expressed his disillusionment with post-Soviet Russia in works such as Rebuilding Russia, and called for the establishment of a strong presidential republic balanced by vigorous institutions of local self-government. The latter would remain his major political theme. After returning to Russia in 1994, Solzhenitsyn published eight two-part short stories, a series of contemplative "miniatures" or prose poems, a literary memoir on his years in the West (The Grain Between the Millstones), among many other writings. Once back in Russia Solzhenitsyn hosted a television talk show program. Its eventual format was Solzhenitsyn delivering a 15 minute monologue twice a month; it was discontinued in 1995.
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.
The most complete 30-volume edition of Solzhenitsyn's collected works is soon to be published in Russia. The presentation of its first three volumes, already in print, recently took place in Moscow. Unhappy with the economic and social malaise of the Yeltsin era, Solzhenitsyn expressed his admiration for President Vladimir Putin's attempts to restore a sense of national pride in Russia. Putin signed a decree conferring on Solzhenitsyn the State Prize of the Russian Federation for his humanitarian work and personally visited the writer at his home on 12 June 2007 to present him with the award.
Yermolai Solzhenitsyn has translated some of his father's works. Stephan Solzhenitsyn lives and works in Moscow. Ignat Solzhenitsyn is the music director of The Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia.
Solzhenitsyn continues to be met with controversy in Russia. In February 2010, young left-wing activists in Moscow organized protests against measures by the government in renaming the Great Communist Street in Moscow in honor of Solzhenitsyn. The protesters cited the activities and literature of Solzhenitsyn for their position.
On 19 September 1974, Yuri Andropov approved a large-scale operation to discredit Solzhenitsyn and his family and cut his communications with Soviet dissidents. The plan was jointly approved by Vladimir Kryuchkov, Philipp Bobkov, and Grigorenko (heads of First, Second and Fifth KGB Directorates). The residencies in Geneva, London, Paris, Rome and other European cities participated in the operation. Among other active measures, at least three StB agents became translators and secretaries of Solzhenitsyn (one of them translated the poem Prussian Nights), keeping KGB informed regarding all contacts by Solzhenitsyn.
The KGB sponsored a series of hostile books about Solzhenitsyn, most notably a "memoir published under the name of his first wife, Natalia Reshetovskaya, but probably mostly composed by Service", according to historian Christopher Andrew. Andropov also gave an order to create "an atmosphere of distrust and suspicion between PAUK[b] and the people around him" by feeding him rumors that everyone in his surrounding was a KGB agent and deceiving him in all possible ways. Among other things, the writer constantly received envelopes with photographs of car accidents, brain surgery and other frightening illustrations. After the KGB harassment in Zurich, Solzhenitsyn settled in Cavendish, Vermont, reduced communications with others and surrounded his property with a barbed wire fence. His influence and moral authority for the West diminished as he became increasingly isolated and critical of Western individualism. KGB and CPSU experts finally concluded that he alienated American listeners by his "reactionary views and intransigent criticism of the US way of life", so no further active measures would be required.
In his book The Gulag Archipelago Solzhenitsyn states that he was recruited to report to the NKVD on fellow inmates and was given a code-name Vetrov, but due to his transfer to another camp he was able to elude this duty and never produced a single report.
In 1976, after Solzhenitsyn was expelled from the Soviet Union a report signed by Vetrov surfaced. After a copy of the report was obtained by Solzhenitsyn he published it together with a refutation in the Los Angeles Times (published 24 May 1976). In 1978 the same report was published by journalist Frank Arnau in a socialist Western German magazine Neue Politik. However, according to Solzhenitsyn the report is a fabrication by the KGB. He claimed that the report is dated 20 January 1952 while all Ukrainians were transferred to a separate camp on 6 January and they had no relation to the uprising in Solzhenitsyn's camp on 22 January. He also claimed that the only people who might in 1976 have access to a "secret KGB archive" were KGB agents themselves. Solzhenitsyn also requested Arnau to put the alleged document to a graphology test but Arnau refused.
In 1990 the report was reproduced in Soviet Voyenno-Istoricheskiy Zhurnal among the memoirs of L.A. Samutin, a former ROA soldier and Gulag inmate who was an erstwhile supporter of Solzhenitsyn, but later became his critic. According to Solzhenitsyn, publication of the Samutin memoirs was canceled at the request of Samutin's widow, who stated that the memoirs were in fact dictated by the KGB.
Regarding atheism, Solzhenitsyn declared:
Over a half century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of old people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: "Men have forgotten God; that's why all this has happened." Since then I have spent well-nigh 50 years working on the history of our revolution; in the process I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own toward the effort of clearing away the rubble left by that upheaval. But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous revolution that swallowed up some 60 million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: "Men have forgotten God; that's why all this has happened."
Solzhenitsyn also published a two-volume work on the history of Russian-Jewish relations (Two Hundred Years Together 2001, 2002). Never published in the USA, this book stirred controversy and caused Solzhenitsyn to be accused of anti-Semitism.
The book became a best-seller in Russia. Solzhenitsyn begins this work with a plea for "patient mutual comprehension" on the part of Russians and Russian Jews. The author writes that the book was conceived in the hope of promoting "mutually agreeable and fruitful pathways for the future development of Russian-Jewish relations".
There is sharp division on the allegation of anti-Semitism. From Solzhenitsyn's own essay "Repentance and Self-Limitation in the Life of Nations", he calls for Russians and Jews alike to take moral responsibility for the "renegades" from both communities who enthusiastically supported a Marxist dictatorship after the October Revolution. At the end of chapter 15, he writes that Jews must answer for the "revolutionary cutthroats" in their ranks just as Russian Gentiles must repent "for the pogroms, for those merciless arsonist peasants, for... crazed revolutionary soldiers." It is not, he adds, a matter of answering "before other peoples, but to oneself, to one's consciousness, and before God." Writing of Solzhenitsyn's novel August 1914 in the New York Times on 13 November 1985, the American historian Richard Pipes commented: "Every culture has its own brand of anti-Semitism. In Solzhenitsyn's case, it's not racial. It has nothing to do with blood. He's certainly not a racist; the question is fundamentally religious and cultural. He bears some resemblance to Dostoyevsky, who was a fervent Christian and patriot and a rabid anti-Semite. Solzhenitsyn is unquestionably in the grip of the Russian extreme right's view of the Revolution, which is that it was the doing of the Jews". But Solzhenitsyn emphatically rejected this “extreme right-wing” position as “myopic and facile” in chapter nine of Two Hundred Years Together: “No, it would be quite wrong to say that the Jews ‘organized’ the revolutions of 1905 and 1917, just as it was not organized by any other nation as such.” And in a chapter in 1998’s Russia in Collapse entitled “The Maladies of Russian Nationalism” Solzhenitsyn excoriated the extreme right wing’s preoccupation with Jews and Free Masons.
According to D. M. Thomas, Elie Wiesel said Solzhenitsyn is not an anti-Semite: "He is too intelligent, too honest, too courageous, too great a writer." He says he wishes Solzhenitsyn were more sensitive to Jewish suffering, but believes the insensitivity is unconscious. This statement however predates the publication in 2001 of "Two Hundred Years Together" by at least 3 years.
Similarities between Two Hundred Years Together and an anti-Semitic essay titled "Jews in the USSR and in the Future Russia", attributed to Solzhenitsyn, has led to inference that he stands behind the anti-Semitic passages. Solzhenitsyn himself claims that the essay consists of manuscripts stolen from him, and then manipulated, forty years ago. However, according to the historian Semyon Reznik, textological analyses have proven Solzhenitsyn's authorship.
In some of his later political writings, such as Rebuilding Russia (1990) and Russia in Collapse (1998), Solzhenitsyn criticized the oligarchic excesses of the new Russian 'democracy,' while opposing any nostalgia for Soviet Communism. He defended moderate and self-critical patriotism (as opposed to radical nationalism), argued for the indispensability of local self-government to a free Russia, and expressed concerns for the fate of the 25 million ethnic Russians in the "near abroad" of the former Soviet Union. He sought to protect the national character of the Russian Orthodox church and fought against the admission of Catholic priests and Protestant pastors to Russia from other countries. For a brief period, he had his own TV show, where he freely expressed his views. The show was cancelled because of low ratings, but Solzhenitsyn continued to maintain a relatively high profile in the media.
Delivering the commencement address at Harvard University in 1978, he called the United States spiritually weak and mired in vulgar materialism. Americans, he said, speaking in Russian through a translator, suffered from a "decline in courage" and a "lack of manliness." Few were willing to die for their ideals, he said. He condemned both the United States government and American society for its "hasty" capitulation in the Vietnam War. He criticized the country's music as intolerable and attacked its unfettered press, accusing it of violations of privacy. He said that the West erred in measuring other civilizations by its own model. While faulting Soviet society for denying fair legal treatment of people, he also faulted the West for being too legalistic: "A society which is based on the letter of the law and never reaches any higher is taking very scarce advantage of the high level of human possibilities."
In his 1978 Harvard address, Solzhenitsyn argued over Russian culture, that the West erred in "denying its autonomous character and therefore never understood it "
Solzhenitsyn emphasized the significantly more oppressive character of the Soviet totalitarian regime, in comparison to the Russian Empire of the House of Romanov. He asserted that Imperial Russia did not practice any real censorship in the style of the Soviet Glavlit, that political prisoners typically were not forced into labor camps, and that the number of political prisoners and exiles was only one ten-thousandth of those in the Soviet Union. He noted that the Tsar's secret police, or Okhrana, was only present in the three largest cities, and not at all in the Imperial Russian Army.
In a speech commemorating the Vendée Uprising, Solzhenitsyn compared Lenin's Bolsheviks with Jacobins of the French Revolution. However, he commented that, while the French Reign of Terror ended with the execution of Maximilien Robespierre, its Soviet equivalent raged unabated from 1917 until the Khrushchev thaw in the 1950s.
According to Solzhenitsyn, Russians were not the ruling nation in the Soviet Union. He believed that all ethnic cultures have been oppressed in favor of an atheistic Marxism. Russian culture was even more repressed than any other culture in the Soviet Union, since the regime was more afraid of ethnic uprisings among Russian Christians than among any other ethnicity. Therefore, Solzhenitsyn argued, Russian nationalism and the Orthodox Church should not be regarded as a threat by the West but rather as allies.
In "Rebuilding Russia," an essay first published in 1990 in "Komsomolskaya Pravda" Solzhenitsyn urged Russia to cast off all non-Slav republics, which he claimed were sapping the Russian nation and he called for the creation of a new Slavic state bringing together Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and parts of Kazakhstan that he considered to be Russified.
In 2006 Solzhenitsyn accused NATO of trying to bring Russia under its control; he claimed this was visual because of its "ideological support for the 'colour revolutions' and the paradoxical forcing of North Atlantic interests on Central Asia". In an 2006 interview with Der Spiegel he stated "This was especially painful in the case of Ukraine, a country whose closeness to Russia is defined by literally millions of family ties among our peoples, relatives living on different sides of the national border. At one fell stroke, these families could be torn apart by a new dividing line, the border of a military bloc."
Solzhenitsyn said that for every country, great power status deforms and harms the national character and that he has never wished great power status for Russia. He rejected the view that the USA and Russia are natural rivals, saying that before the [Russian] revolution, they were natural allies and that during the American Civil War, Russia supported Lincoln and the North [in contrast to Britain and France, which supported the Confederacy], and then they were allies in the First World War. But beginning with Communism, Russia ceased to exist and the confrontation was not at all with Russia but with the Communist Soviet Union.
Solzhenitsyn criticized the Allies for not opening a new front against Nazi Germany in the west earlier in World War II. This resulted in Soviet domination and oppression of the nations of Eastern Europe. Solzhenitsyn claimed the Western democracies apparently cared little about how many died in the East, as long as they could end the war quickly and painlessly for themselves in the West. While stationed in East Prussia as an artillery officer, Solzhenitsyn witnessed war crimes against the civilian German population by Soviet "liberators" as the elderly were robbed of their meager possessions and women were gang-raped to death. He wrote a poem entitled "Prussian Nights" about these incidents. In it, the first-person narrator seems to approve of the troops' crimes as revenge for German atrocities, expressing his desire to take part in the plunder himself. The poem describes the rape of a Polish woman whom the Red Army soldiers mistakenly thought to be a German.
In 1973, near the height of the Sino-Soviet conflict, Solzhenitsyn sent a Letter to the Soviet Leaders to a limited number of upper echelon Soviet officials. This work, which was published for the general public in the Western world a year after it was sent to its intended audience, beseeched the Soviet Union's authorities to
Give them their ideology! Let the Chinese leaders glory in it for a while. And for that matter, let them shoulder the whole sackful of unfulfillable international obligations, let them grunt and heave and instruct humanity, and foot all the bills for their absurd economics (a million a day just to Cuba), and let them support terrorists and guerrillas in the Southern Hemisphere too if they like. The main source of the savage feuding between us will then melt away, a great many points of today's contention and conflict all over the world will also melt away, and a military clash will become a much remoter possibility and perhaps won't take place at all [author's emphasis].
Once in the United States, Solzhenitsyn urged the United States to reconsider its attitudes to the Vietnam War (which had ended in April 1975). In his commencement address at Harvard University in 1978, Solzhenitsyn alleged that many in the US did not understand the Vietnam War. He rhetorically asks if the American Anti-War Movement ever realized the effects their actions had on Vietnam: "But members of the U.S. antiwar movement wound up being involved in the betrayal of Far Eastern nations, in a genocide and in the suffering today imposed on 30 million people there. Do those convinced pacifists hear the moans coming from there?"
Solzhenitsyn opined in Izvestia that 1930s famine on the Ukraine was no different from the Russian famine of 1921 as both were caused by the ruthless robbery of peasants by Bolshevik grain procurements. According to him, the lie of the Holodomor being genocide was invented decades later after the event, and Ukrainian effort to have the famine recognized as genocide is an act of historical revisionism that has now surpassed the level of Bolshevik agitprop. The writer cautioned that the genocidal claim has its chances to be accepted by the West due to the general western ignorance of Russian and Ukrainian history.
In 200 Years Together, Chapter 20: In the Camps of Gulag, Solzhenitsyn describes his play 'Republic of Labour' describing the events that happened in the camp Bolshaya Kaluzhskaya 30. Solzhenitsyn goes on to describe the hostile antipathy the play aroused from his Jewish friends.
In 1998, Russian filmmaker Alexander Sokurov shot TV documentary Besedy s Solzhenitsynym (The Dialogues with Solzhenitsyn) of four parts. The documentary shot in Solzhenitsyn’s home shows his everyday life and covers his reflections on Russian history and literature.
On 12 December 2009, the Russian channel Rossiya K showed the French television documentary L'Histoire Secrète de l'Archipel du Goulag [The Secret History of the Goulag Archipel] made by Jean Crépu and Nicolas Miletitch and translated into Russian under the title Taynaya Istoriya “Arkhipelaga Gulag” (Secret History: The Gulag Archipelago). The documentary covers events related to creation and publication of The Gulag Archipelago.
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