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Before The Prophet, There Was The Writer

  • Peter Vail

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn at his home outside Moscow in June 2007

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn at his home outside Moscow in June 2007

In the 19th century there were two books that changed the lives of millions of people: Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin," which played an enormous role in ending slavery in the United States and Nikolai Chernyshevsky's "What Is To Be Done?", which set thousands of Russians on the path toward revolution.

In the 20th century, there was only one such book -- Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's "The Gulag Archipelago."

After reading it, some said: "That's it. Time to leave the country." Others said, "This cannot happen again -- we need to rebuild this country." And still others said, "It's scary and dangerous to live here -- let's keep our heads down and we'll survive."

The 1973 book also shook -- although not as dramatically -- people living outside the Soviet Union. It struck a hard blow against the idealized convictions of the socialist crowd.

That is, millions of people read "The Gulag Archipelago" and changed their lives. After Stalin and Hitler, all ideologies fell to pieces. And suddenly, a book like this appears. This is a victory of literature, the equivalent of which is hard to find in the entire history of world culture.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn -- it is often forgotten by those who focus on his role in society -- was foremost a writer. A great Russian master of prose. In addition, we can be sure that he arrived at his later role as a publicist and prophet by means of his literary strivings.

Solzhenitsyn spent years experimenting with various styles and genres -- something else that is often forgotten. All you have to do is scan through the titles of his works -- "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," "The Love-Girl And The Innocent," "An Incident At Krechetovka Station," "Matryona's Home," "For The Good Of The Cause" -- to see how variously he wrote -- various styles, genres, manners. Thus, when Solzhenitsyn tried out an archaic style and found that it suited him, he arrived at the role of a sort of Biblical prophet. It didn't happen the other way around.

We all know how he was read in the past -- like truth against a background of lies. But now another life has arrived and, alas, Solzhenitsyn is already being used in the interests of the state. Last year, when he was awarded a state prize, "The Gulag Archipelago" was not even mentioned among his achievements. And when his old musings on the February 1917 Revolution were printed recently in enormous press runs, it was only to highlight the importance he attributed to having a firm hand rule the state.

Such gestures are incorrect and incompetent both in terms of politics and style. Solzhenitsyn was never a tool in a struggle -- he is as great as Russia itself.

The fact that in his later years he turned into a sort of image -- more like a portrait than a real author -- was not his misfortune. It was the misfortune of a Russia that did not want to face squarely something in its present or to repent of its past.

The time of Solzhenitsyn as a writer, as prose master, will come again. Literary genius does not fade with the years; it only burns brighter. Such is the ending of his famed story "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich": "There were 3,653 days just like this one in his sentence, from beginning to end. The three extra ones are on account of leap years...."

Peter Vail is the managing editor of RFE/RL's Russian Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
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