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Russian Nobel Winner Solzhenitsyn Dead At 89

  • RFE/RL

Russian literary giant Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the lifelong dissident who tirelessly exposed the atrocities of Soviet prison camps, has died at the age of 89.

Solzhenitsyn had been frail in recent years, and his son Stepan said he succumbed to heart failure on August 3 at his residence outside Moscow.

"He died suddenly, relatively suddenly, at home, as he had always hoped would happen," Stepan Solzhenitsyn said. "He hoped he would not be dragged to hospitals, and he did not suffer very long. By midnight, he had passed away."

His short novel "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," based on his eight years as a political prisoner, is the first literary work to unequivocally denounce the gulag, the Soviet Union's infamous network of labor camps that Solzhenitsyn described as "the human meat grinder."

(Listen to Solzhenitsyn read from "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" (in Russian):
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"What we have today could in no way be described as democracy. Today, we have an oligarchy, power limited to a closed circle" -- Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, 1994

The novel's publication in 1962 was made possible largely because Nikita Khrushchev, who had brought to light some of the crimes of dictator Josef Stalin in his famous secret speech six years earlier, hoped the novel would undermine neo-Stalinist support in the government.

After appearing in the magazine "Novy mir," the novel was republished in two editions that were immediately sold out.

Soviet Brutalities

But the thaw introduced by Khrushchev was short-lived. The hard-line Leonid Brezhnev replaced Khrushchev in 1964, and when Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize in 1970, he refused to travel to Stockholm to accept the award for fear of not being allowed to return home.

After "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," he worked indefatigably to open the world's eyes to the brutalities of the Soviet regime. His works were quick to anger the Kremlin, which branded their distribution a criminal offense.

In 1968 came "The First Circle" and "Cancer Ward," and in 1973 the first part of his most famous work, "The Gulag Archipelago," an epic three-volume portrait of Stalin's camps.

Solzhenitsyn was eventually stripped of his Soviet citizenship in 1974 and expelled from the USSR. His second wife Natalia, whom he had just married, followed him into exile.

In December 1974, Solzhenitsyn was finally able to receive the Nobel Prize for literature from the hands of Swedish King Carl Gustav.

After a short stay in Switzerland, the Solzhenitsyn couple moved to a remote village in Vermont, where the writer started work on "Red Wheel," a historical cycle of the events leading up to the 1917 revolution.

But his life in the West proved little more fulfilling than his Soviet existence as the author quickly became frustrated with what he regarded as the West's shallowness and vanity.

Returning Home

In his home country, Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990 restored his Soviet citizenship and dropped treason charges again him. Solzhenitsyn, who had always made clear he wanted to die in Russia, began to envisage a homecoming.

After 20 years of away from his home country, Solzhenitsyn at last made a hero's return to Russia in May 1994, more than two years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

He arrived in Magadan, an eastern Russian city at the heart of the gulag network, and bowed down to touch the earth in tribute to the millions who died in the camps.
"At the end of my life, I can hope that the historical material and the historical subjects that I have gathered and presented to the readers, the images of life and the characters, the cruel and troubled years that our country has endured, will take root in the consciousness and the memory of my fellow citizens." -- Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, 2007

Once settled in Moscow, Solzhenitsyn continue to act as his country's conscience, lamenting Russia's spiritual decay and calling for a moral revival based on Christian values.

For the most part, however, his message was lost on his compatriots. State television axed his talk show due to lack of viewers, and demand for his books dwindled.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin tried in vain to gain his sympathy -- Solzhenitsyn snubbed his attempt to award him the Order of St. Andrew, Russia's highest honor, in 1998.

Speaking to the State Duma in October 1994, Solzhenitsyn blasted the new capitalist Russia. "What we have today could in no way be described as democracy," he said. "Today, we have an oligarchy, power limited to a closed circle."

But Stepan Solzhenitsyn says his father never regretted moving back to Russia. "He was always very happy that he had returned," he said. "There is only one home for him. This is his home, and I think that it is a great loss for our family, but I think also, it is a loss for the country."

When Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000, the author was initially wary of the former KGB officer. But he soon warmed to the new president as the latter moved against oligarchs and reclaimed state control over some of Russia's vast energy resources.

In June 2007, Putin awarded him the prestigious State Prize for his "humanitarian" contribution at a lavish Kremlin ceremony. Solzhenitsyn this time accepted the award. Too frail to attend, he was represented by his wife Natalia.

But he retained an ambiguous relationship with the Kremlin, praising Putin for Russia's revival but denouncing his crackdown on democratic freedoms.

Putin, now prime minister, has called his death "a heavy loss for the whole of Russia."
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