Solzhenitsyn, chronicler of Russia under communism, dies at 89

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Nobel laureate Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn, the reclusive icon of the Russian intelligentsia and chronicler of Communist repression, died Sunday. He was 89.

His son Stephan told the Associated Press that he died of heart failure in Moscow.

The soulful writer and spiritual father of Russia’s nationalist patriotic movement lived to be reunited with his beloved homeland after two decades of exile, only to be as distressed by what he saw as communism’s damage to the Russian character as he was by his earlier forced estrangement from the land and people he loved.

Solzhenitsyn returned from his Vermont refuge to a dramatically changed Russia in 1994 but deemed it a moral ruin after a months-long odyssey to reacquaint himself with the country that had denounced him as a traitor, stripped him of citizenship and expelled him 20 years earlier.


His labor, loves and politics mirrored the tumultuous history of his country through the last century.

“It is history’s sorrow, the grief of our era, that I carry about me like an anathema,” Solzhenitsyn once wrote of his life.

That he persevered through nearly nine decades was a wonder to many; the bearded author with piercing blue eyes and a diffident manner had weathered cancer, prison, labor camps, controversy and condemnation.

Hailed as Russia’s greatest living writer, the author of more than two dozen books -- in addition to commentaries, poems, plays and film scripts -- won back his citizenship and the respect of his fellow Russians after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Although his books were bestsellers in the West, only “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” was published first in his homeland.

Other major works include a memoir, “The Oak and the Calf,” and the novel “August 1914,” the first volume of a monumental history of 20th century Russia.

With his masterwork, “The Gulag Archipelago,” he gave a name to the brutal network of labor camps set up across the Soviet Union during Josef Stalin’s frenzied drive to industrialize the country. Tens of millions of men, women and children died in that campaign.


Solzhenitsyn spent the last decade of his life in failing health and seclusion at his rural estate outside Moscow, editing his life’s work for a 30-volume anthology that he predicted he would not live to see completed. When the first three volumes were finished in 2006, he observed that publication would run through 2010 and “continue after my death.”

The anthology project crowned a lifelong journey of divergence and reconciliation for the writer and his politically turbulent country.

Despite his bitter experiences and gloomy view of the world, Solzhenitsyn was, according to biographer Michael Scammell, an “optimist . . . a firm believer in the force of willpower” with “an unquenchable thirst for life and incredible powers of concentration.” Yet at the same time, “he felt positively uncomfortable without a hair shirt of some kind.”

He saw the Soviet Union as cruel and suffocating “under the malevolent and unyielding nature of communism.” He even attacked the revered god of the Soviet Union -- its founder, Vladimir I. Lenin.

Outspoken critic

At times, Solzhenitsyn was courteous and attentive, with an outpouring of good humor. But he was also stubborn and abrasive, and developed a consuming hatred of communism that dismayed even those in the West who admired his work and integrity.


He denounced the East-West detente of the 1970s as a sham and called the 1975 Helsinki Accord -- the charter of the Conference of Security and Cooperation in Europe -- the West’s capitulation to Soviet enslavement of Eastern Europe.

During 20 years of exile in the U.S., he was never hesitant to criticize his adopted country; he viewed the United States and the West in general as flaccid, morally weak, cravenly materialistic and suffering from “the spiritual impotence that comes from living a life of ease.”

Although generally sympathetic to its aims, he spurned the Soviet dissident movement as a betrayal of Russia’s soul and ancient traditions. He frequently clashed with fellow opponents of the Soviet system.

Solzhenitsyn called for a moral and spiritual reawakening in his homeland and the West based on fundamental Christian values, and a rejection of the materialism, hedonism and selfishness that he insisted was corrupting civilization. Such views led one critic to denounce him as “the Russian ayatollah.”

His image as the conscience of Communist-ruled Russia dimmed after his repatriation and his diatribes on the denigration of his nation that were at times tainted with paranoia, anti-Semitism and bigotry.

Wildly popular upon arrival and active in efforts to re-create the pre-revolutionary zemstvo system of rural community government in Russia, Solzhenitsyn rejected appeals to seek the presidency in 1996 and eventually retreated into relative obscurity.


Hard childhood

Alexander Isayevich Solzhenitsyn was born Dec. 11, 1918, in Kislovodsk, a fashionable health resort in southern Russia. A descendant of well-to-do peasants, he was born six months after his father, Isaaki, died in a hunting accident.

An only child, Solzhenitsyn was raised by his shy, devoted mother, Taissia, and other relatives amid the turmoil and bloodshed of the civil war that followed the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power in 1917. His mother was the daughter a wealthy landowner whose family had been impoverished in the post-revolutionary turmoil.

Solzhenitsyn’s early years were marked by deprivation and the fear of a violent death at the hands of marauding bands of Communists and pro-czarist Whites struggling for control of the nation. He called this time “a kind of dignified destitution.” After the defeat of the Whites, Solzhenitsyn’s family was repeatedly harassed by Soviet authorities because of their previous status as members of a “wealthy” class.

Yet Sanya, as the boy was called, became an enthusiastic member of Communist youth organizations. As a young man, he was a devoted Marxist-Leninist but never joined the party, as his enthusiasm waned and finally grew into bitter hatred.

He had written stories, poems and plays since age 9 and attended secondary school in the industrial city of Rostov, where his mother was a typist.


Solzhenitsyn graduated from the city’s university with a degree in mathematics and physics in 1941, the year Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. That same year, he married Natalia Reshtovskaya, a fellow student.

At the outbreak of World War II, Solzhenitsyn volunteered for the military but was turned down because of a minor congenital ailment. When the Soviet Union desperately needed manpower to stem German advances, he was drafted.

In 1942, he was appointed commander of a battery and fought on the front lines until virtually the end of the war. He relished military life both for its adventures and as source material for his writings.

Three months before the end of the war in 1945, Solzhenitsyn was arrested for remarks he had made in letters to a friend that censors turned over to the secret police. Solzhenitsyn had been critical about “the mustachioed one” -- Stalin -- and wrote, half- seriously, of founding a party that would return the Soviet Union to the true path of Marxism-Leninism from which it had strayed under Stalin.

Sent to Moscow’s notorious Lubyanka prison, Solzhenitsyn was convicted in absentia by a three-member tribunal for anti-Soviet behavior and sentenced to eight years in prison.

He served part of his sentence in Kazakhstan, then a Soviet republic, in a labor camp that was noted for its harsh conditions. After being stricken with cancer in 1952, he underwent surgery in the camp hospital and was deemed cured, an experience that led to his novel “Cancer Ward,” published in the West in 1968.


Upon completing his sentence on Feb. 9, 1953, he was condemned to exile “in perpetuity.” He was sent to the desolate village of Kok Terek in southern Kazakhstan, where most of the 4,000 inhabitants were also exiles. He arrived two days before Stalin’s death.

In Kazakhstan, he was again diagnosed with cancer but won permission to be treated 1,000 miles away in Tashkent. He was released from the hospital in 1954.

Shortly before Solzhenitsyn’s release from prison, he divorced Reshtovskaya. The parting was said to have been an act of sacrifice to protect her career as a chemist and amateur concert pianist that would have been destroyed if the authorities discovered she was married to a political prisoner.

In 1956, Solzhenitsyn was informed that his sentence had been annulled. He had been rehabilitated under “the thaw” that began with Stalin’s death, and he soon began teaching in Ryazan, southeast of Moscow.

During the early 1960s, the Soviet Union was experiencing a short-lived period of liberalization under Stalin’s successor, Nikita S. Khrushchev. Solzhenitsyn -- slowly, hesitantly -- began to reveal his secret life as a writer.

In 1961, Solzhenitsyn submitted under a pseudonym “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” based on his experiences in the labor camps, to the literary magazine Novy Mir, which published it the next year.


The short work depicted a day in a labor camp as seen through the eyes of a simple, good-natured peasant inmate, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov. Tightly written with understatement that increased its impact, “A Day” was described as a “universal portrait of suffering and oppression” during the Stalin era.

Solzhenitsyn won unanimous praise for shedding light on one of the darkest chapters in Russian history and was compared to Tolstoy and Dostoevski for his contribution to the country’s rich literary heritage.

But behind the scenes there was an intense struggle between the relative liberals in the regime and the hard-liners who feared that Solzhenitsyn had opened a Pandora’s box from which the evils of the Soviet system would escape and sweep the regime away.

Khrushchev was to lose the struggle. He was succeeded in 1964 by Leonid I. Brezhnev, who applied the brakes to the liberalization movement.

Solzhenitsyn had remarried Reshtovskaya in the late 1950s, only to divorce her again in 1973. By then he had fallen in love with Natalia Svetlova, with whom he had had three sons: Yermolai, born in 1970; Ignat, born in 1972; and Stephan, born in 1973, the year Solzhenitsyn married Svetlova.

In the meantime, Solzhenitsyn suffered increased harassment from the regime that blocked his efforts to have his other works published. Frustrated, he had some of them smuggled to the United States and other Western nations -- “Gulag Archipelago” was slipped out on microfilm and published in Paris in December 1973.


Protected in part by his immense popularity, Solzhenitsyn dueled with the regime, daring it to imprison him again -- a dare it did not accept.

In 1970, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature “for the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian Literature.” Fearing he would not be allowed to return to his homeland if he went to Stockholm to receive the prize, Solzhenitsyn did not accept it until 1974 -- after his expulsion from the Soviet Union.

Treason charge

Solzhenitsyn was arrested Feb. 12, 1974, under Article 64 -- treason -- and deported “for the systematic execution of actions incompatible with Soviet citizenship and harmful to the U.S.S.R.”

Placed aboard an Aeroflot airliner with seven KGB agents, Solzhenitsyn arrived in Frankfurt, West Germany, and was taken to the home near Bonn of a former German infantryman who had fought on the Eastern Front -- novelist Heinrich Boell, a fellow Nobel laureate for literature.

A month later, as Soviet authorities had promised, Solzhenitsyn’s wife, mother-in-law and three children joined him.


In 1976, he settled in Vermont -- whose scenery he liked for its similarity to the Russian heartland -- and bought a house on 50 acres near Cavendish.

To protect his privacy, Solzhenitsyn enclosed the property with a fence topped with barbed wire and set up a closed-circuit television system. He was determined to allow little outside interference with his work. He once claimed to have made no more than five phone calls from the retreat over 20 years.

“I think -- I am sure -- that I will return to Russia and still have a chance to live there,” he said in 1980. Yet the collapse of communism and his return to Russia gave him little solace.

After Russians gave him a euphoric welcome in 1994 in the Siberian gulag city of Magadan, Solzhenitsyn embarked on a two-month, nearly 6,000-mile sojourn across his homeland to assess the depths of communism’s damage to his nation.

“I came with a very sad, dark idea of the country,” he told a town meeting in Yaroslavl as he neared the conclusion of his journey in Moscow, 150 miles away. “It has been confirmed.”

Though despairing of his fellow Russians’ abuse of alcohol and apparent lack of patriotic feelings, Solzhenitsyn bought a country estate outside the Russian capital, the former retreat of Stalinist henchman Lazar Kaganovich in the village of Troitse-Lykovo, and resumed a reclusive lifestyle that mirrored his years in Vermont.


He is survived by his wife and three sons.