I read for pleasure, so I have read only one book by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn: One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich. But I remember how highly regarded he was, winning the Nobel Prize in 1970 and becoming more famous after The Gulag Archipelago came out in the late 70s. All his books including Cancer Ward and First Circle were widely read in my hometown, Calcutta (Kolkata), and written about in the local newspaper, The Statesman, in those days. The fact that there was a strong communist presence in Calcutta gave his books a certain edge.
I have been reading the obituaries following his death at the age of 89 yesterday. The Times obit, beautifully written, starts with his first book, One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich, published in 1962. The Times recalls:
“Solzhenitsyn’s words burn like acid,” said The New York Times when the English translation appeared a year later.
The Associated Press has a report full of quotes from his books.
The Telegraph in a beautiful descriptive piece says:
He was also the Russian writer to achieve the best-seller lists in the West, and sold more than 30 million books in more than 30 languages.
Really? I thought Boris Pasternak was a bestseller too. Everybody saw Dr Zhivago.
The Telegraph describes Solzhenitsyn’s larger-than-life persona:
loose-limbed figure, with an awesome Old Testament visage and booming voice,
he was a fundamentally serious, ascetic individual, even something of a
masochist, who distinguished himself, even among his long-suffering
compatriots, with his capacity for enduring emotional and physical pain.
But Solzhenitsyn, though he was admired in the West, did not like Western culture and returned to Russia after the fall of the communists, who had deported him in the 70s. A Telegraph article recalls about his exile in America:
From his new home in Vermont, he turned his pen to modern Western
culture, condemning it as spiritually vacant, weak and decadent.
He returned to Russia in 1994, settling in Moscow, where he continued to
He came to respect Putin and accepted honours from him after refusing to be honoured by Boris Yeltsin, whom he openly criticised for mismanagement, reminds the Chicago Tribune.
The New York Times says:
Solzhenitsyn’s unflinching accounts of torment and survival in the Soviet Union’s slave labor camps riveted his countrymen, whose secret history he exposed. They earned him 20 years of bitter exile, but international renown.
And they inspired millions, perhaps, with the knowledge that one person’s courage and integrity could, in the end, defeat the totalitarian machinery of an empire.
Is totalitarianism really dead?