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Alexander Isaevich Solzhenitsyn was born on December 11, 1918, in the Russian town of Kislovodsk, one year after the Communist revolution of 1917. During this revolution, the working classes led a successful revolt against the tsar of Russia, Nicholas II. Solzhenitsyn’s family, which hailed originally from the southern plains of Russia, was composed of intellectuals. His father was killed in an accident before Alexander’s birth, and this fatherless upbringing may help explain the absence of family figures in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Solzhenitsyn was a good student and eventually enrolled in the mathematics department of Rostov University. He was also interested in literature, however, and began taking correspondence courses in literature at Moscow State University, the largest and most prestigious university in the Soviet Union.
After university, Solzhenitsyn was inducted into the Soviet armed forces and saw active battle as a captain of artillery in World War II. His military career was cut short in 1945, however, when he was arrested for criticizing the harsh Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in a private letter. Solzhenitsyn was sentenced to eight years in various prisons and labor camps. These institutions were similar to the ones he describes in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and in his groundbreaking novel about the Soviet labor camp system, The Gulag Archipelago.
Rehabilitated in 1956 after the 1953 death of Stalin and the softening of the Soviet regime by Nikita Khrushchev, the first secretary of the Communist party, Solzhenitsyn was released and allowed to settle in Ryazan. There, he worked as a math teacher and began to write fiction. He became famous in 1962 with the publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in the leading Soviet literary journal of the time, Novy Mir (New World). A landmark event in the history of literature and politics in the Soviet Union, Solzhenitsyn’s work made the first public mention ever of forced collectivization of farms and of the existence of labor camps. The mere mention of them in print was unheard of at the time, and would have brought a life sentence to Solzhenitsyn ten years earlier. Instantaneously, he became a national and global celebrity.
Solzhenitsyn’s good fortune ended with the fall of Khrushchev in 1964. Khrushchev’s critics came out of hiding and began attacking former critics of Stalinism, including Solzhenitsyn. Eventually, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was denied further publication, and was forced into underground printings known as samizdat—photocopies and hand-written copies distributed from friend to friend. Solzhenitsyn continued writing, producing The First Circle in 1968, a novel about research scientists torn between obeying authority and pursuing truth. In the same year he also produced Cancer Ward, a novel based on his experience as a patient in a Soviet cancer hospital. In 1970, Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. He did not travel to Sweden to accept the prize, however, because he was afraid he would not be allowed back into the Soviet Union. He later claimed the prize after his emigration from the country.
Solzhenitsyn’s interest in historical subjects grew after this period. He published the first volume, August 1914, of what he planned to be a vast multivolume work about World War I, eventually to be called The Red Wheel. Later volumes in this series include October 1916, March 1917, and April 1917. The Red Wheel series focuses on the German victory in World War I over the Russian tsarist regime and examines the weaknesses of prerevolutionary Russian society. Solzhenitsyn also wrote about the Stalinist camp system, which had been in place since the early days of the Soviet Union but which Stalin vastly expanded. In December 1973, Solzhenitsyn published The Gulag Archipelago, a literary study of all aspects of the labor camps. The publication of this work caused him to be arrested for treason on February 12, 1974. He was stripped of Soviet citizenship and sent into exile. Solzhenitsyn eventually settled in Cavendish, Vermont, in 1975, where he raised his family. In 1980, he published a study of Soviet literature, translated into English as The Oak and the Calf.
In 1994, after the demise of the Soviet Union, Solzhenitsyn returned to his homeland, settling in St. Petersburg. There he became a vociferous critic of Western values, including the excessive emphasis on independence. Skeptical of democracy, he began to favor a compassionate authoritarian government based on Christian values. He greeted the presidency of late-1990s Russian leader Vladimir Putin with great optimism, but then retracted his support, criticizing Putin’s policies loudly. Solzhenitsyn continued to live in St. Petersburg and to write prolifically. He died of heart failure in 2008 at the age of 89.
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