Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, RIP

(International Herald-Tribune) Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose stubborn, lonely and combative literary struggles gained the force of prophecy as he revealed the heavy afflictions of Soviet Communism in some of the most powerful works of fiction and history written in the 20th century, died late Sunday in Russia, his son Yermolai said early Monday in Moscow. He said the cause was a heart condition. He was 89.

He outlived by nearly 17 years the state and system he had battled through years of imprisonment, ostracism and exile.

Solzhenitsyn had been an obscure, middle-aged, unpublished high school science teacher in a provincial Russian town when he burst onto the literary stage in 1962 with “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.” The book, a mold-breaking novel about a prison camp inmate, was a sensation. Suddenly, he was being compared to giants of Russian literature like Tolstoy, Dostoyevski and Chekov.

Over the next four decades, Solzhenitsyn’s fame spread throughout the world as he drew upon his experiences of totalitarian duress to write evocative novels like “The First Circle” and “The Cancer Ward” and historical works like “The Gulag Archipelago.”

“Gulag” was a monumental account and analysis of the Soviet labor camp system, a chain of prisons that by Solzhenitsyn’s calculation some 60 million people had entered during the 20th century. The book led to his expulsion from his native land. George Kennan, the American diplomat, described it as “the greatest and most powerful single indictment of a political regime ever to be leveled in modern times.”

Solzhenitsyn was heir to a morally focused and often prophetic Russian literary tradition, and he looked the part. With his stern visage, lofty brow and full, Old Testament beard, he recalled Tolstoy while suggesting a modern-day Jeremiah, denouncing the evils of the Kremlin and later the mores of the West.

In almost half a century, more than 30 million of his books have been sold worldwide and translated into some 40 languages. In 1970 he was awarded the Nobel prize for literature.

Solzhenitsyn owed his initial success to the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s decision to allow “Ivan Denisovich” to be published in a popular journal. Khrushchev believed its publication would advance the liberal line he had promoted since his secret speech in 1956 on the crimes of Stalin.

Soon after the story appeared, however, Khrushchev was replaced by hard-liners, and they began a campaign to silence its author. They stopped publication of his new works, denounced him as “a hooligan” and “a traitor,” confiscated his manuscripts, and interrogated his friends.

But their iron grip could not contain Solzhenitsyn’s reach. By then his works were appearing outside the Soviet Union, in many languages, and he was being compared not only to Russia’s literary giants but also to Stalin’s literary victims, writers like Anna Akhmatova, Iosip Mandleshtam and Boris Pasternak.

At home, the Kremlin stepped up its campaign by expelling Solzhenitsyn from the Writer’s Union. He fought back. He succeeded in having microfilms of his banned manuscripts smuggled out of the Soviet Union. He addressed petitions to government organs, wrote open letters, rallied support among friends and artists, and corresponded with people abroad. They turned his struggles into one of the most celebrated cases of the cold war period.

Hundreds of well-known intellectuals signed petitions against his silencing; the names of left-leaning figures like Jean-Paul Sartre carried particular weight with Moscow. Other supporters included Graham Greene, Muriel Spark, W.H. Auden, Gunther Grass, Heinrich Boll, Yukio Mishima, Carlos Fuentes and, from the United States, Arthur Miller, John Updike, Truman Capote and Kurt Vonnegut. All joined a call for an international cultural boycott of the Soviet Union. By the late 1960s, Solzhenitsyn had become one of the most prominent and recognizable symbols of Soviet and Communist repression.

That position was confirmed when he was awarded the 1970 Nobel Prize in the face of Moscow’s protests. The Nobel jurists cited him for “the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature.”

Solzhenitsyn dared not travel to Stockholm to accept the prize for fear that the Soviet authorities would prevent him from returning. But his acceptance address was circulated widely. He recalled a time when “in the midst of exhausting prison camp relocations, marching in a column of prisoners in the gloom of bitterly cold evenings, with strings of camp lights glimmering through the darkness, we would often feel rising in our breast what we would have wanted to shout out to the whole world — if only the whole world could have heard us.”