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When Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was a mere ten years of age, he launched the literary career that he was to pursue for the rest of his life. It was at this time that the precocious lad established a handwritten journal extravagantly titled The Twentieth Century, with the equally vaulting phrase "On the Meaning of the Twentieth Century" as the subtitle. The earliest actual products of his juvenile pen, however-illustrations and jokes intermingled with verse, science fiction, and a serialized story about pirates-fell well short of fulfilling the grand design suggested by these titles. More than four decades later, the author himself summed up the beginnings of his career thus: "From childhood on I experienced an entirely unprompted inclination toward writing and produced a great deal of the usual adolescent nonsense." But it was not very long before his choice of subject matter started to catch up with the high ambition that framed his boyish exercises. As his eighteenth birthday approached, Solzhenitsyn, by then an ardent convert to Marxism, set himself the goal of describing afresh the Russian Revolution and its glorious meaning for the world. His innate creative drive had become focused and channeled into a sense of mission. Before another decade had passed, however, Solzhenitsyncame to reject utterly the utopian dreams that had so captivated him in his youth, since the Soviet experiment had by then revealed itself as a murderous sham that was evil in its very design. Yet despite this radical turnaround in his views, he continued to look upon the Russian Revolution as the key turning point in modern history, one that cried out for the intense study conceived in his adolescence. So immense did this project prove to be that it absorbed a large proportion of the writer's time even after he had reached the pinnacle of worldwide fame. When he was finished, in 1991, this epic cycle bore the title The Red Wheel and ran to more than six thousand pages.
It was life itself that had led to the sea change in Solzhenitsyn's outlook. His experience of arrest, prison, and labor camp had exposed the harsh truth behind the façade of Soviet life and had driven the aspiring author to turn his new knowledge into literary form. Addressing these contemporary realities distracted him from executing his chef d'oeuvre, but he followed the dictates of what he understood to be his duty to his fellow prisoners. The works of fiction that emerged as a result became the most compelling depictions of this information that readers the world over had ever been granted. Nadezhda Mandelstam has written that no work she has read compares to One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in its ability to convey the brutal reality of the camps.
Of all the fascinating life stories produced by the turbulent twentieth century, Solzhenitsyn's was surely one of the most sensational. In Soviet terms, such a life should never have happened. By sheer independence of mind, Solzhenitsyn had wandered off the officially sanctioned trail and gone his own way, thinking his own thoughts. What is more, he had turned into a sworn foe of the Soviet state and engaged it in direct conflict in a series of confrontations, each of which has a highly dramatic plot. Indeed, there is a sense in which Solzhenitsyn's life resembles a work of art. Because autobiographical elements provide the foundation of many of his literary products, however, it is better to think of his life and his art as forming a seamless web; neither his life nor his art can be properly understood without reference to the other.
Solzhenitsyn has revealed that in 1985-86 he set down an autobiographical narrative encompassing his life up to the moment of exile; this text remains unpublished, but even without it there is no paucity of autobiographical information. The biographical narrative related in the present chapter comprises three parts: Solzhenitsyn's life in the USSR, his life in exile (both in Switzerland and in the USA), and his life back in post-Soviet Russia. The first part draws as much as possible upon those works which are assumed to be largely autobiographical in character. The overall picture that emerges is one which, in significant ways, happens to parallel the life of the Russian nation. David Remnick has come to the same conclusion, calling Solzhenitsyn "a Russian whose destiny is singular and, at the same time, nearly identical to Russia's."
Russia entered the twentieth century with a thousand-year history rich with religious tradition; it endured a seventy-four-year subordination to an ideologically driven totalitarian regime; and it emerged from that parenthesis of radical dislocation trying to renew its ancient heritage and reinvigorate its society. As a child, Solzhenitsyn was reared in the ways of Russian Orthodoxy; he became a self-professed Communist in his teenage years, but eventually moved on to reclaim his birthright and to search for a better future for himself and for his nation. It is rare for a writer to identify with his nation as closely and as fully as Solzhenitsyn has done. His people's story is what he mainly writes about; it is also his story. His enormous literary corpus could be fairly summarized as an exposition and analysis of the Soviet experiment upon the Russian people. Furthermore, to the extent that totalitarianism, which first waxed and then waned in the twentieth century, gives that century its distinctive character and coloration, the story of Russia during Solzhenitsyn's lifetime is paradigmatic for an entire epoch.
Life in the Soviet Union
Aleksandr Isaevich Solzhenitsyn was born on December 11, 1918, in Kislovodsk, a resort town in the northern foothills of the Caucasus mountain range. This region of southern Russia was ravaged by the civil war that broke out in the wake of the revolution, and Solzhenitsyn's earliest memory dates from when he was probably three years old and still in Kislovodsk. He remembers being in the church of St. Pantaleimon and seeing the service disrupted by Red Army soldiers who entered the sanctuary in order to seize items of commercial value. (The new regime was aggressively pursuing an anti-religious campaign which then included an ostentatiously brutal confiscation of church property.) The growing boy stored up this and many other vivid impressions of Bolshevik power, but only many years later could he appreciate their significance.
Both parents of the future writer were of peasant stock but had received university educations. Isaakii Semyonovich Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr's father, enlisted in the army in 1914 during Russia's preparations for war. He served as an artillery officer during World War I and was decorated for heroism. Demobilized and newly married, he died as a result of a hunting mishap, mortally wounded by an accidental discharge of his own shotgun. Aleksandr, his only child, was born six months after Isaakii's death. The mother, née Taissia Zakharovna Shcherbak, was the daughter of a Ukrainian farmer who, though uneducated, became prosperous by dint of his shrewdness and industriousness. This self-made man, much admired by his young grandson, saw his hard-won, extensive holdings expropriated by the new regime. Taissia, barely married and already a widow with a baby on the way, was embarking on a life for which a girlhood in a family of means had not prepared her. She initially took refuge in the home of her older sister, Maria, and Aleksandr spent his first six years living with this aunt in Kislovodsk. The routines of these years were those of a traditional Russian household, including prayers before an icon and attendance of church services, though the boy's mother was not particularly religious. When Taissia went to Rostov-on-Don to look for work as a stenographer, she left her young son in the care of members of her extended family. Her parents took on primary responsibility for little Aleksandr, aided by Taissia's sister Maria and her sister-in-law Irina Shcherbak, wife of Taissia's elder brother, Roman. Aleksandr's summers were spent with his grandparents in 1925 and 1926 and with Aunt Irina in 1927 and 1928. Irina was a spirited young woman with substantial literary interests and deep religious convictions. She made a strong impression on the boy, planting in him the seeds of a love for the Russian classics as well as a sympathetic appreciation for Russian Orthodoxy; in retrospect she appears to have been the strongest childhood influence on the future author.
At the time Aleksandr joined his lonely mother in Rostov, a policy of discrimination against relatives of former officers and landowners was keeping her from finding steady employment. She bounced from one temporary job to another, eking out paltry earnings sufficient only for subsistence living. Virtually destitute, mother and son lived for the next ten years in a ramshackle structure, within which their living space measured twelve by nine feet and lacked plumbing. Solzhenitsyn later summarized his abiding impression of his childhood in one word: "hardships." Until he was forty, he said, he "knew nothing but a kind of dignified destitution." Without a house to call home, he knew only hovels that could not keep out the cold, inadequate fuel to keep warm, and a shortfall of food, despite living in the commercial hub of an agricultural area rich in natural resources. A pair of shoes or an article of clothing had to last for years. Once he sat on a chair with wet ink on it; being unable to wash out the stain, for the next two years he had to wear trousers with an ink spot on their seat.
Solzhenitsyn was an excellent student from the start; among his school subjects were German and English, though more for reading than for speaking. From his Aunt Irina's well-stocked personal library the avid young reader consumed Russian literary classics, as well as works by foreign authors such as Shakespeare, Dickens, and Russians' perennial favorite, Jack London. Irina also presented him with his own copy of Vladimir Dahl's collection of Russian proverbs, a book that he came to treasure greatly.
Solzhenitsyn's youth was passed living among people who were viewed by the Bolsheviks as potential enemies, and whose attitude toward the regime was a mixture of fear and alienation. Solzhenitsyn knew this attitude firsthand. Beyond the deprivations that he and his mother endured together and the dispossession of his maternal grandfather, every day on his way home from school the Rostov boy saw a line of women standing outside the headquarters of the GPU, each one hoping for permission to deliver a parcel to her imprisoned loved one. He also witnessed prisoners being marched through the city's streets by guards who threatened to open fire for a single step out of line. Yet despite such evidence of Bolshevik iniquity he was being ineluctably drawn into Soviet patterns of thinking. At age twelve he joined the Young Pioneers, the Communist Party's organization for children. He had actually hesitated over the decision to enroll because, when he was ten, some Young Pioneers had ripped off the cross he habitually wore around his neck; yet join he did, peer pressure to conform winning out over his precocious sense of independence. (Five years later he took the next step, successfully applying for membership in the Komsomol.) The youth's budding new loyalties troubled his family, especially his maternal grandfather. Subsequent events, however, stoked some misgivings. For example, when, upon the death of her mother, Taissia arranged for memorial services to be sung at Rostov Cathedral and asked Aleksandr to accompany her to church, the boy was unsettled by the public reprimand from his school's headmaster for attending the services.
By Solzhenitsyn's own account, during this time his Christian rearing was severely challenged by the Soviet education he was experiencing every day, with Communist ideological indoctrination emerging as the winner. As he put it, "This force field of Marxism, as developed in the Soviet Union, has such an impact that it gets into the brain of the young man and little by little takes over." By age seventeen or eighteen, he reports, "I did change internally, and from that time, I became a Marxist, a Leninist, and believed in all these things." Conforming to the ideological verities promoted by the regime inevitably entailed rejecting or repressing the religious and patriotic values of his early rearing. The Communists' proclaimed goal of social justice appealed to him, and he also happened to be at an age that was a special target of Soviet propaganda, since the regime was particularly eager to recruit the so-called "October children"-those born during or just after the revolution and who thus were the first wholly Soviet generation. These youths were expected to become the "new Soviet men," to whom would fall the glorious generational mission to move beyond the revolution itself and begin actualizing the radiant future promised by Marxista. As Solzhenitsyn later described this turning point, "The Party had become our father, and we-the children-obeyed. So, when I was leaving school and embarking on my time at university, I made a choice: I banished all my memories, all my childhood misgivings. I was a Communist. The world would be what we made of it." Solzhenitsyn differed from many others among his age cohort in that he did seem to harbor early suspicions about Stalin. And he held back, as if by some inner prompting, when pressure was put on his generation's best and brightest to pursue careers in the security agencies, a surefire ticket to good pay, high status, and accompanying privileges. Yet in all other respects, he became a young Soviet man of his time, a self-labeled Communist.
In 1934, Taissia, who had never remarried, and her son finally found better housing: they moved into a converted stable divided into two rooms, a lodging drier and warmer than their previous quarters. Taissia's work situation also improved somewhat; her excellence as a stenographer earned her evening jobs taking notes at official conferences. At the same time, however, her health took a turn for the worse. She contracted tuberculosis in the early 1930s, her condition deteriorated as the straitened circumstances of years took their toll, and she would die prematurely in 1944. Meanwhile, it fell to her dutiful son to care for his ailing mother, even as he was trying to get out from under her sheltering wing.
Though studious, Aleksandr was far from standoffish, and he formed enduring friendships with other bright young people. His closest friend, from age nine on, was Nikolai Vitkevich, also literarily inclined. With Nikolai and some other good friends, he undertook lengthy bicycle trips during summer vacations, on one occasion going to the republic of Georgia. He kept a journal during these expeditions, writing up his impressions, including nature descriptions.
The Road, an autobiographical poem of some seven thousand lines composed in 1947-52 but not published-except for one chapter-until 1999, contains much information about Solzhenitsyn's early years. In it he recounts a number of memorable episodes from the chaotic postrevolutionary time of civil unrest. Some of these hit close to home, as when the narrator witnesses the authorities harass his mother and visiting grandfather and, later, arrest a friend's father. Yet the omnipresent Soviet propaganda blinds the young observer to the implications of such acts of brutal caprice. The same incomprehension grips the autobiographical protagonist and a similarly indoctrinated friend-based on Nikolai Vitkevich-as they enjoy a leisurely boat ride down the Volga River. They come upon throngs of cowed prisoners. They hear of the terrible human costs of collectivization. But despite abundant evidence of a similarly troubling nature, the Sovietized idealism of the pair keeps them from drawing the appropriate conclusions.
With his heart set on being a writer, Solzhenitsyn wished to pursue literary studies at a Moscow-based university. But because he needed to stay close to his ailing mother, he matriculated in 1936 in a standard five-year curriculum at Rostov University, an institution that then lacked a literary program. He majored, instead, in mathematics and physics. This course of study, though Solzhenitsyn's second choice at the time, would later seem to him providential. For when he was imprisoned, it was his diploma in science that allowed him to transfer out of a labor camp and into a less harsh prison institution devoted to technical work. Solzhenitsyn was a superior university student; his excellent academic record was matched by his energetic involvement in such extracurricular activities as editing the student newspaper. And he found a way to nurture his literary interests while proceeding with his studies of math and science by registering in 1939 for a correspondence course in literature offered by the prestigious Moscow Institute of Philosophy, Literature, and History (MIFLI). Also while at the university, he met and courted Natalia Reshetovskaya, a chemistry major with strong musical interests. They were married in 1940.
Excerpted from THE SOUL AND BARBED WIRE by Edward E. Ericson, Jr. Alexis Klimoff
Copyright © 2008 by ISI Books. Excerpted by permission.
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Early Works 69
The First Circle 82
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich 92
Matryona's Home 95
Incident at Krechetovka Station 98
What a Pity 100
Cancer Ward 102
The Gulag Archipelago 106
Nobel Lecture 114
Lenin in Zurich 118
From under the Rubble 120
Letter to the Soviet Leaders 122
Harvard Address 125
The Oak and the Calf 127
The Mortal Danger 131
Templeton Lecture 133
Rebuilding Russia 135
Playing upon the Strings of Emptiness 137
We have ceased to see the Purpose 139
"The Russian Question" at the End of the Twentieth Century 141
The Little Grain 143
Invisible Allies 147
The Red Wheel 150
Two Hundred Years Together 163
Russia in Collapse 166
Short Stories of the 1990s 168
Literary Collection 172
Select Bibliography 267