Monday, August 4, 2008

Aleksandr Solzhenitsy

"for the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature" ... Solzhenitsy was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature (1970).

He passed away today after years of declining health. I was introduced to him after reading his magnificient genius novel when I was still a student: One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich. The story is set in a Soviet labor camp in the 1950s, and describes a single day of an ordinary prisoner, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov. Encouraged by the loosening of government restraints on cultural life that was a hallmark of the de-Stalinizing policies of the early 1960s, Solzhenitsyn submitted his short novel Odin den iz zhizni Ivana Denisovicha (1962; One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich) to the leading Soviet literary periodical Novy Mir ("New World"). The novel quickly appeared in that journal's pages and met with immediate popularity, Solzhenitsyn becoming an instant celebrity. Ivan Denisovich, based on Solzhenitsyn's own experiences, described a typical day in the life of an inmate of a forced-labour camp during the Stalin era. The impression made on the public by the book's simple, direct language and by the obvious authority with which it treated the daily struggles and material hardships of camp life was magnified by its being one of the first Soviet literary works of the post-Stalin era to directly describe such a life. The book produced a political sensation both abroad and in the Soviet Union, where it inspired a number of other writers to produce accounts of their imprisonment under Stalin's regime.

Solzhenitsyn's period of official favour proved to be short-lived, however. Ideological strictures on cultural activity in the Soviet Union tightened with Nikita Khrushchev's fall from power in 1964, and Solzhenitsyn met first with increasing criticism and then with overt harassment from the authorities when he emerged as an eloquent opponent of repressive government policies.

In 1970 Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, but he declined to go to Stockholm to receive the prize for fear he would not be readmitted to the Soviet Union by the government upon his return.

In December 1973 the first parts of Arkhipelag Gulag (The Gulag Archipelago) were published in Paris after a copy of the manuscript had been seized in the Soviet Union by the KGB. (Gulag is an acronym formed from the official Soviet designation of its system of prisons and labour camps.) The Gulag Archipelago is Solzhenitsyn's attempt to compile a literary-historical record of the vast system of prisons and labour camps that came into being shortly after the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia (1917) and that underwent an enormous expansion during the rule of Stalin (1924-53). Various sections of the work describe the arrest, interrogation, conviction, transportation, and imprisonment of the Gulag's victims as practiced by Soviet authorities over four decades. The work mingles historical exposition and Solzhenitsyn's own autobiographical accounts with the voluminous personal testimony of other inmates that he collected and committed to memory during his imprisonment.

Upon publication of the first volume of The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn was immediately attacked in the Soviet press. Despite the intense interest in his fate that was shown in the West, he was arrested and charged with treason on Feb. 12, 1974. Solzhenitsyn was exiled from the Soviet Union on the following day, and in December he took possession of his Nobel Prize.

The introduction of glasnost ("openness") in the late 1980s brought renewed access to Solzhenitsyn's work in the Soviet Union. In 1989 the Soviet literary magazine Novy Mir published the first officially approved excerpts from The Gulag Archipelago. Other works were also published, and Solzhenitsyn's Soviet citizenship was officially restored in 1990. He ended his exile and returned to Russia in 1994.

On June 5, 2007, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree conferring the State Prize of the Russian Federation for the humanitarian work of Solzhenitsyn. President Putin personally visited the writer at his home on June 12, 2007, to give him the award.

In a 1978 Harvard address, he described the problems of both East and West as "a disaster" rooted in agnosticism and atheism. He referred to it as "the calamity of an autonomous, irreligious humanistic consciousness."

"It has made man the measure of all things on earth - an imperfect man, who is never free of pride, self-interest, envy, vanity, and dozens of other defects. We are now paying for the mistakes which were not properly appraised at the beginning of the journey. On the way from the Renaissance to our days we have enriched our experience, but we have lost the concept of a Supreme Complete Entity which used to restrain our passions and our irresponsibility."

1 comment:

saedah said...

Writers the likes of himself and my favourite writer, Pramoedya wrote for a genuine social cause with a strong sense of purpose and paid a heavy price for it. I salute such writers.