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Obituary: Alexander Solzhenitsyn

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“He was one of the first to talk about the inhumane Stalinist regime and about the people who experienced it but were never broken.”
Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev

On August 3, at the age of 89, Alexander Solzhenitsyn died in his Moscow home. Although he hadn’t written anything of great substance in a decade, his death was front-page news all over the world.

When you’ve been pitched head-first into hell, you just write about it.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Solzhenitsyn’s life went hand in hand with the life of the Soviet Union. Born the year after the Russian Revolutions of 1917, he grew up in the long shadow of the Russian Civil War, and his family had perhaps the definitive rural Russian experience when their family owned farm was seized by the government and converted into a collective farm.

After university, World War II led Solzhenitsyn to the Russian Army, where he received two medals for bravery and rose to become a unit commander. But in 1945 he was arrested for insulting Stalin in a letter to a friend; his punishment was imprisonment in a labour camp followed by permanent internal exile. So, after eight years in prison camps in Kazakhstan he was exiled in the same country. However, by this stage he had developed cancer throughout much of his body, and was ‘permitted’ to receive treatment at Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Finally, after 11 years away, he regained both the strength and the permission to return home.

He was one of the greatest consciences of 20th-century Russia.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy

Throughout his career, Solzhenitsyn was unrelenting in his criticism of the USSR. His first major work, One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich, brought Soviet prison labour to international attention, but it caused as great a reaction in the Soviet Union as it did in the West. His three-volume work The Gulag Archipelago was a monumental, damning account of the Soviet prison camp system, based on the testimony of over 200 former prisoners, and directly attacking Lenin, who was still deified in the USSR. However, he also decried what he saw at the crass consumerism and “spiritual vapidity” of the West – much to the disappointment of those who sought to use him as anti-Soviet, pro-Western propaganda at the height of the Cold War.

So why give his obituary pride of place in a publication for Sydney University students? To answer that we turn to Dr. Peter Marks of our own English department.

“When you come to look at major writers in the Soviet Union/Russia in the 20th century, you can’t ignore Solzhenitsyn. He creates a narrative that’s difficult to ignore, but even if you want to you can’t not read it. You have to read it, even to destroy it, but you can’t ignore it…And it’s very rarely that a regime – especially the second-largest regime in the world – will be fearful of a writer and the text that they have produced, are producing, or which might come out. So that’s the way that, for me at least, Solzhenitsyn appears – as a substantial and subversive figure, and a danger to an empire.”

Solzhenitsyn had many flaws. But he was fierce and unrelenting in his pursuit of truth, and in his desire to restore Russia to the greatness he knew it deserved. For university students agonising about careers, seeking to make a difference doing what they love, Solzhenitsyn serves as a powerful example of perseverance and fighting for your beliefs.

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