Solzhenitsyn the great survivor will live on as truly great writer

 

The man who exposed Stalin's horrors outlived his time, turning from a prophet into a zealot, writes EILEEN BATTERSBY

HAD HE died about 30 years ago, instead of living on until Sunday to die of heart failure at 89, the 1970 Nobel Prize for Literature laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn would have been remembered as a hero, a prophet and, above all, a great writer in a country of great writers.

But he made one mistake - he survived.

Not only did he survive the second World War, Stalin's death camps and stomach cancer, Solzhenitsyn, the author of more than 20 books, who went into exile, initially to Switzerland, and then on to the US where he remained for 17 years, survived communism.

His was not an exile of glamour. By the time Solzhenitsyn had settled in Vermont where his household lived in a high security compound of sorts, surrounded by a high wooden fence, the West had already discovered a far more attractive Russian dissident, Joseph Brodsky, who was possessed of a swagger, an anger he could use to theatrical effect and a willingness to play to the gallery. Aside from all of that Brodsky was only 55, he favoured highly Americanised English, whereas Solzhenitsyn's was formal. Above all, he repeatedly attacked liberalism. His years in the West saw the one-time prophet become a zealot.

Yes, Solzhenitsyn was very different from Brodsky; he was reclusive, taciturn, an ex-soldier and detached since childhood, his father having died before he was born. It was his fate. His soldier father, having survived the Great War, then died in a hunting accident - some suggested it was suicide.

Whatever the truth, the future writer was born in the shadow of a family tragedy and was left with relatives while his mother went to work in a nearby town. He was also born into revolution; his birth in Rostov on Don in 1918 coincided with a time of global upheaval. For Russia it was cataclysmic. Tsarist Russia died in a bloodbath and Communist Russia was born into another.

The young Sanya was clever and secured a first-class degree in maths and physics while also pursuing his interest in the arts, particularly literature, and he completed a correspondence course. Then he was called up. Already something of an intellectual, he proved an arrogant soldier, serving as a gunner and later an artillery officer. He was twice decorated and was the commander of his battalion. He was soon a captain. But he made a mistake; when writing a letter to a friend, he made "derogatory" comments about Stalin. The irony was cruel. Having served his country well, he was then arrested as an enemy of the people in early 1945. His sentence seemed mild enough - only eight years - but those eight years were spent in the hell of the labour camps, initially in general camps in the Arctic Circle where the political prisoners lived alongside criminals, and later in the harsher conditions of Beria's "special" camps for long-term prisoners.

His experiences in the camps inspired his masterful first book, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, first published in Novy Mir, a literary journal, in 1962. It was the book that would make his name, and for many, it remains his finest artistic achievement. It is written with a bleak lyricism that is both heartrending and also, at times, deeply witty. It is his most human book. For those who doubt him as an artist they need only read this book and experience life in the camp through the thoughts of Shukhov, who survives the biting cold and the hunger.

He had been released from the camp in 1951 but then had another battle to face, cancer. This experience would later inspire Cancer Ward(1967). With The First Circle, published in 1968, Solzhenitsyn proved that he was privy to the literary power that had dominated the 19th-century Russian novel.

Yet all the while Solzhenitsyn the artist was being pushed aside by Solzhenitsyn the campaigner. He set out to expose the horrors of the Soviet system. He began his monumental work, The Gulag Archipelago, a history of the political oppression and personal suffering that destroyed millions. It is a three-volume labour of courage. In 1967 he revised and retyped the entire text which runs to more than 1,500 pages. At that time he did have some support within Russia, also he could draw on the influence of Pasternak's legacy. The international success of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovichhad made him famous. It was a useful shield - he did not disappear, he was merely quietly deported.

There is no disputing his contribution towards the collapse of communism - he exposed the system. He had also demolished the myth of Lenin with his boldly ironic Lenin in Zurich, which was first published in Paris in 1975. By then he had already been honoured with the Nobel Prize, although he had not been able to accept it in person in 1970. His books were being read all over the world and he was grimly devoting himself to the story of Russia. The witness, the writer, had become an historian. The Gulag Archipelagois the defining study of the horrors communism inflicted on Russia. Unfortunately, unfairly for Solzhenitsyn, a shift occurred. He outlived his usefulness. No longer a prophet, he would be dismissed as a polemicist and a crank.

In addition to survival, his love of Russia proved another mistake. After the fall of communism, he decided to return home. By then his country had changed beyond recognition. Most Russians when asked to name great Russian writers rarely included him in the roll of honour. His homecoming in 1994 had none of the expected triumph. Indifference, not affection, met him. His books were dismissed as boring and his Russian was considered ugly and graceless.

The British writer Michael Scammell wrote a detailed and near definitive biography in 1985. It is a good book, even including material on the writer's second marriage during which he first became a father at the late age of 52. Solzhenitsyn, who had never wanted children and effectively broke his first wife's heart because of this edict, eventually had three sons.

If his country lost interest in him as both a writer and a polemicist, the West has continued to take him seriously, although US opinion of him was damaged by his reclusiveness. In 1998, the maverick British writer DM Thomas, who has long held an interest in Russian history and literature and who has also translated many of the Russian poets, attempted an eccentric biography of Solzhenitsyn, focusing on his personal life, his ego and his vanity.

As a schoolgirl I remember reading the three volumes of The Gulag Archipelagoback to back and wondered at the cruelty of humankind and also the endurance. In an interview with me in 2006, the British novelist Martin Amis attributed Solzhenitsyn with opening his eyes and inspiring his novel, House of Meetings.

Yes, the strange, remote, determined Alexander Solzhenitsyn did outlive his time; the country he tried to save turned its back on him with all the indifference of an ungrateful child. Yet his achievement remains and, for all the truths contained in his non-fiction and autobiographical writing, his fiction, Cancer Wardand The First Circleare compelling, important novels, while One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovichremains a masterpiece. The prophet may have been forgotten but the novelist will be remembered.