Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn (11 December 1918 – 3 August 2008) was a Russian author, activist, and philosopher best known as the author of The Gulag Archipelago, a book criticizing Stalinism. It resulted in him being banned from the Soviet Union in 1974 and brought him world fame.
His father was of Russian descent and his mother was of Ukrainian descent. He served in the Red Army during World War II, and he was arrested in 1945 for criticizing Josef Stalin in personal letters. He was sentenced to eight years in The Gulag. In the more liberal climate of Khrushchev's rule, he was allowed to publish a novel inspired by his experiences, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. The book was the first major account in the USSR of Stalinist repression and caused a sensation both at home and in the West.
After Khrushchev was deposed in 1964, culture in the Soviet Union became more repressive. Solzhenitsyn continued to work secretly on his comprehensive account on the gulags, The Gulag Archipelago. He would memorise a lot of his works in case the drafts were seized by the KGB. The seizure of The Gulag Archipelago (and suicide of the person who had it in her possession as a result of her arrest) forced him into early publication in the West. After this, he was exiled from the Soviet Union in 1974. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970, although he didn't collect it until 1974.
After his expulsion, Solzhenitsyn emigrated to the United States, where he lived in the small village of Cavendish in Vermont. He returned to Russia in 1994 and lived there until his death.
His career contains several striking comparisons to that of Fyodor Dostoevsky, particularly his embrace of Christianity after imprisonment in Siberia. He's a highly controversial figure among Russian nationalists: many of them denounce him as one of the architects of the Soviet collapse and a "traitor and liar" (helped by the fact that his name is based on the word stem "to lie"), but many sympathize with his conservative political views. To put it simply, the man was just as enamored with Tsarism as he was hateful of Communism. Solzhenitsyn was equally critical of the Boris Yeltsin government's unchecked crony capitalism and mass privatization, which he, like many Russians, blamed for Russia's economic and demographics collapse during that era, and famously refused a presidential honor from Yeltsin. Prior to his death however, he voiced admiration for Vladimir Putin, who he claimed made the nation "rediscover what it was to be Russian".
In the West criticism usually focuses on his antisemitism, his critique of "democracy" (which he claimed led to the rise of the Russian oligarchs), and his romanticized and simplistic view of Russia's past. He voiced some controversial statements defending the The Vietnam War and Francisco Franco, the latter which he viewed as the Lesser of Two Evils compared to the USSR. He was also very distrustful of the democratic, free-market Western "model" and denounced what he saw as the "decadence" of American liberalism, which he wanted Russia not follow.
His most famous works are:
- One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich- The first major account in the USSR of Stalinist repression.
- The First Circle
- The Gulag Archipelago — Major account of the Soviet gulag system. This one got him kicked out of the Soviet Union. The original Russian title is a rhyme, Arkhipelag GULag. Its impact on global politics was huge — the previously accepted view that Stalin was an aberration from Lenin's vision became seriously questionable.
- Cancer Ward — Life in a Cancer Ward in Soviet
- "The Red Wheel" - A series of historical fiction novels recounting the downfall of Tsarist Russia
- August 1914 — The first novel in the series. Mostly revolves around the Battle of Tannenberg, with various other subplots.
- The Decline of Courage aka the 1978 Harvard Commencement Address. It was the first time he clearly expressed his view that the Communist East and the "democratic/free market" West were not so different, with the latter being less Obviously Evil, but with the potential to be just as dehumanizing, simply preferring the worship of Money to the ruthless enforcement of the Communist ideology.
- Rebuilding Russia - An essay written just before the collapse of the USSR, where Solzhenitsyn presents his idealized view of a new Russia. He called for the non-Slavic constituent republics to leave, but advocated a union of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine, the latter two of which he viewed as "artificial creations", which earned him few friends among nationalists there.
- Two Hundred Years Together - A historical essay on the Jews in Russia. It attracted controversy on publication in 2002 due to claims which many historians view as antisemitic.
Provides examples of:
- Colbert Bump: Already a well-known author, but it can be assumed that many of the younger generations know about him from the lectures of psychologist Jordan Peterson.
- The Gulag: Was forced to work there for many years and the hardships inspired him to write several novels about his experiences.
- Missing Episode: The first two novels of the Red Wheel series, August 1914 and November 1916, were first translated into English in the mid-80s. For decades, these were the only two parts of the series available for English-speaking readers, due to publishers making the calculation that paying to have the massive work translated wasn't worth the comparatively meager profits the book would likely reap. Finally, in 2017, a 4-volume translation of the third book, March 1917, was announced by University of Notre Dame Press, reportedly funded by an anonymous donor. 3 of the 4 volumes appeared over the next several years, with the fourth one currently scheduled for release in October 2023. April 1917, the fourth and final novel in the series, is due to follow at a later date.
- My Country Tis of Thee That I Sting: The main reason he was banned from the USSR. He criticized the Soviet Union, though he also criticized Western capitalism and imperialism. On the other hand, he longed for the times of Tsarist Russia.
- Russian Guy Suffers Most: Solzhenitsyn argued that that the Russians (defined broadly to also include Ukrainians and Belorussians) suffered the most from Communist rule among the Soviet peoples. This position however put him at odds with nationalists from those countries.