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Soviet Dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn Dead at 89

Last updated: February 12, 2023

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel Prize-winning Russian writer who revealed the horrors of the Soviet gulag, has died in Moscow of heart failure at the age of 89.

30-Second Summary

Solzhenitsyn’s role as a dissident began in 1945, when he was arrested while fighting in World War II, for criticizing Joseph Stalin in a letter. He was sentenced to eight years in exile in the wasteland of Central Russia.

It was at there that he witnessed the abuses of the Russian prison system firsthand.

His first novel, “A day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch,” appeared in Russian in 1962 and in English a year later. It was followed by two short stories published in book form.

He was expelled from the Soviet Writers’ Union in 1969 after he denounced state censorship. A year later he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, but refrained from traveling to Oslo to attend the award ceremony as he was afraid he wouldn’t be allowed to return to Russia.

The first parts of his most famous work, “The Gulag Archipelago,” an account of Russia’s labor camps, were published in Paris in December 1973, having been smuggled out of the country. A mixture of Solzhenitsyn’s personal experiences and the interviews he conducted with other prisoners during his time in exile—which he memorized while in the gulag—the book attracted tremendous attention in the West. It changed the way many people felt about the USSR.

On Feb. 12, 1974, seven KGB agents took Solzhenitsyn from his home in Moscow and transported him to Lefortovo Prison, “familiar to readers of Gulag as one of the most terrible of Russia’s prisons,” according to Time magazine.

There, he was strip-searched, interrogated for hours, and told he would face the death penalty. The next day Solzhenitsyn was flown to Frankfurt, Germany. A day later, the Soviet Union formally expelled him on charges of treason.

In 1976, Solzhenitsyn moved to the United States where he lived a life of privacy in Vermont.  He experienced a triumphant return to Russia in 1994, with a 56-day train trip across Russia to become reacquainted with his countrymen.   He lived in Russia through his death on August 3, 2008.

Speaking to German news magazine Der Spiegel last year, Solzhenitsyn reflected on how his country should confront its Soviet past: “We should clearly understand that only the voluntary and conscientious acceptance by a people of its guilt can ensure the healing of a nation. Unremitting reproaches from outside, on the other hand, are counterproductive.”

Headline Link: Solzhenitsyn Dead at 89

The Daily Telegraph, citing the Interfax news agency, reports that Solzenhitsyn died of heart failure at the age of 89. The newspaper traces his life from the days of the gulag, to his early writings, exile from the Soviet Union, triumphant return, and his final years in Russia, during which he established a mutual respect with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Source: The Daily Telegraph

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Biography: Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008)

Solzhenitsyn was born on Dec. 11, 1918. Although he always wanted to be a writer, for financial reasons he enrolled at the Faculty of Physics and Mathematics at Rostov University. Solzhenitsyn commanded a squadron during World War II, earnig the rank of captain. But he was arrested in 1945 for a letter critiquing Stalin. He spent four years at a Moscow prison before he was transferred to a labor camp in Kazakhstan. He developed cancer there, though treatment eventually cured it.

Source: Garant-InfoCentre

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Background: Solzhenitsyn Through the Years

A Feb. 25, 1974, article from Time tells the story of Solzhenitsyn’s exile from the Soviet Union. Solzhenitsyn was expelled and stripped of his citizenship because “The Gulag Archipelago” detailed the cruelty of the Russian gulags under Lenin and Stalin. According to Time, his book is about the present and future of the Soviet Union as much as the past: “Solzhenitsyn perceives that an entire nation has been debased by four decades of totalitarianism far more oppressive than Czarist authoritarianism.”

Source: Time

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German newsmagazine Der Spiegel published an interview with Solzhenitsyn from July 23, 2007. The author was 88-years-old. In reference to Soviet nostalgia, Solzhenitsyn said he hopes that “all the peoples who have lived through communism will understand that communism is to blame for the bitter pages of their history.”

Source: Der Spiegel

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In an interview with Moscow News Weekly, Solzhenitsyn reflected on the state of Russian affairs under Putin. Although he felt that the former KGB agent had made efforts to improve the condition of the people from the times of Gorbachev and Yeltsin, he maintained that  Russia “has yet to do much to overcome the heavy burden of the past.”

Source: Moscow News Weekly

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Author Zinovy Zinik praised Solzhenitsyn in a Times of London piece from March 2007: “what was even more impressive was the fact that Solzhenitsyn set their (and his own) prison camp experience in the context of the history of the country, its religion and ideology; he exposed the mechanism of state oppression from top to bottom, the overall complicity of the whole population in a criminal enterprise of dimensions that had until then been associated only with the Nazi regime.”

Source: The Times of London

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Related Topics: Solzhenitsyn in His Own Words

Nobel Prize speech

Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970. During his acceptance speech, the author commented on the great number of people whose voices were not heard because they were sent to the Soviet gulag. According to Solzhenitsyn, writers and artists are obligated to wage a war against the violence of the world. “Violence finds its only refuge in falsehood,” said Solzhenitsyn. “And no sooner will falsehood be dispersed than the nakedness of violence will be revealed in all its ugliness—and violence, decrepit, will fall.”


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Harvard Commencement

On June 8, 1978, Solzhenitsyn delivered Harvard University’s Commencement Address. After spending four years in the West, Solzhenitsyn felt it would be more useful to talk about the faults of the West than his Eastern home country. Solzhenitsyn said, “The persisting blindness of superiority continues to hold the belief that all the vast regions of our planet should develop and mature to the level of contemporary Western systems.” He went on to say that the Western world had lost its “civic courage.” The speech is available as an audio mp3 on the American Rhetoric Web site.

Source: American Rhetoric

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2007 Der Spiegel interview

Solvzhenitzyn gave an interview to German newsmagazine Der Spiegel in 2008. He offered the following comment when asked why he accepted an award from Putin when he had turned awards down from Gorbachev and Yeltsin: “Vladimir Putin—yes, he was an officer of the intelligence services, but he was not a KGB investigator, nor was he the head of a camp in the gulag. As for service in foreign intelligence, that is not a negative in any country—sometimes it even draws praise. George Bush Sr. was not much criticized for being the ex-head of the CIA, for example.”

Source: Der Spiegel

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