One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich | Study Guide

Alexander Solzhenitsyn

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Alexander Solzhenitsyn | Biography


Education and Marriage

Alexander Solzhenitsyn was born on December 11, 1918, in Kislovodsk, one year after the Bolshevik Revolution, which led to the overthrow of the Russian government and the formation of the Soviet Union under communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin. His father had died during World War I, and Solzhenitsyn was brought up by his mother, who worked as a typist in the city of Rostov. Knowing from an early age he wanted to be a writer, Solzhenitsyn wanted to study in Moscow because the university in Rostov offered no writing courses. Yet he stayed with his ailing mother and studied mathematics at Rostov University where he met and married his first wife, Natalia Alekseevna Reshetovskaya in 1940. He was pleased to learn he had an aptitude for math, which, he says, "rescued him from death" later in his life. Indeed after his conviction for being anti-Soviet, he was permitted to teach math and physics, which served as a break from multiple terms served in labor camps. This work "eased his existence and made it possible for [him] to write." However, after being sent to the gulag (Soviet labor imprisonment camp), Solzhenitsyn divorced his first wife in 1952. They remarried in 1957 when Solzhenitsyn's exile was relaxed but divorced for a second and final time in 1972.

Arrest and Imprisonment

World War II (1939–45) broke out as Solzhenitsyn was graduating from university. In 1942 he trained as an artillery officer and commanded an artillery-position-finding company, serving in this capacity on the front lines until he was arrested by the Germans in East Prussia (near present-day Kaliningrad) in February 1945.

Solzhenitsyn was later arrested by the Soviets because of some oblique but disparaging remarks he'd written about Stalin in a letter to a friend. Bits of stories and other writings found in his soldier's map case served as evidence to "prove" his guilt as a purveyor of "anti-Soviet propaganda."

Solzhenitsyn spent the first part of his sentence working in several labor camps. In 1946 he was transferred to a scientific research institute where he could use his math skills to aid the Soviet Ministry for State Security. Then in 1950 he was sent to a camp for political prisoners in Kazakhstan, where he worked as a miner and bricklayer. While at this camp Solzhenitsyn was diagnosed with stomach cancer, which was treated with surgery.

A month after his sentence ended, Solzhenitsyn received another notification of "an administrative decision"; he was not to be released but instead was "exiled for life" to the town of Kok-Terek in Kazakhstan. There were no charges against him, no trial, and no evidence to justify the sentence. He remained in exile through 1953, when his cancer returned, even more virulent than before. He was allowed to see a specialist at a cancer clinic in Tashkent where, in 1954, his cancer was cured. Years later, in 1973 Solzhenitsyn married his second wife, also named Natalia. They had three sons, Yermolai, Ignat, and Stepan.

Secret Writings and the Thaw

Throughout his exile, Solzhenitsyn continued to write but kept his work secret, convinced he'd "never see a single line ... in print in [his] lifetime." He wrote continuously through 1961, occasionally showing his manuscripts to trusted friends. In 1956, at the 20th Congress of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), Nikita Khrushchev, First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, had denounced Stalin and his reign of terror. A cultural thaw gradually released the Russian people from some of the fear and repression of the Stalinist era. Then, at the 22nd Congress of the USSR in 1961, the thaw begun in 1956 melted further, and new literature became somewhat more acceptable to the regime.

In 1962, with Khrushchev's blessing, the official Soviet journal Novy Mir (New World) published One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. The novella caused a sensation in the Soviet Union and initiated a flood of prison camp literature and memoirs. Khrushchev was aghast at the avalanche of published exposés. The rest of Solzhenitsyn's work (such as Cancer Ward) was published in the USSR as samizdat, or underground manuscripts passed around from person to person without official approval. His famous work The Gulag Archipelago (1973), for example, appalled the Soviet censors when they found and read a copy of this monumental, unflinching, and excoriating exposé of the Soviet prison camp system. The book was widely translated, and it electrified—and outraged—Western readers. However, it also infuriated Soviet leaders.

International Recognition and the Nobel Prize

In 1970 Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature but was unable to accept his prize in Stockholm, Sweden because he feared he would not be allowed to return home. He did not actually receive his prize until 1974, after he was expelled from the Soviet Union.

By 1974 the Soviet authorities had had enough of Solzhenitsyn. Although he sincerely wanted to remain in his native country, Solzhenitsyn was exiled from Russia. He went first to Switzerland and then to the United States. He moved to Cavendish, Vermont, in 1976. He remained secluded in rural Vermont until after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. Despite his time in Switzerland and the United States, Solzhenitsyn was an outspoken critic of what he thought of as "decadent" Western culture, and he longed to return to his homeland after the end of the Soviet era.

Later Years at Home

In 1994, after communism and the Soviet state were defunct in Russia, Solzhenitsyn finally returned to his native country. Homecoming was not as joyous as he'd hoped. A true traditionalist, Solzhenitsyn was dismayed by the westernization and corruption of Russia and was viewed by many of those he criticized

as an anachronism and an eccentric. Russians largely ignored him. Yet in 1997 he funded a literature prize for Russian writers. In June 2007 President Vladimir Putin met Solzhenitsyn and conferred on him the State Prize of the Russian Federation. Solzhenitsyn's work, which also includes The First Circle (1968), Cancer Ward (1968), August 1914 (1971), and The Gulag Archipelago (1973), stand as a testament to an important period in Russian history. Solzhenitsyn died on August 3, 2008, in Moscow, Russia.

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