Truth Tellers: Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn

One of the most important writers of the 20th century, Solzhenitsyn revealed to the world the crimes of the Soviet system.
Truth Tellers: Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn with his family at the Zurich airport, in March 1974. Ignat is in his left arm. (Courtesy of Ignat Solzhenitsyn)
Raymond Beegle

“How easy for me to live with You, O Lord! How easy for me to believe in You!” The believer Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn had every reason not to believe: poverty in childhood, the front lines in Hitler’s war, arrest, torture, imprisonment, hard labor, cancer, persecution, and humiliation. All these were the birth pains of his faith and the catalyst of his great literary works.

He was born on Dec. 11, 1918, in Northwest Russia, and was raised in the Russian Orthodox religion, a crime in the Soviet state. Government schooling and a science degree fashioned him into an atheist for a time, but only a time.

A gradual return to spiritual ways began during his trials in the Russian army and his arrest for slandering Stalin in a letter to a friend. The penalty was eight years in prison camps, virtually a death sentence by overwork and starvation.

The shadow—and the light—of these eight life-changing years fell upon his entire literary output. And although he wrote in a journalistic style he was, in truth, a poet and a prophet.

For every Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, there were scores of Soviets writers bowing to the Kremlin. Solzhenitsyn in 1975. (File photo/Library of Congress)
For every Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, there were scores of Soviets writers bowing to the Kremlin. Solzhenitsyn in 1975. (File photo/Library of Congress)

 ‘The Gulag Archipelago’

“The Gulag Archipelago,” his most important work, is a tale of cruelties inflicted on prisoners in the Soviet penal system. It is a masterpiece of reporting, but more significantly, it is a narrative of the struggle to come to terms with injustice and the desperate battle to stay alive.

Much has been written about the effects of brutality on the prisoners, how they were turned into beasts, but the few who were not seem to be passed by unnoticed. One thinks of the many pine cones falling to the ground in a forest, and the few that germinate and grow into stately trees. “I am not going to examine those countless cases of evil here. They are well known to everyone,” Solzhenitsyn wrote.

He observed that one inmate, who ardently preached that camp life can only corrupt, was not himself corrupted. He wouldn’t betray his fellow prisoners for an extra piece of bread or a shorter sentence. This man disproved his own claim. Most incorruptible were the truly religious people, “their self-confident procession through the camp—a sort of silent religious procession with invisible candles.”

His two most notable works of fiction are the novels “The First Circle” and “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” a synthesis of characters and events from his prison days.

‘The First Circle’

After years of starvation, carrying bricks, and building walls, the author was transferred to another kind of prison. This jail inspired his next book. “The First Circle” describes the lives and thoughts of hapless intellectuals convicted of crimes against the State and forced to use their technical knowledge to develop technologies to spy on private citizens.
Some preferred hard labor over bringing grief to others’ lives. It is a look into the hearts of these captive individuals—their human need for love, their immense loneliness, their regrets, and their fears. Love is powerful. It finds its way even under the closest scrutiny, even between the spies and the spied upon. Rostislav meets Clara and whispers to her, “You are all I need.”

‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’

If there were such a thing as lyric irony, it might be the tone of this short novel. Ivan Denisovich, a kindly, simple man, has been sentenced to a camp in the Soviet Gulag for being a spy. Although innocent, he faces 10 years of forced labor, building walls in brutal conditions where the cold often freezes the mortar before it can be applied to the bricks.
The entire camp lives by the rule “just stay alive one more day.” By the end of one of those days, Ivan managed to retain his health, his work was well paid, he managed a second ration for lunch, and he smuggled a scrap of metal past the guards to make into a useful tool. He finally lay down to sleep. “Nothing had spoiled the day and he was almost happy.”


“Throughout the years, not only was I convinced that I would never in my life see a line of mine in print, but I also did not dare read anything to even my closest friends,” Solzhenitsyn recalled. The political danger was too great.
God, life, fate, whatever name you choose, had different plans. In 1962, when Solzhenitsyn was 44, his book “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” appeared in the Russian journal “Novy Mir” (“New World”). It was nothing short of a miracle when, for a brief interval, Stalin’s crimes against his own people were exposed and the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev endorsed its publication. It was a sensational event, making the author an international celebrity overnight and the future recipient of a Nobel Prize.

Exile in the West

After this initial victory, Russia’s political climate abruptly changed. The new Soviet government tried—and failed—to assassinate him. He was slandered in the press, jeered by a deceived public, arrested, imprisoned, and finally flown to an unknown destination. Without his foreknowledge, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was exiled.
When the plane landed and the doors opened, he was met with applause and cheers! He was in the West, in Germany, and a free man. His final destination was Cavendish, Vermont, where, for 18 years, he assembled a lifetime of material that had been conceived, memorized, and seldom put to paper.

Harvard Address in 1978

Life in the West, with its abundance and wide-ranging freedoms, was astonishing to a man who had lived 55 years in the Soviet Union. His 1978 commencement address at Harvard University was a warning to the American people of the dangers of materialism and legalizing immorality in the name of freedom.

“I want to stress that it comes not from an adversary, but from a friend.” He saw that Americans had turned their backs on religion: “Is it true that man is above everything? Is there no Superior Spirit above him? A moral bankruptcy has weakened us. Society appears to have little defense against human decadence, the misuse of liberty for moral violence against young people, such as motion pictures full of pornography, crime, and horror. The human soul longs for things higher, warmer, and purer than those offered by today’s mass living habits, by TV stupor, and by intolerable music.”

The media is most accountable for this. “The press is more powerful than the president, the congress, or the judiciary community,” he said. The press has misled public opinion. “Americans have a right not to have their divine souls stuffed with gossip, nonsense, and vain talk.” With all our social reforms and political legislation we discover that our spiritual life, “our most precious possession,” has been taken from us.

Return to Russia in 1994

After the collapse of communism, Solzhenitsyn returned to Russia, flying from Vermont to Alaska and then to Siberia. He landed at Magadan, the center of the Gulag, from which he began a two-month train trip across Russia, holding dozens of small and large public meetings. He arrived in Moscow on July 21, 1994, where he had been given 10 acres of land nearby to build a house and live in peace.

Sometimes the conception, writing, and printing of his works covered decades. Because a written remark about the government could deliver him to prison or the firing squad, some of his works lived only in his mind and memory for years. Now that he was free, he completed earlier works and began writing short stories and memoirs. “The Oak and the Calf,” “Between Two Millstones,” and “Invisible Allies” relate his earlier struggles with the government, his life in exile, and the help of many kind, brave people who hid and smuggled manuscripts during difficult times.

He also continued his lifetime project “The Red Wheel,” which he first conceived of during the 1930s. It was intended to be a series of novels covering the years 1914 through 1922, but was left incomplete, ending with “March, 1917.” This epic series is a mixture of historical fact, autobiography, fiction, and philosophy—an overview in the manner of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.”

A monument to Solzhenitsyn on the Korabelnaya embankment in Vladivostok, Russia. (Lia Koltyrina/Shutterstock)
A monument to Solzhenitsyn on the Korabelnaya embankment in Vladivostok, Russia. (Lia Koltyrina/Shutterstock)

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn—poet and prophet—led a stupendous life. “I look back in wonder,” he writes, “at the path which I alone could never have found, a wondrous path through despair to this point from which I, too, could transmit to mankind a reflection of Your rays.”

We, in our own way, are called to do the same.
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Raymond Beegle has performed as a collaborative pianist in the major concert halls of the United States, Europe, and South America; has written for The Opera Quarterly, Classical Voice, Fanfare Magazine, Classic Record Collector (UK), and The New York Observer. Beegle has served on the faculty of the State University of New York–Stony Brook, the Music Academy of the West, and the American Institute of Musical Studies in Graz, Austria. He has taught in the chamber music division of the Manhattan School of Music for the past 28 years.
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