Remembering Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: A Profile in Courage

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Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, 1974 (Public Domain) In 1970, the year I left home for college, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “for the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature.” If you’ve ever read his works, then you know the force with which he wrote. The Russian author was both in 1918, the year the “Great War” ended, a year after the Russian Revolution. In college he studied mathematics, which he later said saved his life while he was in the Gulag (the Soviet Union labor camp system). Again, later when he was free he taught math to support his family while continuing his work as a writer.

Though he had been writing since youth, he never publicly or privately shared what he was writing about because of the risk involved. It wasn’t until he was 42, after Stalin was dead and Khruschev was in power, that he dared to publish One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, compelled by a desire to share his thoughts as well as to obtain some affirmation of his literary value and efforts.

The following anecdote* illustrates the source of his reticence about sharing his work:

Nikita Khruschev was giving a speech that was quite critical of Stalin, and suddenly somebody hollered out from somewhere in the audience: “Why didn’t you say anything while he was alive??”

Khrushchev slammed his fist down on the podium and hollered, “WHO SAID THAT?”

The room was quiet.

“Now you know why I didn’t say anything while Stalin was alive.”

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During World War II, because of his knowledge of math, Solzhenitsyn served in an artillery-position-finding capacity until he was arrested in February 1945. The grounds for his arrest were some remarks in his private correspondence with a school friend. He was sentenced to eight years in the gulag labor camps. After four year he was moved to a special prison for engineers and mathematicians, which he states probably saved his life. During his imprisonment he also had a bout with cancer. Two of his greatest works — Cancer Ward and The Gulag Archipelago — were direct out growths of these catalytic experiences. After the publication of that first novella, he continued to write, but was ultimately expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974.

What follows are excerpts and quotes from the Nobel Prize winner’s writings and speeches.

You only have power over people so long as you don’t take everything away from them. But when you’ve robbed a man of everything he’s no longer in your power — he’s free again.The First Circle

For a country to have a great writer is like having a second government. That is why no regime has ever loved great writers, only minor ones. — The First Circle

I can say without affectation that I belong to the Russian convict world no less … than I do to Russian literature. I got my education there, and it will last forever.The Oak and the Calf

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Can a man who’s warm understand one who’s freezing? — One Day in the Life…

Beat a dog once and you only have to show him the whip. — One Day in the Life…

It is almost always impossible to evaluate at the time events which you have already experienced, and to understand their meaning with the guidance of their effects. All the more unpredictable and surprising to us will be the course of future events. — Autobiographical sketch,

Harvard’s motto is “Veritas.” Many of you have already found out and others will find out in the course of their lives that truth eludes us if we do not concentrate with total attention on its pursuit. And even while it eludes us, the illusion still lingers of knowing it and leads to many misunderstandings. Also, truth is seldom pleasant; it is almost invariably bitter. There is some bitterness in my speech today, too. But I want to stress that it comes not from an adversary but from a friend.Harvard University address, 1978

Without any censorship, in the West fashionable trends of thought and ideas are carefully separated from those which are not fashionable; nothing is forbidden, but what is not fashionable will hardly ever find its way into periodicals or books or be heard in colleges. Legally your researchers are free, but they are conditioned by the fashion of the day. There is no open violence such as in the East; however, a selection dictated by fashion and the need to match mass standards frequently prevent independent-minded people from giving their contribution to public life. There is a dangerous tendency to form a herd, shutting off successful development. — Harvard University speech

Should someone ask me whether I would indicate the West such as it is today as a model to my country, frankly I would have to answer negatively. No, I could not recommend your society in its present state as an ideal for the transformation of ours.Harvard University speech

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was an awakened mind fashioned by his times. He dedicated his life to sharing he wisdom and insights revealed to him. His voice ought not be soon forgotten.

Related Links

The Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Literature Prize
Solzhenitsyn’s Indictment of the West Still Stands
Bio of Solzhenitsyn at the Nobel Prize Website

* Source: Lloyd Wagner, co-author of And There Shall Be Wars.

Originally published at on March 17, 2019.

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An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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