He wrote that while an ordinary man was obliged “not to participate in lies,” artists had greater responsibilities. “It is within the power of writers and artists to do much more: to defeat the lie!”...
Many in the West did not know what to make of the man. He was perceived as a great writer and hero who had defied the Russian authorities. Yet he seemed willing to lash out at everyone else as well — democrats, secularists, capitalists, liberals and consumers.
David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, who has written extensively about the Soviet Union and visited Mr. Solzhenitsyn, wrote in 2001: “In terms of the effect he has had on history, Solzhenitsyn is the dominant writer of the 20th century. Who else compares? Orwell? Koestler? And yet when his name comes up now, it is more often than not as a freak, a monarchist, an anti-Semite, a crank, a has been.”
In the 1970s, Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger warned President Gerald R. Ford to avoid seeing Mr. Solzhenitsyn. “Solzhenitsyn is a notable writer, but his political views are an embarrassment even to his fellow dissidents,” Mr. Kissinger wrote in a memo. “Not only would a meeting with the president offend the Soviets, but it would raise some controversy about Solzhenitsyn’s views of the United States and its allies.” Mr. Ford followed the advice.
The writer Susan Sontag recalled a conversation about Mr. Solzhenitsyn between her and Joseph Brodsky, the Russian poet who had followed Mr. Solzhenitsyn into forced exile and who would also become a Nobel laureate. “We were laughing and agreeing about how we thought Solzhenitsyn’s views on the United States, his criticism of the press, and all the rest were deeply wrong, and on and on,” she said. “And then Joseph said: ‘But you know, Susan, everything Solzhenitsyn says about the Soviet Union is true. Really, all those numbers — 60 million victims — it’s all true.’ ”...
In the autumn of 1961, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was a 43-year-old high school teacher of physics and astronomy in Ryazan, a city some 70 miles south of Moscow. He had been there since 1956, when his sentence of perpetual exile in a dusty region of Kazakhstan was suspended. Aside from his teaching duties, he was writing and rewriting stories he had conceived while confined in prisons and labor camps since 1944.
One story, a short novel, was “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” an account of a single day in an icy prison camp written in the voice of an inmate named Ivan Denisovich Shukov, a bricklayer. With little sentimentality, he recounts the trials and sufferings of “zeks,” as the prisoners were known, peasants who were willing to risk punishment and pain as they seek seemingly small advantages like a few more minutes before a fire. He also reveals their survival skills, their loyalty to their work brigade and their pride.
The day ends with the prisoner in his bunk. “Shukov felt pleased with his life as he went to sleep,” Mr. Solzhenitsyn wrote. Shukov was pleased because, among other things, he had not been put in an isolation cell, and his brigade had avoided a work assignment in a place unprotected from the bitter wind, and he had swiped some extra gruel, and had been able to buy a bit of tobacco from another prisoner.
“The end of an unclouded day. Almost a happy one,” Mr. Solzhenitsyn wrote, adding: “Just one of the 3,653 days of his sentence, from bell to bell. The extra three days were for leap years.”
Mr. Solzhenitsyn typed the story single spaced, using both sides to save paper. He sent one copy to Lev Kopelev, an intellectual with whom he had shared a cell 16 years earlier. Mr. Kopelev, who later became a well known dissident, realized that under Mr. Khrushchev’s policies of liberalization, it might be possible to have the story published by Novy Mir, or The New World, the most prestigious of the Soviet Union’s so-called thick literary and cultural journals. Mr. Kopelev and his colleagues steered the manuscript around lower editors who might have blocked its publication and took it to Aleksandr Tvardovsky, the editor and a Politburo member who backed Mr. Khrushchev.
On reading the manuscript, Mr. Tvardovsky summoned Mr. Solzhenitsyn from Ryazan. “You have written a marvelous thing,” he told him. “You have described only one day, and yet everything there is to say about prison has been said.” He likened the story to Tolstoy’s moral tales. Other editors compared it to Dostoevsky’s “House of the Dead,” which the author had based on his own experience of incarceration in czarist times. Mr. Tvardovsky offered Mr. Solzhenitsyn a contract worth more than twice his teacher’s annual salary, but he cautioned that he was not certain he could publish the story.
Mr. Tvardovsky was eventually able to get Mr. Khrushchev himself to read “A Day in the Life.” Mr. Khrushchev was impressed, and by mid-October 1962, the presidium of the Politburo took up the question of whether to allow it to be published. The presidium ultimately agreed, and in his biography “Solzhenitsyn” (Norton, 1985), Michael Scammell wrote that Mr. Khrushchev defended the decision and was reported to have declared: “There’s a Stalinist in each of you; there’s even a Stalinist in me. We must root out this evil.”
The novel appeared in Novy Mir in early 1963. The critic Kornei Chukovsky pronounced the work “a literary miracle.” Grigori Baklanov, a respected novelist and writer about World War II, declared that the story was one of those rare creations after which “it is impossible to go on writing as one did before.”
Novy Mir ordered extra printings, and every copy was sold. A book edition and an inexpensive newspaper version also vanished from the shelves.
Mr. Solzhenitsyn was not the first to write about the camps. As early as 1951, Gustav Herling, a Pole, had published “A World Apart,” about the three years he spent in a labor camp on the White Sea. Some Soviet writers had typed accounts of their own experiences, and these pages and their carbon copies were passed from reader to reader in a clandestine, self-publishing effort called zamizdat. Given the millions who had been forced into the gulag, few families could have been unaware of the camp experiences of relatives or friends. But few had had access to these accounts. “A Day in the Life” changed that...
In an interview last year with Der Spiegel, Mr. Solzhenitsyn said that Russians’ view of the West as a “knight of democracy” had been shattered by the NATO bombing of Serbia, an event he called “a grave disillusion, a crushing of ideals.” He dismissed Western democracy-building efforts, telling the Times of London in 2005 that democracy “is not worth a brass farthing if it is installed by bayonet.”
In 2007, he accepted a State Prize from then-President Putin — after refusing, on principle, similar prizes from Gorbachev and from Yeltsin. Mr. Putin, he said in the Der Spiegel interview, “inherited a ransacked and bewildered country, with a poor and demoralized people. And he started to do what was possible — a slow and gradual restoration.”