That’s my favorite quote from Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn. Although I could choose many others, I think this one reflects his understanding of both human fallibility and the misguided attempts of totalitarian systems to “cure” society.
The Russian writer and Nobel laureate was born on this day in 1918 in Kislovodsk, a spa town of the North Caucasus. Although a decorated officer in World War II, he was arrested near the end of the conflict on spurious charges of anti-Soviet propaganda and agitation, and spent eight years in prisons and labor camps, followed by internal exile, before being exonerated under Khrushchev. His fictional work One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, about the struggles of prisoners in penal colonies to merely survive, was published in 1962. It received official approval, as the new regime sought to expose the horrific abuses of Stalinism.
But after Brezhnev removed Khrushchev in 1964, conditions again became repressive, and Solzhenitsyn not only was unable to publish, he also had to hide manuscripts from the KGB. He was kicked out of the Writers’ Union in 1969, meaning he could no longer publish (except by samizdat or “self-publication,” which was illegal). He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970 but could not receive it in Stockholm. In 1973, his three-volume Gulag Archipelago was published in France. The work documented the atrocities of the Soviet prison system under Stalin, in large part through the personal experiences of 227 victims. It seared the term ‘gulag’ into the conscience of humanity.
As a result, authorities expelled him from the Soviet Union the following year. (Poet Yevgeniy Yevtushenko, whose death I covered in April 2017, suffered reprisals from the authorities for his moral support of Solzhenitsyn at the time of his expulsion, something I failed to mention in that article.) He picked up his Nobel in Stockholm later, when the 1974 prizes were awarded. He eventually settled in the U.S. in a small town in Vermont. He became increasingly isolated (a local gas station at one point posted a sign: “No directions to the Solzhenitsyns”), as he refused to temper his criticism of the West as well as that of the Soviet Communist Party. He caused quite a stir with his 1978 Harvard commencement address condemning American materialism.
He continued to work on various books from his Vermont residence. His Soviet citizenship was restored in 1990 under Gorbachev, and he finally returned to Russia in 1994, after the disintegration of the USSR, when he famously took a train journey from Vladivostok across the country.
When I made my first trip to Russia for language study in the summer of 1995, I was curious about the author, having read parts of Gulag Archipelago in college. As I was living year-round in Slovakia at the time, I told one of my students (I taught English a couple of hours per week) I'd chosen to go to Czechoslovakia in 1990 in large part because of the presidency of playwright/political prisoner Vaclav Havel. My student couldn’t resist asking, “So if Solzhenitsyn becomes president, you will move to Russia?”
Back then Solzhenitsyn had a twice-monthly TV program, which I watched with my host mother. She would interpret his political commentary into simplified Russian when necessary, as well as fill in the background. I could understand things like his parody of tendentiously worded referendum questions: “Do you want this wonderful, brilliant [measure] – ili nyet, or not.” My host mother explained the cronyism in the sale of previously state-owned factories, using the then widespread term priskhvatizatsia, a blend of ‘privatization’ and the verb meaning ‘snatch up.’
Solzhenitsyn became a backer of Putin in the early 2000s, a position from which he never swayed before his death in 2008. While he is associated with the Russian right’s emphasis on Orthodoxy and other traditions, he lambasted the far right’s obsession with conspiracy theories involving Free Masonry and world Jewry. Some commentators have found latent anti-Semitism in his works, yet Holocaust survivor and Nazi hunter Elie Wiesel claimed the man was "too intelligent, too honest, too courageous, too great a writer" to be an anti-Semite.
Whatever his faults and controversies, he should be celebrated for his contributions to literature and history.
For a somewhat more detailed treatment of Solzhenitsyn's life, I suggest this commentary from Dr. Angela Brintlinger of The Ohio State University, whom I had the pleasure to know in my years of graduate study there.