Alex is a third-year politics, philosophy and economics student, caffeine enthusiast and cricket tragic who wishes that one day, he could speak Russian.
‘I dedicate this to all those who did not live to tell it,
And may they please forgive me,
For not having seen it all, nor remembered it all,
For not having divined it all.’
‘In this book there are no fictitious persons, nor fictitious events. People and places are named with their own names. If they are identified by initials instead of names, it is for personal considerations. If they are not named at all, it is only because human memory has failed to preserve their names. But it all took place just as it here described.’
Thus begins The Gulag Archipelago, a three-volume, 650 page, colossal non-fiction narrative by persecuted Nobel-prize winning author Aleksandr Solzhenistyn. 2017 marks the 50-year anniversary of its completion in 1967, after which it sold over 30 million copies in 35 different languages. In no less than 300,000 carefully chosen words, Solzhenitsyn documented the comprehensive injustices of Stalin’s forced-labour camps, or gulags, which claimed the lives of millions of prisoners between 1934 and 1953.
Born in Russia in 1918, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was raised in austere conditions by his widowed mother, Taisiya Zakharovna, who identified his precocious talent for language at an early age. As Solzhenitsyn would recall years later, she was no ordinary woman, and, as was typical for Russia’s post-WWI womanhood, she was tougher than ice. With only the strength of her own will, Taisiya single-handedly provided for her small impoverished family, working insufferable hours to give her only son the education befitting his once-in-a-generation talents. Solzhenitsyn loved her dearly.
On the eve of WWII, Solzhenitsyn shelved his academic pursuits to fight as an artillery officer in the Red Army. It was the first time he had been separated at length from his mother, his guardian angel. Only months before his scheduled return to Moscow, Taisiya fell ill. Her body, which was an uncanny fountain of youth during the interwar period, began to fail her.
Solzhenitsyn would never see her again. Only in his dreams.
Immediately after the war, Solzhenitsyn was caught criticising Stalin in a personal letter to a friend. ‘Perpetuating anti-Soviet propaganda’ was his charge. By March 1945, Solzhenitsyn was sentenced in absentia to eight years in exile in the Serbian gulags for committing no crime except that of free thought and expression. His sentence – 2,184 days, with two extra days for leap years.
Fittingly, it was within the tortured walls of the gulags where Solzhenitsyn acquired an indestructibility found only in the greatest liberators of the 20th century – Nelson Mandela comes to mind. It was also within these walls where he began work on The Gulag Archipelago in the dark hours of the night, memorising and then destroying each and every page he wrote so that it wouldn’t be lost if it were seized. All this while resisting the terror of the camp guards, the burden of famine, and the maliciousness of cancer, undiagnosed for a year. His was a resilience you see only in comic book superheroes and religious prophets, a stoicism that would have made even Marcus Aurelius blush.
After his release – which by coincidence was the day Stalin died – Solzhenitsyn refused to wallow in the wilderness of his grief. Over the next 15 years, he wrote religiously, publishing over a dozen novels including the electrifying One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich which, subtly and unsubtly, condemned the brutality of Stalin’s regime. His fidelity to the motherland was outweighed only by his fidelity to the truth. In 1970, Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for ‘the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature.’ But he was far from finished.
After receiving the Nobel Prize, Solzhenitsyn secretly began editing, once again, his already-completed book: The Gulag Archipelago. Drawing on the reports, memoirs and letters of 227 fellow prisoners, Solzhenitsyn mapped the icy despair of the Soviet prison experience. The whole book rested on one Russian proverb: ‘Dwell on the past, and you’ll lose an eye. But forget the past and you’ll lose both eyes.’ Solzhenitsyn knew that only through the power of language could the world hope to come to terms with the limitless despair of the Stalin dictatorship, that only through the power of the pen could one hope to thaw the permafrost of Russian history.
After rumours had surfaced that Solzhenitsyn was finally prepared to release The Gulag Archipelago, the KGB began incessantly terrorising him and his family – this included a failed assassination attempt. Eventually, the KGB acquired one of only the three existing manuscripts, and upon hearing this, Solzhenitsyn immediately published it overseas to instant international acclaim. Simple owning a copy of The Gulag Archipelago was worth seven years in prison. Such was the power of Solzhenitsyn’s words.
Condemned as a traitor, the Soviet Union stripped him of his citizenship, put him on a plane, and, once again, exiled him from his own country of birth in the hope that expelling him from his beloved homeland would break him. On February 12 1974, Solzhenitsyn arrived in Frankfurt, Germany, carrying only a straw cap and a sheepskin coat (his faithful companions during his time in the gulags). With an unshaved beard and a piercing glare he seemed less like a fiery writer-activist, and more like a character from the Old Testament.
His second exile would last 20 years, in which he moved from West Germany to the United States to live in reclusion, before returning to post-Soviet Russia as a hero in 1994, where he would spend the remainder of his days.
The life of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is so complex that it naturally resists summary, but upon close and intimate examination, one theme runs like an artery through his work. That is, the idea that liberty and freedom are currencies vastly undervalued by those who have always had it, and priceless to those unjustly deprived of it. We have much to learn from him.
With new wars emerging and new hatreds brooding every day, it is easy to despair and lament the evil drowning the world. At such times, however, we must always remind ourselves that there are people in this world brave enough to fight and die to oppose and expose this evil. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was one such person.