Solzhenitsyn was born in Kislovodsk, RSFSR (now in Stavropol Krai, Russia). His mother, Taisiya Zakharovna (née Shcherbak), was of Ukrainian descent. Her father had risen from humble beginnings to become a wealthy landowner, acquiring a large estate in the Kuban region in the northern foothills of the Caucasus. During World War I, Taisiya went to Moscow to study. While there she met and married Isaakiy Semyonovich Solzhenitsyn, a young officer in the Imperial Russian Army of Cossack origin and fellow native of the Caucasus region. The family background of his parents is vividly brought to life in the opening chapters of August 1914, and in the later Red Wheel novels.
In 1918, Taisiya became pregnant with Aleksandr. On 15 June, shortly after her pregnancy was confirmed, Isaakiy was killed in a hunting accident. Aleksandr was raised by his widowed mother and his aunt in lowly circumstances. His earliest years coincided with the Russian Civil War. By 1930 the family property had been turned into a collective farm. Later, Solzhenitsyn recalled that his mother had fought for survival and that they had to keep his father's background in the old Imperial Army a secret. His educated mother (who never remarried) encouraged his literary and scientific learnings and raised him in the Russian Orthodox faith; she died in 1944.
As early as 1936, Solzhenitsyn began developing the characters and concepts for a planned epic work on World War I and the Russian Revolution. This eventually led to the novel August 1914; some of the chapters he wrote then still survive. Solzhenitsyn studied mathematics at Rostov State University. At the same time he took correspondence courses from the Moscow Institute of Philosophy, Literature and History, at this time heavily ideological in scope. As he himself makes clear, he did not question the state ideology or the superiority of the Soviet Union until he spent time in the camps.
World War II
Solzhenitsyn as an officer in the Red Army
During the war, Solzhenitsyn served as the commander of a sound-ranging battery in the Red Army, was involved in major action at the front, and was twice decorated. He was awarded the Order of the Red Star on 8 July 1944 for sound-ranging two German artillery batteries and adjusting counterbattery fire onto them, resulting in their destruction.
A series of writings published late in his life, including the early uncompleted novel Love the Revolution!, chronicles his wartime experience and his growing doubts about the moral foundations of the Soviet regime.
While serving as an artillery officer in East Prussia, Solzhenitsyn witnessed war crimes against local German civilians by Soviet military personnel. Of the atrocities, Solzhenitsyn wrote: "You know very well that we've come to Germany to take our revenge" for Nazi atrocities committed in the Soviet Union. The noncombatants and the elderly were robbed of their meager possessions and women and girls were gang-raped. A few years later, in the forced labor camp, he memorized a poem titled "Prussian Nights" about a woman raped to death in East Prussia. In this poem, which describes the gang-rape of a Polish woman whom the Red Army soldiers mistakenly thought to be a German, the first-person narrator comments on the events with sarcasm and refers to the responsibility of official Soviet writers like Ilya Ehrenburg.
In The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn wrote, "There is nothing that so assists the awakening of omniscience within us as insistent thoughts about one's own transgressions, errors, mistakes. After the difficult cycles of such ponderings over many years, whenever I mentioned the heartlessness of our highest-ranking bureaucrats, the cruelty of our executioners, I remember myself in my Captain's shoulder boards and the forward march of my battery through East Prussia, enshrouded in fire, and I say: 'So were we any better?'"
In February 1945, while serving in East Prussia, Solzhenitsyn was arrested by SMERSH for writing derogatory comments in private letters to a friend, Nikolai Vitkevich, about the conduct of the war by Joseph Stalin, whom he called "Khozyain" ("the boss"), and "Balabos" (Yiddish rendering of Hebrew baal ha-bayit for "master of the house"). Also he had talks with the same friend about the need of a new organisation against the Soviet regime.
He was accused of anti-Soviet propaganda under Article 58 paragraph 10 of the Soviet criminal code, and of "founding a hostile organization" under paragraph 11.
Solzhenitsyn was taken to the Lubyanka prison in Moscow, where he was interrogated. On 9 May 1945, it was announced that Germany had surrendered and all of Moscow broke out in celebrations with fireworks and searchlights illuminating the sky to celebrate the victory in the Great Patriotic War as Russians call the war with Germany. From his cell in the Lubyanka, Solzhenitsyn remembered: "Above the muzzle of our window, and from all the other cells of the Lubyanka, and from all the windows of the Moscow prisons, we too, former prisoners of war and former front-line soldiers, watched the Moscow heavens, patterned with fireworks and crisscrossed with beams of searchlights. There was no rejoicing in our cells and no hugs and no kisses for us. That victory was not ours". On 7 July 1945, he was sentenced in his absence by Special Council of the NKVD to an eight-year term in a labour camp. This was the normal sentence for most crimes under Article 58 at the time.
The first part of Solzhenitsyn's sentence was served in several different work camps; the "middle phase", as he later referred to it, was spent in a sharashka (i.e., a special scientific research facility run by Ministry of State Security), where he met Lev Kopelev, upon whom he based the character of Lev Rubin in his book The First Circle, published in a self-censored or "distorted" version in the West in 1968 (an English translation of the full version was eventually published by Harper Perennial in October 2009).
In 1950, he was sent to a "Special Camp" for political prisoners. During his imprisonment at the camp in the town of Ekibastuz in Kazakhstan, he worked as a miner, bricklayer, and foundry foreman. His experiences at Ekibastuz formed the basis for the book One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. One of his fellow political prisoners, Ion Moraru, remembers that Solzhenitsyn spent some of his time at Ekibastuz writing.
While there Solzhenitsyn had a tumor removed. His cancer was not diagnosed at the time.
In March 1953, after his sentence ended, Solzhenitsyn was sent to internal exile for life at Birlik, a village in Baidibek district of South Kazakhstan region of Kazakhstan (Kok-terek rural district). His undiagnosed cancer spread until, by the end of the year, he was close to death. In 1954, he was permitted to be treated in a hospital in Tashkent, where his tumor went into remission. His experiences there became the basis of his novel Cancer Ward and also found an echo in the short story "The Right Hand". It was during this decade of imprisonment and exile that Solzhenitsyn abandoned Marxism and developed the philosophical and religious positions of his later life, gradually becoming a philosophically-minded Eastern Orthodox Christian as a result of his experience in prison and the camps.
He repented for some of his actions as a Red Army captain, and in prison compared himself to the perpetrators of the Gulag: "I remember myself in my captain's shoulder boards and the forward march of my battery through East Prussia, enshrouded in fire, and I say: 'So were we any better?'" His transformation is described at some length in the fourth part of The Gulag Archipelago ("The Soul and Barbed Wire"). The narrative poem The Trail (written without benefit of pen or paper in prison and camps between 1947 and 1952) and the 28 poems composed in prison, forced-labour camp, and exile also provide crucial material for understanding Solzhenitsyn's intellectual and spiritual odyssey during this period. These "early" works, largely unknown in the West, were published for the first time in Russian in 1999 and excerpted in English in 2006.
Marriages and children
On 7 April 1940, while at the university, Solzhenitsyn married Natalia Alekseevna Reshetovskaya. They had just over a year of married life before he went into the army, then to the Gulag. They divorced in 1952, a year before his release, because wives of Gulag prisoners faced loss of work or residence permits. After the end of his internal exile, they remarried in 1957, divorcing a second time in 1972.
The following year Solzhenitsyn married his second wife, Natalia Dmitrievna Svetlova, a mathematician who had a son from a brief prior marriage. He and Svetlova (born 1939) had three sons: Yermolai (1970), Ignat (1972), and Stepan (1973).
Solzhenitsyn's adopted son Dmitri Turin died on March 18, 1994, aged 32, at his home in New York City due to a heart attack.
After Khrushchev's Secret Speech in 1956, Solzhenitsyn was freed from exile and exonerated. Following his return from exile, Solzhenitsyn was, while teaching at a secondary school during the day, spending his nights secretly engaged in writing. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech he wrote that "during all the years until 1961, not only was I convinced I should never see a single line of mine in print in my lifetime, but, also, I scarcely dared allow any of my close acquaintances to read anything I had written because I feared this would become known."
In 1960, aged 42, he approached Aleksandr Tvardovsky, a poet and the chief editor of the Novy Mir magazine, with the manuscript of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. It was published in edited form in 1962, with the explicit approval of Nikita Khrushchev, who defended it at the presidium of the Politburo hearing on whether to allow its publication, and added: "There's a Stalinist in each of you; there's even a Stalinist in me. We must root out this evil." The book quickly sold out and became an instant hit. In the 1960s, while he was publicly known to be writing Cancer Ward, he was simultaneously writing The Gulag Archipelago. During Khrushchev's tenure, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was studied in schools in the Soviet Union, as were three more short works of Solzhenitsyn's, including his short story "Matryona's Home", published in 1963. These would be the last of his works published in the Soviet Union until 1990.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich brought the Soviet system of prison labour to the attention of the West. It caused as much of a sensation in the Soviet Union as it did in the West—not only by its striking realism and candor, but also because it was the first major piece of Soviet literature since the 1920s on a politically charged theme, written by a non-party member, indeed a man who had been to Siberia for "libelous speech" about the leaders, and yet its publication had been officially permitted. In this sense, the publication of Solzhenitsyn's story was an almost unheard of instance of free, unrestrained discussion of politics through literature. Most Soviet readers realized this, but after Khrushchev had been ousted from power in 1964, the time for such raw exposing works came to an end.
Later years in the Soviet Union
Every time when we speak about Solzhenitsyn as the enemy of the Soviet regime, this just happens to coincide with some important [international] events and we postpone the decision.
Andrei Kirilenko, a Politburo member.
Solzhenitsyn made an unsuccessful attempt, with the help of Tvardovsky, to get his novel Cancer Ward legally published in the Soviet Union. This had to get the approval of the Union of Writers. Though some there appreciated it, the work ultimately was denied publication unless it was to be revised and cleaned of suspect statements and anti-Soviet insinuations.
After Krushchev's removal in 1964, the cultural climate again became more repressive. Publishing of Solzhenitsyn's work quickly stopped; as a writer, he became a non-person, and, by 1965, the KGB had seized some of his papers, including the manuscript of The First Circle. Meanwhile, Solzhenitsyn continued to secretly and feverishly work upon the most well-known of all his writings, The Gulag Archipelago. The seizing of his novel manuscript first made him desperate and frightened, but gradually he realized that it had set him free from the pretenses and trappings of being an "officially acclaimed" writer, something which had come close to second nature, but which was becoming increasingly irrelevant.
After the KGB had confiscated Solzhenitsyn's materials in Moscow, during 1965–67, the preparatory drafts of The Gulag Archipelago were turned into finished typescript in hiding at his friends' homes in Estonia. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had befriended Arnold Susi, a lawyer and former Estonian Minister of Education in a Lubyanka Prison cell. After completion, Solzhenitsyn's original handwritten script was kept hidden from the KGB in Estonia by Arnold Susi's daughter Heli Susi until the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In 1969, Solzhenitsyn was expelled from the Union of Writers. In 1970, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. He could not receive the prize personally in Stockholm at that time, since he was afraid he would not be let back into the Soviet Union. Instead, it was suggested he should receive the prize in a special ceremony at the Swedish embassy in Moscow. The Swedish government refused to accept this solution because such a ceremony and the ensuing media coverage might upset the Soviet Union and damage Swedish-Soviet relations. Instead, Solzhenitsyn received his prize at the 1974 ceremony after he had been expelled from the Soviet Union.
The Gulag Archipelago was composed from 1958 to 1967. It was a three-volume, seven part work on the Soviet prison camp system (Solzhenitsyn never had all seven parts of the work in front of him at one time). The book was based upon Solzhenitsyn's own experience as well as the testimony of 256 former prisoners and Solzhenitsyn's own research into the history of the Russian penal system. It discussed the system's origins from the founding of the Communist regime, with Vladimir Lenin having responsibility, detailing interrogation procedures, prisoner transports, prison camp culture, prisoner uprisings and revolts, and the practice of internal exile. The Gulag Archipelago has sold over thirty million copies in thirty-five languages.
According to fellow gulag historian Anne Applebaum, The Gulag Archipelago's rich and varied authorial voice, its unique weaving together of personal testimony, philosophical analysis, and historical investigation, and its unrelenting indictment of communist ideology made The Gulag Archipelago one of the most influential books of the 20th century.
Solzhenitsyn and his long-time friend Mstislav Rostropovich
at the celebration of Solzhenitsyn's 80th birthday
Even though The Gulag Archipelago was not published in the Soviet Union, it was extensively criticized by the Party-controlled Soviet press. An editorial in Pravda on 14 January 1974 accused Solzhenitsyn of supporting "Hitlerites" and making "excuses for the crimes of the Vlasovites and Bandera gangs." According to the editorial, Solzhenitsyn was "choking with pathological hatred for the country where he was born and grew up, for the socialist system, and for Soviet people."
During this period, he was sheltered by the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who suffered considerably for his support of Solzhenitsyn and was eventually forced into exile himself.
In August 1971, the KGB allegedly made an attempt to assassinate Solzhenitsyn using an unknown biological agent (most likely ricin) with an experimental gel-based delivery method. The attempt left him seriously ill but was unsuccessful.
Expulsion from the Soviet Union
In a discussion of its options in dealing with Solzhenitsyn the members of the Politburo considered his arrest and imprisonment and his expulsion to a socialist country. Guided by KGB chief Yury Andropov, and with encouraging statements from Willy Brandt, it was decided to deport the writer directly to West Germany.
In the West
Solzhenitsyn with Heinrich Böll
Langenbroich, West Germany, 1974
On 12 February 1974, Solzhenitsyn was arrested and deported the next day from the Soviet Union to Frankfurt, West Germany and stripped of his Soviet citizenship. The KGB had found the manuscript for the first part of The Gulag Archipelago and, less than a week later, Yevgeny Yevtushenko suffered reprisals for his support of Solzhenitsyn. U.S. military attaché William Odom managed to smuggle out a large portion of Solzhenitsyn's archive, including the author's membership card for the Writers' Union and Second World War military citations; Solzhenitsyn subsequently paid tribute to Odom's role in his memoir Invisible Allies (1995).
In West Germany, Solzhenitsyn lived in Heinrich Böll's house in
Langenbroich. He then moved to Zürich, Switzerland before Stanford University invited him to stay in the United States to "facilitate your work, and to accommodate you and your family." He stayed on the 11th floor of the Hoover Tower, part of the Hoover Institution, before moving to Cavendish, Vermont, in 1976. He was given an honorary Literary Degree from Harvard University in 1978 and on Thursday, 8 June 1978, he gave his Commencement Address, condemning, among other things, the press, the lack of spirituality and traditional values as well as anthropocentrism in Western culture.
Over the next 17 years, Solzhenitsyn worked on his dramatized history of the Russian Revolution of 1917, The Red Wheel. By 1992, four "knots" (parts) had been completed and he had also written several shorter works.
Despite spending almost two decades in the United States, Solzhenitsyn did not become fluent in spoken English. He had, however, been reading English-language literature since his teens, encouraged by his mother.Richard Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld advocated on Solzhenitsyn's behalf for him to speak directly to President Gerald Ford about the Soviet threat), prior to and alongside the tougher foreign policy pursued by US President Ronald Reagan. At the same time, liberals and secularists became increasingly critical of what they perceived as his reactionary preference for Russian nationalism and the Russian Orthodox religion.
More importantly, he resented the idea of becoming a media star and of tempering his ideas or ways of talking in order to suit television. Solzhenitsyn's warnings about the dangers of Communist aggression and the weakening of the moral fiber of the West were generally well received in Western conservative circles (e.g. Ford administration staffers
Solzhenitsyn also harshly criticised what he saw as the ugliness and spiritual vapidity of the dominant pop culture of the modern West, including television and much of popular music: "...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." Despite his criticism of the "weakness" of the West, Solzhenitsyn always made clear that he admired the political liberty which was one of the enduring strengths of Western democratic societies. In a major speech delivered to the International Academy of Philosophy in Liechtenstein on 14 September 1993, Solzhenitsyn implored the West not to "lose sight of its own values, its historically unique stability of civic life under the rule of law—a hard-won stability which grants independence and space to every private citizen."
In a series of writings, speeches, and interviews after his return to his native Russia in 1994, Solzhenitsyn spoke about his admiration for the local self-government he had witnessed first hand in Switzerland and New England. He "praised 'the sensible and sure process of grassroots democracy, in which the local population solves most of its problems on its own, not waiting for the decisions of higher authorities.'" Solzhenitsyn's patriotism was inward-looking. He called for Russia to "renounce all mad fantasies of foreign conquest and begin the peaceful long, long long period of recuperation," as he put it in a 1979 BBC interview with Janis Sapiets.
KGB operations against Solzhenitsyn
On 8 August 1971, Solzhenitsyn was poisoned with what was later determined to be ricin, but survived.
On 19 September 1974, Yuri Andropov approved a large-scale operation to discredit Solzhenitsyn and his family and cut his communications with Soviet dissidents. The plan was jointly approved by Vladimir Kryuchkov, Philipp Bobkov, and Grigorenko (heads of First, Second and Fifth KGB Directorates). The residencies in Geneva, London, Paris, Rome and other European cities participated in the operation. Among other active measures, at least three StB agents became translators and secretaries of Solzhenitsyn (one of them translated the poem Prussian Nights), keeping KGB informed regarding all contacts by Solzhenitsyn.
The KGB sponsored a series of hostile books about Solzhenitsyn, most notably a "memoir published under the name of his first wife, Natalia Reshetovskaya, but probably mostly composed by Service", according to historian Christopher Andrew. Andropov also gave an order to create "an atmosphere of distrust and suspicion between Pauk[d] and the people around him" by feeding him rumors that everyone in his surrounding was a KGB agent and deceiving him in all possible ways. Among other things, the writer constantly received envelopes with photographs of car accidents, brain surgery and other frightening illustrations. After the KGB harassment in Zürich, Solzhenitsyn settled in Cavendish, Vermont, reduced communications with others and surrounded his property with a barbed wire fence. His influence and moral authority for the West diminished as he became increasingly isolated and critical of Western individualism. KGB and CPSU experts finally concluded that he alienated American listeners by his "reactionary views and intransigent criticism of the US way of life", so no further active measures would be required.
Return to Russia
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn looks out from a train, in Vladivostok
, summer 1994, before departing on a journey across Russia. Solzhenitsyn returned to Russia after nearly 20 years in exile
In 1990, his Soviet citizenship was restored, and, in 1994, he returned to Russia with his wife, Natalia, who had become a United States citizen. Their sons stayed behind in the United States (later, his oldest son Yermolai returned to Russia). From then until his death, he lived with his wife in a dacha in
Troitse-Lykovo in west Moscow between the dachas once occupied by Soviet leaders Mikhail Suslov and Konstantin Chernenko. A staunch believer in traditional Russian culture, Solzhenitsyn expressed his disillusionment with post-Soviet Russia in works such as Rebuilding Russia, and called for the establishment of a strong presidential republic balanced by vigorous institutions of local self-government. The latter would remain his major political theme. Solzhenitsyn also published eight two-part short stories, a series of contemplative "miniatures" or prose poems, a literary memoir on his years in the West (The Grain Between the Millstones), among many other writings. Once back in Russia Solzhenitsyn hosted a television talk show program. Its eventual format was Solzhenitsyn delivering a 15-minute monologue twice a month; it was discontinued in 1995. Solzhenitsyn became a supporter of Vladimir Putin who said he shared Solzhenitsyn's critical view towards the Russian Revolution.
All of Solzhenitsyn's sons became US citizens. One, Ignat, is a pianist and conductor. Elder son Yermolai works for the Moscow office of McKinsey & Company, a leading management consultancy firm, where he is now a senior partner.