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Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn, 1918 - 2008

As despairing patriot and exile, writer mirrored beloved Russia

August 04, 2008|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — Nobel laureate Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn, the reclusive icon of the Russian intelligentsia and chronicler of Communist repression, died Sunday. He was 89.

His son Stephan told the Associated Press that he died of heart failure in Moscow.

The soulful writer and spiritual father of Russia's nationalist patriotic movement lived to be reunited with his beloved homeland after two decades of exile, only to be as distressed by what he saw as communism's damage to the Russian character as he was by his earlier forced estrangement from the land and people he loved.

Solzhenitsyn returned from his Vermont refuge to a dramatically changed Russia in 1994 but deemed it a moral ruin after a months-long odyssey to reacquaint himself with the country that had denounced him as a traitor, stripped him of citizenship and expelled him 20 years earlier.

His labor, loves and politics mirrored the tumultuous history of his country through the last century.

"It is history's sorrow, the grief of our era, that I carry about me like an anathema," Solzhenitsyn once wrote of his life.

That he persevered through nearly nine decades was a wonder to many; the bearded author with piercing blue eyes and a diffident manner had weathered cancer, prison, labor camps, controversy and condemnation.

Hailed as Russia's greatest living writer, the author of more than two dozen books -- in addition to commentaries, poems, plays and film scripts -- won back his citizenship and the respect of his fellow Russians after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Although his books were bestsellers in the West, only "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" was published first in his homeland.

Other major works include a memoir, "The Oak and the Calf," and the novel "August 1914," the first volume of a monumental history of 20th century Russia.

With his masterwork, "The Gulag Archipelago," he gave a name to the brutal network of labor camps set up across the Soviet Union during Josef Stalin's frenzied drive to industrialize the country. Tens of millions of men, women and children died in that campaign.

Solzhenitsyn spent the last decade of his life in failing health and seclusion at his rural estate outside Moscow, editing his life's work for a 30-volume anthology that he predicted he would not live to see completed. When the first three volumes were finished in 2006, he observed that publication would run through 2010 and "continue after my death."

The anthology project crowned a lifelong journey of divergence and reconciliation for the writer and his politically turbulent country.

Despite his bitter experiences and gloomy view of the world, Solzhenitsyn was, according to biographer Michael Scammell, an "optimist . . . a firm believer in the force of willpower" with "an unquenchable thirst for life and incredible powers of concentration." Yet at the same time, "he felt positively uncomfortable without a hair shirt of some kind."

He saw the Soviet Union as cruel and suffocating "under the malevolent and unyielding nature of communism." He even attacked the revered god of the Soviet Union -- its founder, Vladimir I. Lenin.

Outspoken critic

At times, Solzhenitsyn was courteous and attentive, with an outpouring of good humor. But he was also stubborn and abrasive, and developed a consuming hatred of communism that dismayed even those in the West who admired his work and integrity.

He denounced the East-West detente of the 1970s as a sham and called the 1975 Helsinki Accord -- the charter of the Conference of Security and Cooperation in Europe -- the West's capitulation to Soviet enslavement of Eastern Europe.

During 20 years of exile in the U.S., he was never hesitant to criticize his adopted country; he viewed the United States and the West in general as flaccid, morally weak, cravenly materialistic and suffering from "the spiritual impotence that comes from living a life of ease."

Although generally sympathetic to its aims, he spurned the Soviet dissident movement as a betrayal of Russia's soul and ancient traditions. He frequently clashed with fellow opponents of the Soviet system.

Solzhenitsyn called for a moral and spiritual reawakening in his homeland and the West based on fundamental Christian values, and a rejection of the materialism, hedonism and selfishness that he insisted was corrupting civilization. Such views led one critic to denounce him as "the Russian ayatollah."

His image as the conscience of Communist-ruled Russia dimmed after his repatriation and his diatribes on the denigration of his nation that were at times tainted with paranoia, anti-Semitism and bigotry.

Wildly popular upon arrival and active in efforts to re-create the pre-revolutionary zemstvo system of rural community government in Russia, Solzhenitsyn rejected appeals to seek the presidency in 1996 and eventually retreated into relative obscurity.

Hard childhood

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