For Solzhenitsyn the bells are silent

The Bells are Silent…for now:

Alexander Solzhenitsyn (Алекса́ндр Иса́евич Солжени́цын) has “passed from death unto life” at the age of 89, his mission on this earth having come to an end.  He will be buried on 6 August at the Danilov Monastery in Moscow.  May God grant that his memory be eternal.

“Any ancient deeply rooted autonomous culture, especially if it is spread on a wide part of the earth’s surface, constitutes an autonomous world, full of riddles and surprises to Western thinking,” and for one thousand years, Russia has belonged to such a category.”  A. I. Solzhenitzyn

 Danilov Monastery, Moscow. Solzhenitzyn was an ardent Orthodox believer and dreamed of a Russia which would return fully to it’s Orthodox roots.  Born 11 Dec. 1918, in Kislovodsk to a military father and Orthodox mother, Solzhenitsyn’s early years were spent on the move after his father died in a hunting accident and the family farm was confiscated and turned into a collective farm on which his mother was not welcome because her husband (Solzhenitzyn’s father) had served as an officer in the Imperial Army before the revolution.

During World War II he served as the commander of an artillery unit in the Red Army, was involved in major action at the front, and was twice decorated. In February 1945, while serving in East Prussia, he was arrested for writing a derogatory comment in a letter to a friend about the conduct of the war by Josef Stalin, whom he called “the whiskered one”, “Khozyain” (“the master”) and “Balabos” (Odessa Yiddish for “the master”).

His first blockbuster book, “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” was published in edited form in 1962, with the explicit approval of Nikita Khrushchev, who defended it and declared, “There’s a Stalinist in each of you; there’s even a Stalinist in me. We must root out this evil.”

Khrushchev however would not continue in power and the next line of Soviet leaders were intent on defending Stalinism so all of his writings were banned in the Soviet Union.  In the rest of the world however it was his books which made the world aware of the Gulag, the Soviet Union’s labour camp system.  Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970 but the Soviet Union banned him from traveling to accept the award and he was exiled from the Soviet Union in 1974 first to East Germany and soon to America.  In 1974 he traveled to Sweden to accept the Nobel prize 4 years after it had been awarded.

It was Solzhenitsyn’s novels and non-fiction works which exposed the secret history of the vast prison system that enslaved millions. Beginning with the 1962 short novel “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” Solzhenitsyn devoted himself to describing what he called the human “meat grinder” that had caught him along with millions of other Soviet citizens: capricious arrests, often for trifling and seemingly absurd reasons, followed by sentences to slave labor camps where cold, starvation and punishing work crushed inmates physically and spiritually.

His non-fiction “Gulag Archipelago” trilogy of the 1970s shocked readers by describing the savagery of the Soviet state under Stalin. It helped erase lingering sympathy for the Soviet Union among many leftist intellectuals, especially in Europe.

A permanent guest of Harvard University and the Hoover Institute, he lived first on the campus of Harvard and then in Vermont.  He appreciated life in the West and called his time in America “the most productive years of my life” yet he was not afraid to criticize Western culture for what he considered its weakness and decadence.  It is perhaps ironic that it was Harvard University which sheltered the Danilov Monastery bells for 78 years to prevent their destruction.  Harvard returned Solzhenitsyn to Russia, and later the bells to the same Monastery where he is to be buried.

In 1994 he returned to Russia from exile in the United States.  His entrance into Russia included a 56-day train trip across Russia to become reacquainted with his native land, and Solzhenitsyn later expressed annoyance that many Russians hadn’t read his books.

During the 1990s, his independent views, his devout Orthodoxy, his disdain for capitalism and disgust with the tycoons who bought Russian industries and resources cheaply following the Soviet collapse, were unfashionable. He faded from public view. Solzhenitzyn was neither a communist nor a capitalist and he criticized the nationalistic trends of Russian youth and during Vladimir Putin’s 2000-2008 presidency, Solzhenitsyn’s vision of Russia as a bastion of Orthodox Christianity, and as a place with a unique culture and destiny gained renewed prominence.

From then until his death, he lived with his wife in a dacha in Troitse-Lykovo (Троице-Лыково) in west Moscow between the dachas once occupied by Soviet leaders Mikhail Suslov and Konstantin Chernenko. The writer, however, deplored what he considered Russia’s spiritual decline, increasingly adopting Western materialistic values, but in the last years of his life he praised President Vladimir Putin for Russia’s revival.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev sent condolences after news of Solzhenitsyn’s death.  All 3 of Solzhenitzyn’s sons are US citizens and live in America. 

The lighthouse is dark, but tomorrow the bells will toll.

Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn, 1918-2008.

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