When Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn died 10 years ago – in 2008 – at age 89, men and women of conscience in every country mourned the passing of a towering figure.
His unending courage in the face of brutal tyranny was astonishing. His prolific contributions to Russian literature earned him a Nobel Prize, while his bravery on behalf of freedom gained him the gratitude of oppressed peoples everywhere.
His revelations gave President Reagan all the ammunition he needed to brand the Soviet regime an “Evil Empire.” Another Nobel laureate in Literature, Peru’s Mario Vargas Llosa, declared, “The extraordinary political and intellectual feat of Solzhenitsyn was to emerge from the hell of a concentration camp to tell the story in books whose moral and documentary force has no parallel in modern history.”
Dec. 11, 2018, will mark the centennial of Solzhenitsyn’s birth—a perfect occasion to once again celebrate his remarkable legacy.
Solzhenitsyn could not dismiss the hell of communism as simply the failure of a few bad people. He sensed something rotten in the system itself. And of course, he was right. Bad people are everywhere, but nothing brings them forth and licenses them to do evil more thoroughly than concentrated power and the subordination of morality to the service of a state-worshiping ideology. He ventured a few critical comments about the system in private letters which became known to the secret police. For his thoughts, he was incarcerated. He endured nearly a decade in the hard-labor camps he later christened “The Gulag Archipelago” in the title of his most-famous work.
“The Gulag Archipelago” remains a gripping account of life in the vast network of Soviet prison camps where people were enslaved, overworked, tortured and killed for – in many cases – nothing more than opposing socialism, communism, Stalin, the Party or some other aspect of the vaunted “workers’ paradise.” It’s been described as “an unrelenting indictment of communist ideology.”
Solzhenitsyn secretly labored on the manuscript for 10 years, from 1958 to 1968. Then the problem he had to solve was how to get it smuggled out of the country for publication. Soviet authorities were keeping an eye on him 24/7.
In August 1971, he was poisoned with the deadly toxin ricin, but survived. More than once, the secret police raided his living quarters, seized his papers and interrogated his associates, one of whom hanged herself afterwards. Miraculously, he was eventually able to get a copy smuggled out to Paris, where it was published in 1973.
The book was an instant sensation, and the rest is great history. The Soviet Union would never be the same. It disappeared less than 20 years later under the weight of its own inherent evil and because of international pressure from Westerners including Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II.
Solzhenitsyn was arrested and expelled from the Soviet Union in early 1974. He settled in Vermont, where he resided for almost 20 years. In 1994, he returned to a post-communist Russia, where he lived out his remaining days until his death in 2008. Since 2009, “Gulag” has been mandatory reading as part of the curriculum in Russian schools.
Lawrence W. Reed, a resident of Newnan, is president of the Foundation for Economic Education. He writes about exceptional people, including many from his book, “Real Heroes: Inspiring True Stories of Courage, Character and Conviction.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org