Alexander Solzhenitsyn dies at 89 (Lead)

August 4th, 2008 - 10:13 am ICT by IANS  

Moscow, Aug 4 (DPA) Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel Prize winner for literature who was exiled from the Soviet Union for his graphic portrayals of life in Soviet labour camps, died of a sudden heart attack at the age of 89, his family said early Monday. The novelist and historian, who gained world fame through his writings about life in Soviet labour camps and Stalinist terror which he knew first hand, died late Sunday at his home in Moscow, the Itar-Tass reported quoting his son Stepan.

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev expressed his sympathy to the family of the world-famous writer and historian, according to the Interfax news agency.

Solzhenitsyn, exiled from the Soviet Union in 1974 for his graphic portrayals of torture and slave labour, had not been seen in public for months, and had reportedly been seriously ill.

Solzhenitsyn’s main work was the massive multi-volume treatise, “Gulag Archipelago”, first published in the West in 1973, which described the years of Stalinist terror using thousands of details about arrest, interrogation, torture and forced labour.

Solzhenitsyn knew the subject well. From 1945 on, he spent time in and out of the camps for alleged anti-Soviet propaganda. He called his works an attempt to artistically overcome his experiences in the camp system.

He used bitter irony to describe the torturers and executioners, and deep mourning for the victims. Alongside the gruesome experiences and humiliation of the prisoners, he wrote of their moral courage.

“It gradually became clear to me, that the line between good and evil lies not between states, not between classes and not between parties, but rather cuts across every human heart,” Solzhenitsyn wrote in one section of Gulag called “Soul and Barbed Wire”.

The author’s first well-known book, a much more slender volume, “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”, was published both in Russia and the West in 1963 and would be the last book to be formally published in his home country until 1989, when Gulag appeared as the Soviet Union was collapsing.

When the Nobel Prize committee named him the literature winner in 1970, after the publication of “The First Circle”, the Soviet regime denied him an exit visa to receive the prize. After the publication of the “Gulag Archipelago” in the West in 1973, and as it circulated in underground form in the Soviet Union, Solzhenitsyn was arrested and expelled.

German writer Heinrich Boell was the first to give him refuge, in Cologne.

In the end, Solzhenitsyn settled in the US for the duration of the Cold War.

He returned in 1994 to Russia, where he picked up where he left off - criticising the failed reforms and lack of democracy in his native land, under the presidency of Boris Yeltsin.

But he steadily lost public resonance as he urged Russia to return to its ancient Russian Orthodox religious beliefs. He repeatedly called for Russia to avoid “aping” western democracy without due consideration, and for the country to look to the moral health of its own people.

In 2007, the one-time exile received the highest Russian government award for his work in the humanities - the Russian State Prize - an institution that reached back to Soviet times. After rejecting such an honour for years, Solzhenitsyn accepted the prize, again urging spiritual unity in his country to overcome the bitter past and to avoid disastrous consequences.

Solzhenitsyn applauded the policies of former president Vladimir Putin, who is now prime minister, and Putin’s support for the ascendency of the Russian Orthodox Church after the years of repression during Soviet times. He also supported Moscow’s controversial policies against the breakaway republic of Chechnya.

His most recent writings about the history of Judaism in Russia and the former Soviet Union however became controversial, as he blamed Russian Jews for helping the rise of the Soviet dictatorship but based his conclusions on questionable sources.

Stalin himself had purged many Jews in the 1930s, and the history of Soviet Jews imprisoned and denied privileges was seen for decades as an outright expression of Soviet anti-Semitism.

Solzhenitsyn had also drawn charges of anti-Semitism during his years of exile and publishing in the United States.

In 2006, Solzhenitsyn was commissioned to pen a ten-part screenplay from “The First Circle”, the 1968 book based on his experiences in a work camp that was a special scientific research facility. The series was broadcast on Russian state television in 2006.

In announcing the state prize last year, Yury Osipov, president of the Russian Academy of Sciences, called Solzhenitsyn “the author of works without which the history of the 20th century is unthinkable” and one of the “greatest historians and philologists of the 20th Century”.

Solzhenitsyn in his book-collecting pursuits assembled more than 50,000 volumes about the emigration of Russians since 1917, now housed in the foundation Russians Diaspora.

At the time of his death, Solzhenitsyn was working on the publication of his life works in 30 volumes, which are to be brought out by 2010 by Moscow’s Vremya publishing house.

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