- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 5, 2008

MOSCOW (AP) | Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Vladimir Putin could have seemed like natural enemies - a writer plagued by the secret police and a president who started his career with the KGB.

But by the time of the Nobel Prize-winning Mr. Solzhenitsyn’s death at age 89 on Sunday, he had warmed to Mr. Putin’s vision of Russia. His death left a complex legacy - vividly intense books standing up for human dignity and free thought, but support for a man widely criticized as pushing Russia back into repressive ways.

As a young author, Mr. Solzhenitsyn earned worldwide acclaim as an unbending dissident whose books exposed dictator Josef Stalin’s network of slave-labor camps and undermined the Soviet system.

Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who closed the last of the Soviet political prisons in the 1980s, praised Mr. Solzhenitsyn as “one of the first who spoke aloud about the inhuman Stalinist regime and about the people who experienced it but were not broken.”

But Mr. Putin, a veteran of the KGB (which waged a campaign of harassment against Mr. Solzhenitsyn in the 1960s and ‘70s) who is now prime minister after eight years as president, also laid claim to the writer’s memory.

Mr. Putin called Mr. Solzhenitsyn “our compatriot and contemporary,” saying the “entire thorny path of his life will remain for us an example of genuine devotion and selfless serving to the people, fatherland and the ideals of freedom, justice and humanism.”

Mr. Solzhenitsyn’s nonfiction trilogy, “The Gulag Archipelago,” published in the 1970s, shocked the Soviet elite, helped destroy lingering leftist support for the Soviet experiment in the West and inspired a generation of dissidents in the Soviet Union.

While he was relentless in exposing the tyranny of the Stalinist era, he became a fierce critic of the West and embraced Putin-era efforts to weaken or abolish democratic institutions in the early 21st century.

Viktor Pavlov, a 69-year-old writer who worked amid Soviet labor camps in the Arctic city of Norilsk in the 1950s, said he worried that Mr. Solzhenitsyn’s passing could stifle what little dissent remains in Russia.

“While Solzhenitsyn accepted Putinism, the writer always remained the man who embodied openness, criticism of the powers that be, the powers that Putin all his life served,” Mr. Pavlov said in Paris, where he now lives after fleeing what he said was pressure from Russian authorities over his writings in 2006.

Nina L. Khrushcheva called Mr. Solzhenitsyn an ally of her great-grandfather, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, in the effort to dismantle the cruel legacy of his predecessor - the dictator Stalin.

She called the gulag trilogy “this incredible monument to the horrors of Stalinism.” But she, too, was critical of his embrace of Mr. Putin, saying Mr. Solzhenitsyn’s Russian nationalism was even stronger than his anti-Stalinism.

One of Mr. Solzhenitsyn’s sons, Stephan, defended his father’s view, saying Russia under Mr. Putin has changed in ways that pleased his father. “Undoubtedly, Russia has turned some kind of corner,” he said. “Look around you. This is not a country where people cower in fear.”

Born Dec. 11, 1918, Mr. Solzhenitsyn served as a front-line artillery captain in World War II, then in the war’s closing weeks was arrested for calling Stalin “the man with the mustache” in a letter to a friend.

He was sentenced to eight years in labor camps. After that, he served three years of exile in Kazakhstan. It was during this period that he began to write, and continued to do so while working as a mathematics teacher.

His first book, “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch,” was published in 1962 by Khrushchev’s order.

The book created a sensation in a country where unpleasant truths were spoken in whispers, if at all. Abroad, “One Day” was lauded not only for its bravery, but for its spare, unpretentious language.

After Khrushchev was ousted in 1964, Mr. Solzhenitsyn faced KGB harassment, publication of his works was blocked, and he was expelled from the Soviet Writers Union. But he was undeterred.

He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, but Soviet authorities barred him from traveling to Stockholm to attend the ceremony. Pressure from the government only increased in 1973 when the first book in the “Gulag” trilogy appeared in Paris.

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