Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who died Sunday of heart failure at age 89, was a titan in Russian literature and politics of the 20th century. He survived the Stalinist purges, World War II, eight years in the gulag, a successful battle with cancer, and communist denunciation. After spending 18 years exiled in America, he made a triumphant return to his homeland in 1994.
His life reflects the tragedy of 20th century Russia, which suffered the turmoil of wars and revolution. Sixty million people were killed by the communist Soviet regime. Some 27 million died in World War II.
A scion of educated and once-prosperous Russian and Ukrainian families, a teacher of mathematics by profession, and a second generation artillery officer, Mr. Solzhenitsyn suffered through loss and pain, but died famous and recognized, surrounded by his adoring wife and children, yet largely shrugged off by his fellow Russians. Many of his contemporaries fared far worse.
Mr. Solzhenitsyn’s literary calling was so strong, that he wrote on cement and tiny pieces of paper while jailed in Stalin’s camps, memorizing thousand of lines of his own prose by heart. He lived to work, eschewing entertainment and socializing. His influence was both literary and moral. He stood up to the Soviet regime with the same tenacity with which he had earlier fought the Nazis - and his cancer.
His classics demolished the legitimacy of communism, even in the eyes of the left. Icons such as Jean Paul Sartre, Günther Grass and Heinrich Böll rallied to his defense. Yet he embraced Russian Orthodoxy and authoritarianism.
His best books were written in Russia and were autobiographical. As a child, I read his “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” a short novel about Ivan Shukhov, a simple bricklayer incarcerated in the gulag. As a teenager, I read “Cancer Ward,” a harrowing book about the author’s experiences as cancer patient in Stalinist USSR, and “The First Circle,” a novel about the hard moral choices in a penal research lab, where Mr. Solzhenitsyn worked on voice recognition.
These were hefty autobiographical works, in the best tradition of the 19th century Russian literature of Leo Tolstoy and Feodor Dostoevsky. They were illegal in the USSR and available as hand-typed, underground copies, or printed overseas on thin paper in tiny type, and smuggled into Russia at great risk. Distribution was punishable by a stint in the labor camps or Siberian exile. Mr. Solzhenitsyn was my great boyhood hero - I smuggled his books as did many others.
Mr. Solzhenitsyn’s life was full of contradictions. Together with another giant, Russian Nobel Prize winning physicist Andrei Sakharov and fellow dissidents, he contributed greatly to the exposure of totalitarian socialism’s moral bankruptcy. However, he was a harsh critic of liberal democracy, and of America, despite the fact that it gave him shelter and protection during his difficult years of exile. A Harvard commencement speech in which he accused Americans of hedonism and cowardice became a scandal. While his family became U.S. citizens, he refused to do so.
Russia today probably approaches Mr. Solzhenitsyn’s ideal. No longer communist, it is now staunchly nationalist, with a revived Orthodox Church that has become almost an appendage of the state. It is respected by all and feared by its neighbors.
And today’s Russia is close to Mr. Solzhenitsyn’s czarist ideal. While he praised elected, non-partisan, participatory, local government and invented a convoluted system of indirect democracy, he rejected the notion of political parties. In contemporary Russia, however, there is Vladimir Putin’s dominant party, while regions and cities have lost what little freedom they had under former President Boris Yeltsin.
Mr. Solzhenitsyn was also strident in promoting ethnic Russian nationalism, and advocated border revisions to annex parts of Ukraine and Kazakhstan to Russia. His writings on the Jews of Russia are historically inaccurate and grating.
Paradoxically, Mr. Solzhenitsyn embraced Mr. Putin and other KGB officers who rule today’s Russia, though their predecessors tormented him and millions of other gulag victims. He refused top awards from Mikhail Gorbachev and Yeltsin, yet accepted the prestigious State Award from the hands of Vladimir Putin.
He blasted the U.S. and NATO for military engagement in the Balkans and Iraq, parroting the Kremlin party line. He did not criticize the recent strangulation of freedom in Russia presided over by its current regime.
Yet, Mr. Solzhenitsyn is bigger than all this. His books and his life had the effect of a thermonuclear explosion, scorching what was left of Soviet legitimacy. Mr. Gorbachev recognized his great role in bringing the Soviet empire to an end. We who lived through those momentous developments and who benefited from the man’s literary gifts, should acknowledge and remember his talent, moral stature and courage.
There are great contemporary lessons to be learned from Mr. Solzhenitsyn’s life and work, which transcend Russia and communism. Just like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, his is a great model of the power of ideas - and the power of the intellect.
During the Cold War, the West, aware of the Soviet threat, hailed and lionized him. His genius was recognized with the Nobel Prize (1970), and the Soviet rulers and the peoples of Russia had to come to grips with his message. Yet today, the West fails to find a comparable titan in the war of ideas we need to wage against jihadi radicalism.
There is no PEN Club award, no Nobel Prize, for an anti-Islamist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. There are no celebrations or invitations to lunch at the White House.
In the meantime, Russia is reverting to new authoritarianism, with voices silenced and opponents jailed - or worse. The world - and Russia - should forever remember Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn, while looking to his heirs and successors.
Ariel Cohen is senior research fellow in Russian and Eurasian studies at the Heritage Foundation.