Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who died Sunday at 89 in Moscow, seemed like a 19th-century Russian author trapped in the nightmare of 20th-century Russia. Always concerned with the state of his homeland’s soul, à la Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, he had the misfortune to be his country’s chronicler during the most soul-crushing acts of suppression by the Soviet regime. Having survived the gulag, he introduced much of the world (including his own countrymen) to its horrors via his novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Solzhenitsyn published the bleak slice-of-prison-life tale during a brief anti-Stalinist thaw in 1962, only to fall out of favor with the Soviet leadership when Brezhnev replaced Khrushchev a few years later. When he managed in 1973 to release the first of three volumes of The Gulag Archipelago, his magnum opus and the definitive work on the atrocities of the Soviet prison system, he was denounced and deported to the West — whose license and decadence he found nearly as offensive to his austere morality as Communist repression.
It must have been surreal for Solzhenitsyn to return to a post-Soviet Russia 20 years later, still a prophet without honor in his own country, and to be embraced ultimately by prime minister Vladimir Putin, a former official of the KGB, the organization that had locked him away in the gulag in the first place. Solzhenitsyn is being described as a hero today by Russian leaders even as younger Russians bear out his complaint that they don’t know their history and haven’t read his books. I imagine few Americans have read them either, unless assigned (as I was) to read Ivan Denisovich in high school. That’s actually a fine place to start, if you haven’t read Solzhenitsyn; it’s short, and its depiction of prison camp life neatly encapsulates the arbitrary, banal, life-sucking dehumanization he would describe in full in Gulag Archipelago. Yet the book also offers the tiniest glimmer of optimism, one also amplified by the example of the author’s own life, the sense that there is in the human soul some small kernel of hope — or at least outrage — that not even the most totalitarian government can suppress.