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A Russian Patriot – Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn (1918–2008)

“One single word of truth outweighs the whole world.”

The life of Russian writer Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn, from his very birth (December 11, 1918) bears the imprint of all the tragedies of 20th century Russian history. His father, Isaky Semyonovich Solzhenitsyn fought through World War I as an artillery officer (Panorama, photo No. 1), and lost his life in a mysterious hunting incident six months before the birth of his son. His mother, Taissya Zakharovna Shcherbak (Panorama, photo No. 2) came from a family of well-to-do farmers; her parents created a flourishing peasant farming enterprise in the South Russian steppe. He saw in that tradition a strong model throughout his life.

His birthplace (Kislovodsk, Panorama, photo No. 3), was rapidly overrun by Soviet rule: dekulakisation, deportation, collectivisation – his grandfather, declared enemy of the people, died in a cell of the State Security prison. Nor is there trace of St Panteleymon Church where he was christened – it was torn down by Khrushchev in the 1960s, in a new wave of anti-religious campaign. It was precisely in that church that Solzhenitsyn as a child witnessed for the first time what anti-religious campaigns were like. Chekists would intrude during service to confiscate devotional objects and to intimidate believers. The destruction of faith and of confessing Christians is considered by the writer as one of the main causes of the intellectual catastrophe of the 20th century.

He spends his childhood (Panorama, photos No. 1 through 7) in need and moving from one settlement to another – the widow making her living as a typist or fulfilling similar temporary jobs finds provisional shelter with her son among others in Gorkin House (Panorama, photo No. 4), then they rent a room in the wet walled crowded shacks in the south Russian city of Rostov. That is where his mother contracts a lung desease which eventually causes her death in 1942, during war-time evacuation.

At the tender age of ten, Solzhenitsyn is editor of a handwritten magazine and arranges his “collected works” in separate little volumes. After graduating from school, however, he chooses to study physics at the Science Faculty of Rostov University. Almost simultaneously, he is admitted to a course by correspondence of the famous Moscow Institute of Philosophy, Literature and History, where he reads history of art, then Russian literature. He graduates in June 1941, a few days before the war breaks out with Nazi Germany. With two degrees in his hand, he he volunteered for front service, just as his father did, at the outbreak of the previous World War, but due to his frail health he is actually enrolled a few months later. He starts his service as the driver of horse drawn Red Army vehicles, then, after an abridged sound reconnaissance training programme, his desire finally comes true – on February 13, 1943 he is dispatched to the North Eastern front stretching from Oryol to East Prussia. His unit of the Artillery Reconnaissance Battalion distinguishes itself in several important missions, and Solzhenitsyn is awarded the Order of the Red Star and is promoted to captain. During a German counter-attack against the advancing Red Army in East Prussia on January 27, 1945, he led his battery out of encirclement at Neidenburg, saving his men as well as their equipment (Display Case No. 1 audio archive: Solzhenitsyn in jail, reading an excerpt from his epic poem, Prussian Nights, he originally produced and memorized without putting it down in writing). Simultaneously with his exemplary military career, he outlines a detailed plan for a post-war social revolution with Nikolay Vitkevich, a long-time friend, exchanging with him frequent letters and meeting him secretly. Their program declaration and correspondence containing sharp criticism of Stalin are intercepted by military censors and Solzhenitsyn is arrested by SMERSH, the military counter-espionage service on February 9, 1945. On July 7, he is sentenced in absentia by the NKVD Extraordinary Committee to eight years of “correctional labour” for “counter-revolutionary activities”. Solzhenitsyn concedes that he was lawfully arrested under contemporary Soviet law, for he was in fact preparing an anti-Soviet conspiracy. He is rehabilitated in 1957 (Display Case No. 1, document No. 1). After the wave of de-Stalinization of the Khrushchev era, however, Soviet propaganda would start interpreting his case as if he had actually been a traitor to his country (Display Case No. 1, document No. 2). After months in remand in Moscow’s Lubyanka and Butirki prisons, he performs hard labour first in a mud mine, then in painters’ and carpenters’ brigades on various Moscow building sites. On July 16, 1946, as a former mathematician and “sound reconnaissance officer”, he is transferred to a special prison, a scientific research institute under the auspices of the Ministry of the Interior (“Sharashka”, Panorama, photo No. 9). The years spent in Morfino (just outside Moscow) will inspire his novel The First Circle, written in two versions from 1955 to 1968.

In early 1950, Solzhenitsyn refuses to continue to perform that job at the service of the regime for reasons of conscience and is therefore transferred, on May 19, to a labour camp in Ekibastuz, Northern Kazakhstan, where he works as a brick layer, a foundry worker, and a foreman. He will transform his experiences at that camp after his release, in 1959, into One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. In 1952, he falls ill and a malignant tumour is excised from his stomach. In 1954–55, he undergoes a successful radiation therapy in the Tashkent city hospital. Those months will inspire him to write Cancer Ward (1963–67).

On February 13, 1953, when his sentence expires, he is sentenced to perpetual exile in Kok-Terek in southern Kazakhstan (Panorama, photo No. 11), where he teaches maths, physics and astronomy at the local school. Meanwhile he writes in secret during the night burning all drafts, hiding the final versions written in minuscule characters in bottles, and burying them underground. He is permitted to leave his forced residence in April, 1956, and allowed to move to Milcevo where he is employed as a teacher in the village school for one year. He rents a room from an elderly lady – an experience reflected in Matryona’s House a short story written in 1959 (Panorama, photo No. 14).

Upon being rehabilitated in 1957, he re-marries his first wife, Natalya Reshetovskaya, and the couple settles in Ryazan (Panorama, photo No. 15), where the writer works as a secondary school teacher. In 1959, he writes his short novel, Ivan Denisovich, in three weeks (Display Case, headphone No. 2) and sends it in 1961, through his friend from the “Sharashka”, germanist Lev Kopelev, to Tvardovsky, editor in chief of Novy Mir, a literary review. Personally pressured by Khrushchev, the Politburo authorises the review to publish Ivan Denisovich in October 1962. It was published in the issue No. 11, 1962 of Novy Mir, and printed in Hungary, in László Wessely’s translation first the in issue of February, 1969 of the literary review Nagyvilág, then in a separate volume in 1989 by Európa Publishers (Display Case No. 3.). Solzhenitsyn is a member of the Soviet Writers’ Union from 1962 until his expulsion in 1969. But he refrains from joining the literary life of the capital or moveing to Moscow. Instead, he buys a small wooden house outside Ryazan, where he continues to work on his writings. He completes his monumental socio-literary narrative, The Gulag Archipelago, in an Estonian country retreat (Vasula, Panorama, photo No. 17). Novy Mir publishes a few short stories of his, but for the forthcoming 22 years none of his works is deemed fit to print in his country. The short period of de-Stalinisation, which opened the way for Ivan Denisovich, comes to a swift end. Nevertheless, Solzhenitsyn’s writings reach an ever increasing audience through clandestine, “Samizdat” publications (Display Case No. 2).

On October 8, 1970 Solzhenitsyn is chosen to be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, but he did not partake in the ceremony in December. The award gets a markedly hostile reaction from the Soviet authorities who try to tarnish the writer’s reputation. Soviet and western intellectuals launch a smear campaign against Solzhenitsyn, but he also has a significant amount of supporters. His expulsion from the Soviet Union is one of the most controversial events of the year 1974 (quotations from comments for and against the expulsion in the Small Hall). The increasing tensions of a career becoming more and more conflict-ridden are mitigated by peace in his personal life: Natalya Dimitriyevna Svetlova becomes his companion in 1969, remains on his side throughout the hardships of the years to come and takes care of his heritage with utmost dedication and care to this day (Display Case No. 3, photo, interview). Natalya lives in Kozitskiy lane, in the centre of Moscow; this is where she gives birth to their three sons, but Solzhenitsyn could not even register with the authorities as an inhabitant of that flat. That does not prevent the authorities from taking him into custody there on February 12, 1974 (Small Hall entrance). His arrest follows the publication of the first two volumes of The Gulag Archipelago by YMCA Press, in Paris on December 30, 1973 (Small Hall), but his famous Letter to the Leaders of the Soviet Union mailed on September 5, 1973 and circulated underground must also have been among the reasons (Display Case No. 2). Simultaneously with his arrest, Solzhenitsyn is stripped of his Soviet citizenship by the Supreme Soviet and the next day he is expelled from the Soviet Union. Upon his arrival in Germany, he is met by Heinrich Böll.

It is up to this point that the exhibition closely follows Solzhenitsyn’s life and work. However, the books exposed (Small Hall), as well as the photos and the documents accessible through the touch screen terminal help the visitor scroll through the rest of his life as well. From 1976 to 1994, he lives with his family in his retreat, a mansion built near Cavendish (Vermont, USA), far away from public life, devoting all his time to writing. Non-fiction gradually recedes in his work with political and historical prose taking the lead, including The Red Wheel, a monumental, ten-volume novel series, ultimately remained unfinished (with one volume, Lenin in Zurich being published separately). Head Against the Wall, his recollections of the 1960s, is an indispensable reading for anyone trying to understand the literary life as well as the intricate set of institutions governing and censoring cultural creation in the Soviet Union. He refuses to return to Russia as long as The Gulag Archipelago, that has served as a pretext for his deportation, is not published in the Soviet Union. That turns out to be impossible even during the years of Glasnonst and Perestroika; Novy Mir decides to publish it just before the implosion of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Writer’s Union doesn’t revoke its resolution to expel him from its ranks until 1989. Solzhenitsyn eventually returns to Russia on May 27, 1994, disembarking in Vladivostok and traveling through the whole enormous country by train. He settles down in Troitse-Likovo, near Moscow, while his foundation directed by his wife is set up in the downtown flat where he was once taken into custody by the KGB. Their sons, Yermolay, Ignat and Stepan live in Russia; Ignat is a famous pianist and conductor and professor at the Philadelphia Conservatory. On May 29, 1997, Solzhenitsyn is elected to the Russian Academy of Sciences and in 1998 is awarded the Lomonosov Prize, the Academy’s highest award. Some of his books written since his return to his homeland, including Two Hundred Years Together, a two volume historical monograph on the conflicts of Russian–Jewish co-existence, despite stirring passionate debates, fail to fulfil the author’s expectation to have the same huge impact his great writings written before his forced emigration had. Solzhenitsyn dies on August 3, 2008, of heart failure.


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