Editor's Note: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who died on August 3, was a courageous man and a powerful writer whose literary works helped initiate the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union and discredited the Communist ideology on which it was based. He was a modern prophet, whose life is remembered and celebrated in this essay.--Ed.
Toward the end of the Second World War, a captain in the Soviet Army exchanged letters with a colleague that included unkind references to Soviet dictator Josef Stalin ("big shot" and "the moustachioed one"). On February 9, 1945, in the village of Wormdit, near Konigsberg, this "offense" against the Soviet state resulted in the soldier's arrest and imprisonment for eight years in a slave-labor camp and, ironically, began the literary career of the most consequential writer of the twentieth century--a writer who "spoke the truth to power" and thereby helped inspire and marshal the forces that eventually led to the demise of the Soviet state.
That writer, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, died on August 3, 2008, at the age of 89. Solzhenitsyn wrote numerous works of fiction and non-fiction, including One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The First Circle, Cancer Ward, August 1914, Lenin in Zurich, The Oak and the Calf, Warning to the West, From Under the Rubble, November 1916, Invisible Allies, and The Mortal Danger. But the work that made him the most consequential writer of the twentieth century was the massive, three-volume Gulag Archipelago.
Solzhenitsyn's life and literary career benefited from Stalin's death in 1953 and the so-called Khrushchev "thaw" that followed. Many political prisoners like Solzhenitsyn were released from the labor camps, some of the crimes of Stalin were publicized and condemned, and censorship was somewhat eased. This environment enabled Solzhenitsyn in 1962 to publish his first fictional critique of the Soviet labor camp system, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.
After Khrushchev's fall from power in 1964, Solzhenitsyn tried to publish two more fictional books, The First Circle and Cancer Ward, which were highly critical of the Stalin era. Khrushchev's successor as General Secretary of the Communist Party, Leonid Breszhnev, and his Politburo colleagues, however, rightly worried that Solzhenitsyn's criticisms of the Party could extend beyond Stalin to the very heart of the Soviet system. Literary censorship was tightened. The manuscripts were refused publication by state authorities. They began circulating in samizdat, secretly, underground, in typewritten form. Solzhenitsyn also smuggled out copies to the West. He was increasingly viewed by the Communist Party as an enemy of the state who had to be silenced or...