Laureate of history, sorrow

Chronicler of Soviet repression emerged as nationalist figure

Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn 1918-2008

August 04, 2008|By Carol J. Williams | Carol J. Williams,LOS ANGELES TIMES

MOSCOW - Nobel laureate Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn, the reclusive icon of the Russian intelligentsia and chronicler of communist repression, has died of heart failure, Russian news agencies reported. He was 89.

Stephan Solzhenitsyn told the Associated Press his father died late yesterday, but he declined to comment further.

The soulful writer and spiritual father of Russia's nationalist patriotic movement lived to be reunited with his beloved homeland after two decades of exile - only to be as distressed by communism's damage to the Russian character as he was by his earlier forced estrangement from the land and people he loved.

Solzhenitsyn returned from his Vermont refuge to a dramatically changed Russia in May 1994, but deemed it a moral ruin after a months-long odyssey to get reacquainted with the country that had denounced him as a traitor, stripped him of citizenship and expelled him in 1974.

Solzhenitsyn's labor, loves and politics mirrored the tumultuous history of his country throughout the past century.

"It is history's sorrow, the grief of our era, that I carry about me like an anathema," Solzhenitsyn once wrote of his life.

That he persevered through nearly nine decades was a wonder to many; the bearded author with piercing blue eyes and a diffident manner had weathered cancer, prison, labor camps and condemnation.

Hailed as Russia's greatest living writer, the author of more than two dozen books in addition to commentaries, poems, plays and film scripts won back his citizenship and the respect of his fellow Russians after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Although his books were best-sellers in the West throughout his career, only One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was published first in his homeland.

Other major works include a memoir, The Oak and the Calf, and August 1914, the first volume of a monumental history of 20th-century Russia.

With his masterwork, The Gulag Archipelago, he gave a name to the brutal network of labor camps that spread across the Soviet Union during dictator Josef Stalin's frenzied drive to industrialize his backward country. Tens of millions of men, women and children died.

Solzhenitsyn spent the last decade of his life in failing health and seclusion at his rural estate outside Moscow, editing his life's work for a 30-volume anthology that he predicted he would never live to see completed.

The first three volumes were presented at a Moscow literary event in his absence in 2006. In an author's note, he said that publication would run through 2010 and "will continue after my death."

Carol J. Williams writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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