Monday, August 04, 2008

Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, R.I.P.

The greatest and most effective prison reform advocate on the planet died yesterday at the ripe old age of 89. Russian novelist Alexandr Solzhenitsyn was perhaps best known for his literally and literarily awesome nonfiction tome, "The Gulag Archipelago," described in an early obituary as:
a monumental account of the Soviet labor camp system, a chain of prisons that by Solzhenitsyn's calculation some 60 million people had entered during the 20th century. The book led to his expulsion from his native land.
In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize (he could not attend the award ceremony for fear the Soviets would not allow him to leave), Solzhenitsyn recalled his own prison experience:
in the midst of exhausting prison camp relocations, marching in a column of prisoners in the gloom of bitterly cold evenings, with strings of camp lights glimmering through the darkness, we would often feel rising in our breast what we would have wanted to shout out to the whole world — if only the whole world could have heard us.
The great writer's idiosyncratic criticisms of the United States left him as ignored in America after the fall of Communism as he was celebrated before its demise. But it's hard to overstate his impact on global politics, literature, and especially on how the world viewed prisons during his lifetime. This anecdote from the same International Herald Tribune obituary gives at least a sense of his contrarian influence at the height of the Cold War:

One story, a short novel, was "A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," an account of a single day in an icy prison camp written in the voice of an inmate named Ivan Denisovich Shukov, a bricklayer. With little sentimentality, he recounts the trials and sufferings of "zeks," as the prisoners were known, peasants who were willing to risk punishment and pain as they seek seemingly small advantages like a few more minutes before a fire. He also reveals their survival skills, their loyalty to their work brigade and their pride.

The day ends with the prisoner in his bunk. "Shukov felt pleased with his life as he went to sleep," Solzhenitsyn wrote. Shukov was pleased because, among other things, he had not been put in an isolation cell, and his brigade had avoided a work assignment in a place unprotected from the bitter wind, and he had swiped some extra gruel, and had been able to buy a bit of tobacco from another prisoner.

"The end of an unclouded day. Almost a happy one," Solzhenitsyn wrote, adding: "Just one of the 3,653 days of his sentence, from bell to bell. The extra three days were for leap years."

Solzhenitsyn typed the story single spaced, using both sides to save paper. He sent one copy to Lev Kopelev, an intellectual with whom he had shared a cell 16 years earlier. Kopelev, who later became a well known dissident, realized that under Khrushchev's policies of liberalization, it might be possible to have the story published by Novy Mir, or The New World, the most prestigious of the Soviet Union's so-called thick literary and cultural journals. Kopelev and his colleagues steered the manuscript around lower editors who might have blocked its publication and took it to Aleksandr Tvardovsky, the editor and a Politburo member who backed Khrushchev.

On reading the manuscript, Tvardovsky summoned Solzhenitsyn from Ryazan. "You have written a marvelous thing," he told him. "You have described only one day, and yet everything there is to say about prison has been said." He likened the story to Tolstoy's moral tales. Other editors compared it to Dostoyevski's "House of the Dead," which the author had based on his own experience of incarceration in czarist times. Tvardovsky offered Solzhenitsyn a contract worth more than twice his teacher's annual salary, but he cautioned that he was not certain he could publish the story.

Tvardovsky was eventually able to get Khrushchev himself to read "A Day in the Life." Khrushchev was impressed, and by mid-October 1962, the presidium of the Politburo took up the question of whether to allow it to be published. The presidium ultimately agreed, and in his biography "Solzhenitsyn" (Norton, 1985), Michael Scammell wrote that Khrushchev defended the decision and was reported to have declared: "There's a Stalinist in each of you; there's even a Stalinist in me. We must root out this evil."

The novel appeared in Novy Mir in early 1963. The critic Kornei Chukovsky pronounced the work "a literary miracle." Grigori Baklanov, a respected novelist and writer about World War II, declared that the story was one of those rare creations after which "it is impossible to go on writing as one did before."

R.I.P., Alexandr Solzhenitsyn.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

""During an arrest, you think since you aren’t guilty, how can they arrest you? Why should you run away? And how can you resist right then? After all, you’ll only make your situation worse; you’ll make it more difficult for them to sort out the mistake. And how we burned in the camps later, thinking: What would things have been like if every Security operative, when he went out at night to make an arrest, had been uncertain whether he would return alive and had to say goodbye to his family? Or if, during periods of mass arrests, as for example in Leningrad, when they arrested a quarter of the entire city, people had not simply sat there in their lairs, paling with terror at every bang of the downstairs door and at every step on the staircase, but had understood they had nothing left to lose and had boldly set up in the downstairs hall an ambush of half a dozen people with axes, hammers, pokers, or whatever else was at hand? The Organs would very quickly have suffered a shortage of officers and transport and, notwithstanding all of Stalin’s thirst, the cursed machine would have ground to a halt! We didn’t love freedom enough. Every man always has handy a dozen glib little reasons why he is right not to sacrifice himself."

Alexander Solzenitsyn
Gulag Archipelago

Anonymous said...

""During an arrest, you think since you aren’t guilty, how can they arrest you? Why should you run away? And how can you resist right then? After all, you’ll only make your situation worse; you’ll make it more difficult for them to sort out the mistake. And how we burned in the camps later, thinking: What would things have been like if every Security operative, when he went out at night to make an arrest, had been uncertain whether he would return alive and had to say goodbye to his family? Or if, during periods of mass arrests, as for example in Leningrad, when they arrested a quarter of the entire city, people had not simply sat there in their lairs, paling with terror at every bang of the downstairs door and at every step on the staircase, but had understood they had nothing left to lose and had boldly set up in the downstairs hall an ambush of half a dozen people with axes, hammers, pokers, or whatever else was at hand? The Organs would very quickly have suffered a shortage of officers and transport and, notwithstanding all of Stalin’s thirst, the cursed machine would have ground to a halt! We didn’t love freedom enough. Every man always has handy a dozen glib little reasons why he is right not to sacrifice himself."

Alexander Solzenitsyn
Gulag Archipelago

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