Tuesday, August 5, 2008

aleksandr solzhenitsyn, r.i.p.

Any guy who gave the finger to communism and to the old Soviet Union was my kinda guy. And no one, arguably, was more bold about it than Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. He certainly looked the part, with that stern Russian face, that dour countenance, that long beard, but he had also lived it: Solzhenitsyn experienced first-hand the barbaric prison camps, having been sentenced to eight years of hard labor for simply writing to a friend that the megalomanical monster Joseph Stalin was "the man with the mustache." Upon being sent to what The New York Times called in its obit of him "a desolate penal camp in Kazakhstan called Ekibastuz," this is what Solzhenitsyn was up against:
At Ekibastuz, any writing would be seized as contraband. So he devised a method that enabled him to retain even long sections of prose. After seeing Lithuanian Catholic prisoners fashion rosaries out of beads made from chewed bread, he asked them to make a similar chain for him, but with more beads. In his hands, each bead came to represent a passage that he would repeat to himself until he could say it without hesitation. Only then would he move on to the next bead. He later wrote that by the end of his prison term, he had committed to memory 12,000 lines in this way.

His witness, among others, was the harrowing and frightening Gulag Archipelago, a book, at the risk of sounding pretentious, I'm honestly proud to admit I've read. Solzhenitsyn's willingness to tell the truth -- "It is within the power of writers and artists to do much more: to defeat the lie!" he said -- not only exposed the fraud that was the so-called "worker's paradise," but the totalitarian grip to which it subjected millions of people the world over for much of the 20th century. Christopher Hitchens, in his awesome-if-qualified tribute at Slate, writes:
[H]e kept on writing. The Communist Party's goons could have torn it up or confiscated or burned it -- as they did sometimes -- but he continued putting it down on paper and keeping a bottom drawer filled for posterity. This is a kind of fortitude for which we do not have any facile name. The simplest way of phrasing it is to say that Solzhenitsyn lived "as if." Barely deigning to notice the sniggering, pick-nose bullies who followed him and harassed him, he carried on "as if" he were a free citizen, "as if" he had the right to study his own country's history, "as if" there were such a thing as human dignity.
David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, called him "the dominant writer of the 20th century" because of "the effect he has had on history." Born the year after the Russian Revolution, Solzhenitsyn outlived the Red Menace by nearly 17 years before dying late Sunday night at the age of 89. R.I.P.

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