Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1): Student, Soldier, Prisoner, Teacher

 Student (1918-1941)

Alexander Solzhenitsyn was born on December 11, 1918, in Kislovodsk, a city in the Caucasus region of southern Russia. His father, Isaaki, was an artillery officer who fought on the German Front from 1914 until the Russian army was demobilized in 1918. His mother, Taisia, grew up in a landowning family and was able to learn French and English. His father died in a hunting accident six months before his birth. Shortly after his birth, his mother took him to Rostov-on-Don and raised him there, supporting them both by working as a secretary.

Eleven-year-old Solzhenitsyn read Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace and decided to become a writer. To learn how to do that well, he needed to go to university in Moscow. That was impossible: his mother, sole source of support, was poor and sick. Instead, he studied mathematics in Rostov. At least he was able to take a correspondence course in literature with an institute in Moscow (1939-41). In June 1941, just as the German army was invading the Soviet Union, he graduated from Rostov University with distinction.

Soldier (1941-45)

Because of his poor health, the Soviet army first assigned Solzhenitsyn duty as a wagoner. Given his mathematical skills, however, the next year found him on the front as commander of a company scouting enemy artillery positions. His company reached Poland in 1944 and Germany itself in 1945. He eventually was honored three times for bravery.

Prisoner (1945-1956)

Beginning in 1944, Solzhenitsyn started writing to an old classmate. In February 1945, censors found him writing that Stalin had betrayed the Revolution. He was arrested, tried in absentia, and sentenced to eight years of imprisonment under the Main Administration of Camps. The Russian acronym for this bureaucracy was Gulag. An archipelago is a chain of islands. Solzhenitsyn thought of all work camps together as a chain of island and later wrote about them, and his experiences in several of them, in a three-volume set of books entitled The Gulag Archipelago.

He spent his first year at various camps doing a variety of jobs. In 1946, and for the next four years, he benefitted from lighter duties and greater privileges by working as a mathematician in a scientific research camp. This is when he first began to write. He eventually shared his reflections on this period of time in The First Circle.

Solzhenitsyn finished his eight-year sentence doing various types of manual labor for three years at a special camp for political prisoners in Ekibastuz, Kazakhstan, which he wrote about in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. There he developed cancer which, despite surgery, remained.

Teacher (1953-1962)

Instead of being released from control at the end of his sentence in 1953, Solzhenitsyn spent three years internally exiled to the village Kok-Terek in southeast Kazakhstan. Coincidentally, on March 5, 1953, the day Joseph Stalin died, Solzhenitsyn was able, for the first time, to walk in public without an armed escort. By day he worked as a high school teacher of math and physics; by night and in secret, as a writer busily creating The First Circle. His cancer worsening, he was sent to a hospital in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where he improved significantly (see Cancer Ward).

Following Nikita Krushchev’s denouncement of Stalin (1956), Solzhenitsyn and others were granted amnesty and allowed to return from internal exile to European Russia. Solzhenitsyn first continued to teach and write in Vladimir where he lived as a boarder in the house of a widow named Matryona.

A year later he moved to Ryazan and continued to work on The First Circle. He also wrote One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Matryona’s Home (1959).

By 1961, the burden of being a writer in secret grew too great to bear. Solzhenitsyn decided to risk sharing the manuscript of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich with Alexander Tvardovsky, editor of the prominent literary magazine Novy Mir (The New World). Tvardovsky paid him twice his annual teacher’s salary for the manuscript.

Copyright © 2021 by Steven Farsaci. All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.