Shukov felt pleased with life as he went to sleep . . . The end of an unclouded day.  Almost a happy one. [from One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich]

The journey is over.  Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn survived war, the Gulag, and cancer; was exiled from his homeland, only to return, having outlived the Soviet Union as he once predicted he would; and has died in his beloved Russia.  To Western eyes, and increasingly to Russian eyes as well, he seemed an exotic figure from a distant past, a bearded prophet from a Hollywood biblical epic, misplaced—or miscast—in the 20th and 21st centuries, a writer who spoke up because he had something important to say and was acting within the traditions of his nation as prophetic artists from its past had.  He must have puzzled many, since he had no use for the trappings of celebrity, was not concerned when his ideas proved unpopular, and did not curry favor with the popular media.  He often said things many of us, including his friends and admirers, did not want to hear and was prepared to die secure, to rest in peace.  He was not embarrassed by his Christian faith, was a patriot who sometimes harshly criticized his countrymen, and was a great artist, which sometimes is forgotten in all the controversies over his pronouncements on politics and society.  That he sometimes disappointed his admirers, who had come to expect so much from him, is really a measure of the man himself and a sign of the standing he achieved.

But there was peace in their hearts.  They were filled with the fearlessness of those who have lost everything, the fearlessness that is not easy to come by, but which endures. [from The First Circle]

Solzhenitsyn’s father, an artillery officer on the German front, died before Aleksandr was born, so he was reared by his mother.  Brought up as an Orthodox Christian, he later recalled how the old people explained the calamities that had befallen his homeland: “Men have forgotten God.”  But Solzhenitsyn became a loyal Soviet in his student days, and it would take his arrest and the ordeal of prison to change that—an ordeal for which he was thankful.  His reversion to Christianity was accompanied by a sense that he had found his purpose: to be a witness to the truth.

There is a Russian proverb: “The yes-man is your enemy, but a friend will argue with you.”  It is precisely . . . because my speech is prompted by friendship, that I have come to tell you: My friends, I’m not going to give you sugary words. [from Warning to the West]

Solzhenitsyn survived prison, made a miraculous recovery from cancer, and began his writing career, becoming a renowned dissident and rocking the world with his “experiment in literary investigation” in the Gulag Archipelago.  He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974, and came to live in Vermont.  It was during this period that he attracted the ire of many in the West, particularly after his Harvard Address.  He was no liberal, it became clear, but he was also no conservative in the sense it had come to be understood in the United States, and distortions and misinterpretations were inevitable, beginning with the idea that he hated the West, a strange mirror image of the view of many self-styled “patriots” in his homeland, who declared that he hated Russia.  Understanding his positions required deep reading and a serious engagement with his work, which was perhaps expecting too much from many of his critics.  His Harvard Address and other speeches were part of what he saw as his mission.

But the present crisis in our country is a much deeper one [than economic], it is a crisis of morality, a crisis so deep that we must not consider that the solutions will come in a decade or even a century. [from The Russian Question at the End of the 20th Century]

Solzhenitsyn’s rehabilitation in his homeland began during the perestroika period.  In September 1991, the treason charges against him were dropped.  In 1994, he returned home to live out his days and finish his literary projects.  He was treated with respect by his countrymen, though as one commentator noted after his return, his themes proved “too somber” for many of them.  Some of his longtime admirers criticized him for not speaking out more on the issues of the day and for what some of them saw as Kremlin agitprop.  I would advise them only to recall his words reproduced above—he criticized when he thought necessary, encouraged when he deemed it appropriate, but at his advanced age, and with diminished energy, he concentrated on finishing his life’s work.

In his last interview, given to the British newspaper the Independent, he was asked, “Are you afraid of death?”

Solzhenitsyn: No.  When I was young, the early death of my father cast a shadow over me—and I was afraid to die before all my literary plans came true.  But between 30 and 40 years of age my attitude to death became quite calm and balanced.  I feel it is a natural, but by no means the final, milestone of one’s existence.

Q: Anyhow, we wish you many years of creative life.

Solzhenitsyn: No, no.  Don’t.  It’s enough.