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Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn 

Childhood and Adolescence  

Aleksandr Isayevich (at birth — Isaakiyevich) Solzhenitsyn was born on December 11, 1918, in Kislovodsk. His mother, Taisiya Zakharovna Shcherbak, raised her son alone. Solzhenitsyn's father, peasant Isaaky Semyonovich Solzhenitsyn, went through the whole First World War and died six months before the birth of his son as a result of an accident. Taisiya Zakharovna came from a family of wealthy Ukrainian peasants. After the revolution, the family was dispossessed, so she moved to Rostov-on-Don with her son. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn spent his childhood in this city. 

Since his youth, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn dreamed of a career as a writer but initially chose a completely different occupation. In 1936, he entered the mathematical department of the university where he proved himself to be a talented and capable student, and graduated with honors. In his memoirs, Solzhenitsyn admitted this choice might have saved his life. After he had been taken under arrest, he spent a considerable portion of his sentence not in camps but in “sharashki” (closed design-engineering bureaus where convicted engineers, mathematicians, and technicians worked). Despite the success in his studies, Aleksandr did not give up the desire to pursue a writing career. In 1939, continuing his career as a mathematician, he entered the extramural department at the Moscow Institute of Philosophy, Literature and History. However, the Great Patriotic War interrupted his studies. 

Life of Solzhenitsyn 

Solzhenitsyn served in artillery reconnaissance in the field from 1943. His attitude to the authorities changed during the war. Aleksandr sharply criticized the actions of Joseph Stalin in his correspondence with acquaintances. For this reason, Captain Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, being the sound intelligence battery commander, was arrested in February 1945. After five months of investigation, he was sentenced to 8 years in camps and an indefinite exile at the end of his term. 

From 1946 to 1950, Solzhenitsyn was engaged in mathematical calculations in several defensive "sharashki" in Shcherbakov (now Rybinsk), Zagorsk (now Sergiyev Posad) and Moscow. Afterwards, because of a conflict with his superiors, he was transferred to a forced labour camp in northern Kazakhstan. He was kept there till his release from prison in February 1953. Subsequently, he wrote his famous story, “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”, based on his experience after serving the term in the camps. After his release from the camp, Solzhenitsyn remained in exile in Kazakhstan, lived in the south of the country and worked as a mathematics teacher in a rural school. 

In 1956, owing to de-Stalinization policy, Solzhenitsyn was released, returned from exile and settled, first, in the village of Miltsevo (the Vladimir Region) and, then, in Ryazan where he worked as a school teacher again. 

Despite the initial recognition and publications in the times of the "Khrushchev's thaw", by the beginning of the 1960s, Solzhenitsyn had almost lost the trust of the authorities. For audacious anti-Soviet criticism and openly declared adherence to Orthodoxy, the writer lost the opportunity to publish his works in the Soviet Union. However, his works were actively printed in the West. In the USSR, his works were actively distributed in the samizdat (underground press). In 1969, Solzhenitsyn was expelled from the USSR Writers’ Union, to which he had been admitted seven years earlier, in 1962. 

In 1970, the Nobel Committee awarded Solzhenitsyn the prize "for the moral strength he had towards the immutable traditions of Russian literature". The award of the famous dissident was obviously not only a literary but also a socio-political gesture. 

In 1974, the highest authorities raised an issue of what to do with Solzhenitsyn. The disputes in the Politburo brought up the predominant opinion of Yuri Andropov, the chairman of the KGB, who insisted that Solzhenitsyn should be stripped of his citizenship rather than serve the term in the camps. Shortly after, the writer was arrested, accused of treason and exiled. Alexander Solzhenitsyn's works published in the USSR were under a ban. In March 1974, the writer was deprived of Soviet citizenship and forcibly left the country together with his family. 

At first, Solzhenitsyn settled in Zurich, Switzerland. He often travelled throughout Europe and North America. A few years later, in 1976, the Solzhenitsyns moved to the United States and settled in the tiny town of Cavendish, Vermont. There, the writer lived in seclusion, worked hard and had little contact with journalists. 

Living in the West, Solzhenitsyn continued criticizing the USSR's socio-political system and even Western democracy at times. The local press frequently accused the writer of dissatisfaction with any social system. Solzhenitsyn scarcely ever had smooth relations with Russian emigrants though he took an active part in the work of YMCA-Press, the famous publishing house that published their works in the West. 

The attitude towards Solzhenitsyn in the Soviet Union changed dramatically after the beginning of Perestroika in the USSR, closer to the 1990s. His books were printed in large numbers. In 1990, the writer obtained Soviet citizenship again and was even awarded the State Prize of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. Solzhenitsyn returned to Russia in 1994. He arrived in the Far East by plane and travelled by train from Vladivostok to Moscow across the country. 

The return of Solzhenitsyn to Russia was truly triumphant as he gained recognition, fame, and moral standing among many fans of his works. Solzhenitsyn was invited to speak in the State Duma. By personal order of the Russian President Boris Yeltsin, the writer took possession of a part of the state villa in Troitse-Lykovo, in the neighbourhood of the countryside residences of many major statesmen. There, the Solzhenitsyns built a large house where the writer enjoyed working and receiving guests. In 1997, he became a full member of the Russian Academy of Sciences. 

However, Solzhenitsyn didn't accept equally willingly all signs of recognition by the authorities. Keeping an eye on mistakes of the Russian top leadership made in the 1990s, he continued criticizing them for the war in Chechnya and the economic crisis. In 1998, Solzhenitsyn turned down the highest Russian Order of St Andrew the Apostle the First-Called, claiming he could not accept the award from “the supreme power that brought Russia to its current disastrous state”. In 2006, he was awarded the State Prize of the Russian Federation "for outstanding achievements in humanitarian work". 

Oeuvre of Solzhenitsyn 

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's works followed the realistic tradition. His literary works are characterized by the magnitude of the events described: life of a “little man” in Solzhenitsyn's works always appears as a part of the larger story. His texts are distinguished by the nexus of documentary and fiction, the specific imagery, plenty of biblical allusions and references to classical works of world literature. Solzhenitsyn aspired to transform the world and critically assess reality both in artwork and in journalism. 

The writer's most famous works include the stories “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”, “Matryona's Home” and “Cancer Ward”, the novels “In the First Circle” and “The Red Wheel”, as well as “The Gulag Archipelago”, the historical and artistic study whose genre affiliation is difficult to determine. 

The camp agenda and criticism of the Soviet power were of great importance in Solzhenitsyn's works throughout his life. Solzhenitsyn designated “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” as a story though it was called a novella during publication. It became Solzhenitsyn’s first published text and made a real revolution in the literary and social life of the USSR. In 1962, the publication of such a work in the Soviet Union seemed unthinkable. However, it was personally approved by Nikita Khrushchev with some censorship edits. Aleksandr Tvardovsky, an editor of Novy Mir magazine, played a large role in the publication of “One Day…” — he recommended the work to the Soviet leader. 

Solzhenitsyn spent 10 years from 1958 to 1968 researching and writing "The Gulag Archipelago". This work is based on letters, memoirs and interviews of prisoners, as well as the author's own camp experience. It was banned in the USSR and became a reason for the arrest and deportation of Solzhenitsyn. Later, it was published abroad. 

Among his numerous journalistic works are the essay "Live Not by Lies" and a famous article titled "Rebuilding Russia," written in the waning days of Perestroika. The royalties from the latter were donated by Solzhenitsyn to the Chernobyl Disaster Victims Relief Fund. 

Family and Private Life 

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's private life was overshadowed by imprisonment, exile and forced emigration. From 1940 to 1972, he was officially married to Natalya Alekseyevna Reshetovskaya (1919–2003). This marital union from 1948 to 1957 was interrupted by a fictitious divorce during the imprisonment and exile of the writer. However, the couple broke up for real in 1968. 

In 1968, Solzhenitsyn met 30-year-old Natalya Dmitriyevna Svetlova who, at first, became the writer's secretary and assistant and, from 1973, his wife. In the second marriage, Solzhenitsyn had three sons — Yermolai, Ignat and Stepan. Yermolai and Stepan became successful businessmen, and Ignat achieved success in classical music — he is a pianist and conductor. 

Death and Funeral  

Although Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn was seriously ill in the last years of his life, suffering from cardiovascular diseases, he continued working. Solzhenitsyn died on August 3, 2008, at the age of 89. The civil funeral was held on August 5 at the Russian Academy of Sciences and gathered thousands of people. Representatives of the authorities and figures of science, culture and arts came to say final goodbyes to Solzhenitsyn. The writer was buried according to the Orthodox rite at the cemetery of the Donskoy Monastery in Moscow on August 6. 


Alexander Solzhenitsyn's bibliography is too extensive, so we will list only the most significant works. 

Novellas, stories and small pieces of art: 

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1959) 

Matryona's Home (1959) 

Incident at Kochetovka Station (1962) 

For the Good of the Cause (1963) 

Zakhar-the-Pouch (1965) 

What a Pity (1965) 

Easter Procession (1966) 

Zhelyabuga Village (1999) 

No Matter What (1995) 

Fracture Points (1996) 

Cancer Ward (1967) 

The Right Hand (1960) 

Adlig Schwenkitten (1998) 

Miniatures. A Cycle of Prose Poems (1958–1963) 

Recovering Your Wits ("Woe from Wit" through the eyes of a prisoner) (1954) 

Love the Revolution (1958) 

Apricot Jam (1995) 

The New Generation (1995) 

Nastenka (1995) 

Ego (1994) 

Times of Crisis (1995) 


In the First Circle (1958) 

Cancer Ward (1967) 

August 1914 (1981) 

October 1916 (1983) 

March 1917 (1986) 

April 1917 (1989) 

Documentary works: 

The Gulag Archipelago (1968) 

Reflections on the February Revolution (1983) 

Two Hundred Years Together (2002) 

Through the Fumes ("The Oak and the Calf") (1979) 

Memoirs, essays, articles: 

The Oak and the Calf. Memoirs of a Literary Life (1975) 

Between Two Millstones (2003) 

As Breathing and Consciousness Return (1973) 

Repentance and Self-Limitation in the Life of Nations (1974) 

Obrazovanshchina (1974) 

Our Pluralists (1982) 

Live Not by Lies! (1973) 

Rebuilding Russia (1990) 

Misconceptions about Russia are a Threat to America (1980) 

The Russian Question at the End of the Twentieth Century (1994) 

Russia in Collapse (1998) 

Dark Personalities Don't Seek Light (2003) 

Plays and screenplays: 

Feast of the Victors (1951) 

Prisoners (The Decembrists) (1953) 

The Love-Girl and the Innocent (1954) 

Candle in the Wind (1960) 

Tanks Know the Truth (1959) 

The Scrounger (1968) 

Cover image: https://ria.ru 


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