Biography of Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Alexander Isayevich Solzhenitsyn was born on December 11, 1918, in the spa town of Kislovodsk in the North Caucausus mountains. His father, a former philology student at Moscow University, had died in World War I six months before his only son's birth. Alexander Isaevich, therefore, was born to a widowed mother in relatively indigent circumstances.

The elder Solzhenitsyn had volunteered from the army, abandoning his course of study, in 1914 and had served as an artillery officer on the German front. He was an officer in the Grenadier Artillery Brigade and a member of a battery that remained on the front lines until the Treaty of Brest. He and Alexander's mother had been married on the front lines by a brigade priest. Though he returned home from the war in the spring of 1918, he died soon after as the result of an accident and poor medical care.

Solzhenitsyn's mother never remarried, partially because of her fear that a new husband would be too strict a step-father to her son. She was an educated woman, fluent in French and English, and supported herself and her son by working as a typist and stenographer. Beginning in 1924, the two lived in Rostov-on-Don. They were forced to rent rooms and huts from private owners because the state did not provide them with a room. After fifteen years, they were finally given a drafty room in a reconstructed stable.

From his boyhood, Solzhenitsyn planned to become a writer, though he called his early writings "much of the usual youthful nonsense." As a teenager, he submitted stories, all of which were rejected, to Boris Lavrenev and Konstantin Fedin at the journal Znamya. Years later, Fedin would prevent the publication of by-then well-known author Solzhenitsyn's novel Cancer Ward.

Though Solzhenitsyn longed to study literature as his father had at Moscow University, his mother could not afford to send him to Moscow. Therefore, he embarked upon a course of study in the Department of Physics and Mathematics at the University of Rostov-on-Don in 1937. Later, he would say that his degree in mathematics twice saved his life - teaching mathematics in a sharashka for four years of an eight-year prison camp term and again teaching mathematics to support himself in exile after his release.

Ultimately, Solzhenitsyn was able to continue his literary studies concurrently with his mathematical education. Between 1939 and '41 he was enrolled in a correspondence program of Moscow's Institute of History, Philosophy, and Literature. During his years as a student, Solzhenitsyn wrote an essay about the Samsonov disaster of World War I, sparking an interest in the war that would one day result in his novel August 1914. In 1940, while still a student, Solzhenitsyn married chemistry student Natalia Alekseevna Reshotovskaya.

After graduating in 1941, just a few days before the beginning of World War II, Solzhenitsyn was given a job as a physics teacher at the First Secondary School of Morozovka in his home region of Rostov. His tenure in this position was cut short due to the war, and in October of 1941, he found himself assigned to be the driver of horse-drawn vehicles for the Red Army, a job that he would hold throughout the following winter.

Here, for the first time, Solzhenitzyn's mathematical education played a role in shaping his destiny. Because of his background in mathematics, he was transferred to artillery school and completed an abridged artillery training program in November of 1942. After his commissioning, he served for two weeks in the Gorky region before being made commander of a reconnaissance artillery battery on the Leningrad front. He served continuously until 1945, always on the front - in the battle of Kursk, in White Russia, in Poland, and in East Prussia. Promoted to captain, Solzhenitsyn received the Order of the Patriotic War Class II and the Order of the Red Star.

During the war, between 1944 and '45, Solzhenitsyn had corresponded with a school friend, N.D. Vitkevich, criticizing Stalin but referring to him under a pseudonym. Nontheless, Captain Solzhenitsyn was summoned to the office of brigade commander, Colonel Travkin, where he was arrested. His Colonel defied the SMERSH men arresting Solzhenitsyn by informing the young officer of the reason for his arrest, shaking his hand, and wishing him happiness.

Drafts of stories were used to support a charge of anti-Soviet propaganda against Solzhenitsyn. He was beaten and interrogated at Lubyanka prison in Moscow, and was sentenced in absentia, a common practice for the Soviet government, by a three-man tribunal of the NKGB to eight years of hard labor on July 7, 1945. He spent the next five months at correctional camps near Moscow, where he was forced to work on city building projects. In 1946, because of his mathematical expertise, he was sent to the MVB-MGB scientific research institute in Moscow, where he spent four years.

In 1950, Solzhenitsyn was sent to Ekibastuz, a new camp for political prisoners only, in Kazakhstan for the three years remaining in his sentence. He would later transform his experiences at that camp, working as a bricklayer, laborer, and smelter, into One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. While there, he developed cancer, and was operated on but not cured. Immediately after his release from the camp in March of 1953, Solzhenitsyn served a one-month holdover at a transit camp and upon his release, learned that Stalin had just died. Nevertheless, Solzhenitsyn was sentenced to perpetual exile in Kokterek in southern Kazakhstan.

Solzhenitsyn spent the next three years of his life, until June 1956, in exile in Kokterek, except for a period at the end of 1953 when his cancerous tumor became life-threatening and he was sent to a cancer clinic in Tashkent, where he was cured. During his years in exile, he taught mathematics and physics in school and wrote, stories and the play The Love-Girl and the Innocent, in his spare time. In 1956, the Military Section of the Supreme Court reviewed his case and declared him rehabilitated and free to return to European Russia.

Upon his return to European Russia, Solzhenitsyn settled first in the Vladimir district and then in Ryazan, a town a hundred miles southeast of Moscow. While in prison, Solzhenitsyn had divorced his wife in order to protect her from persecution because of her association with him. Though she had married another man and had two children with him, she returned to Solzhenitsyn upon his release. Living in Ryazan, Solzhenitsyn supported himself by teaching mathematics, writing in his spare time, while Natalia Reshotovskaya taught at the Ryazan Polytechnical Institute. In the early '60s, the couple considered moving to Obninsk, a scientific center southwest of Moscow, where Reshotovskaya had applied for a position as a chemist, but local Party members blocked her application.

Solzhenitsyn's first novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was published in 1962 after a round of intense, routine scrutiny by Party officials. One Day, based upon Solzhenitsyn's experiences in the forced labor camp, was actually completed in 1958 but not submitted to the literary magazine Novy Mir until 1961. In a closed session of the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956, Soviet Premier Khrushchev delivered his "secret speech," denouncing Stalin. That speech was made public in 1961, during efforts to emphasize "destalinization" in the Soviet Union.

Alexander Tvardovsky, editor of Novy Mir, sought approval from the Central Committee of the Communist Party for publication of Solzhenitsyn's book. The committee was deeply divided and a final decision in favor of publication is said to have been made by Khrushchev himself. One Day was published in Novy Mir in November 1962, and government publications made efforts - through translation into English and publication in numerous literary venues - to give maximum publicity to this book which functioned as an instrument in Khrushchev's campaign to expose Stalin's abuses.

Now a celebrated writer in the Soviet Union and abroad, Solzhenitsyn ceased teaching and continued to write. His short stories, "Matryona's Homestead," "An Incident at Krechetovka Station," and "For the Good of the Cause" were published in Novy Mir in 1963. However, as Khruschev's power similarly wained, ending in his forced retirement in 1964, Solzhenitsyn too began to face a backlash. Despite his obvious merit, he was defeated as a candidate for the Lenin Prize in 1964. The editorial board questioned and delayed publication of his novels The First Circle and The Cancer Ward in 1964 and '66, Solzhenitsyn's manuscripts and private archives were confiscated by secret police in 1965, and he sent a letter of protest to Premier Brezhnev in 1966. Solzhenitysn also clashed with the Writers' Union.

By 1968, both unauthorized excerpts and complete English translations of The Cancer Ward and The First Circle were published in England and Western Europe. In the following year, however, Solzhenitsyn's struggles with the Writers' Union, who had come to see him as a dangerous and outspoken political figure, culminated in his expulsion from the Writers' Union, thus depriving him of his status as a Soviet writer. Officially and publicly expelled, Solzhenitsyn condemned the Union's action and received some support from at least seventy other writers.

Meanwhile, Solzhenitsyn's personal life was equally chaotic. He had separated from Reshotovskaya, who had moved in with her mother, and had begun a relationship with a thirty-two-year-old mathematics teacher named Natalya Svetlova. In 1970, their son was born. In October of that same year, he was announced as winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. The Soviet press attacked this as a politically hostile act, and Solzhenitsyn was forced to decline the opportunity to accept the award in person because of his fear that he would not be allowed to return to the country. Continually criticized by the Soviet Press and by Brezhnev himself, Solzhenitsyn continued to write - this time August 1914, the first in a series of novels about World War I - and publish abroad, with the help of a Swedish lawyer. Efforts to award Solzhenitsyn his Nobel Award medal privately were blocked by the Soviet authorities in 1972, after he spoke to reporters from the New York Times and Washington Post about his continued political persecution.

In 1973, Reshotovskaya, despite pressure from the KGB, granted Solzhenitsyn a divorce, and he married Svetlova, with whom he would have two more children. However, he was at first not allowed to live with her. He had been hiding his novel, The Gulag Archipelago from the authorities, fearful that people mentioned in it would suffer reprisals. But when his former assistant, Elizaveta Voronyanskaya after being interrogated by the KGB revealed the location of a copy of the manuscript and hung herself, Solzhenitsyn decided to publish it. The Gulag Archipelago, the first volume of which was published in Paris in December of 1973, detailed some 1,800 pages of Soviet abuses from 1918 onward and was Solzhenitsyn's attempt to create a literary/historical record of the vast system of prison and labor camps in the Soviet Union. Though Pravda called it a lie, foreign radio stations immediate broadcast of the text into Soviet lands could not be escaped.

In February of 1974, KGB officers arrested Solzhenitsyn and brought him to Lefortovo Prison, where he was stripped and interrogated and charged with treason. The next day, he was told that he was to be deprived of his citizenship and was immediately deported to West Germany. He eventually rented a house in Zurich and was joined by his wife, their three children, and his step-daughter from Svetlova's first marriage in March. Subsequent volumes of The Gulag Archipelago were published in Paris later in the year.

Living in the West, Solzhenitsyn continued to publish profusely. From Under the Rubble, The Oak and the Calf, and Lenin in Zurich all appeared in print in 1975. That same year, Solzhenitsyn and his family settled in a secluded estate in Cavendish, Vermont, where Solzhenitsyn would remain for the next twenty years. In the '80s, he followed August 1914 with three more historical novels - October 1916, March 1917, and April 1917. Life in the United States also allowed Solzhenitsyn to be more open and outspoken about the significance of Christianity in his worldview.

The decreasing tensions between the US and USSR and the coming of glasnost in the 1980s paved the way for the publication of Solzhenitsyn's works in his native land, including excerpts from The Gulag Archipelago. Changing political climates meant that in 1990, Solzhenitsyn could be declared once more a citizen of the Soviet Union. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Solzhenitsyn returned to his homeland in 1995. In 1997, Russia established the Solzhenitzyn Prize for literature in his honor.

Study Guides on Works by Alexander Solzhenitsyn