One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is probably the best-known work of Russian author, activist, and exile Alexandr Solzhenitsyn. I can’t say ‘best loved’ because his stark depiction of life in a Soviet gulag is revelatory and deeply unsettling. And yet Ivan Denisovich himself represents a daily triumph over those who would imprison the bodies and murder the souls of ordinary people.
Solzhenitsyn had first-hand knowledge of his subject matter. For eight years he labored in a gulag, convicted of mocking Stalin and criticizing his management of the war. When he was released, he began writing Denisovich, which was published in 1957. Within the Soviet Union (probably because Khruschev was trying to disparage Stalin himself), Denisovich was allowed to be published, and Solzhenitsyn was honored for his writing. His novels The First Circle and Cancer Ward, published in 1968, offered another view of Stalinism, elevating the protagonists beyond Ivan Denisovich’s level to a technical class better able to analyze their predicaments. That same year, during Brezhnev’s reaction to an easing of relations with the west, he was accused of anti-Soviet activity and was forced out of the public eye.
In 1970 Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, but was not allowed to leave the country for the ceremony. Still under suspicion by the authorities after The Gulag Archipelago was published in 1974, he was exiled from Russia. He moved to the US to live in Vermont, but made himself unpopular with his pointed, occasionally vitriolic critiques of Western spirituality, values, and economics. When the Soviet Union broke up, he returned to Moscow, but was equally unpopular there for his views, which tended to look back towards the glory of a Greater Russia.
More than most artists, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn seemed to be a man without a country – suspected by Soviet authorities but popular with the Russian people, suspected by the American people but a valuable propaganda figure for the American authorities, revered for his role as a spokesman against totalitarianism, but mistrusted by the wave of reformers that followed the dissolution of the Soviet Union. He embodied the ideal of the artist using his craft to make political statements, but the mixed consequences must have frustrated him deeply. I hope he has found peace – and a home – at last.