Solzhenitsyn had long since passed out of fashion and even been mostly forgotten by the conventional academia of the West, and since the economic recovery and political stabilization and reintegration of Russia under President Vladimir Putin, he had even become a largely forgotten irrelevance in his own country. But his stature as a novelist of genius, moral stature and political acumen of comparable stature to Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky was already established four decades ago. No individual did more to shatter the political and moral credibility of Soviet communism at home, or to awaken hundreds of millions of people across the West to its genocides, purges, absurdities and reprehensible nature.
Solzhenitsyn's first published novel, "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," shattered the taboos of terror and silence about openly describing the Soviet labor and concentration camp system for the first time in the nearly 45 years since the Bolshevik regime was established in 1917. His two gigantic classic novels, "The First Circle" and "Cancer Ward," compare favorably in their scope, brilliance and insights into the human condition with anything Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky ever wrote. In recognition for these achievements, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970. Then his enormous "Gulag Archipelago," published in three volumes in the West through the 1970s, was the most documented, vivid and impassioned history and indictment of the entire Soviet system of tyranny.
As a writer alone, Solzhenitsyn established himself as one of the finest and most important who ever lived. But his own entire life was an epic. Born already an orphan after his father died before his birth in a hunting accident, he grew up in appalling privation in Ukraine during the darkest years of Stalinist repression. As a boy he lived through the holodymyr -- the famine-genocide imposed by the Soviet authorities from 1929 to 1932 that killed up to 10 million Ukrainian peasants in what historian Robert Conquest called "The Harvest of Sorrow." (Solzhenitsyn, however, in later life, fiercely denied that the communist repression in Ukraine was in fact a genocide.) He studied mathematics at Rostov State University and fought through World War II -- known to Russians as the Great Patriotic War -- as a brave counter-artillery officer. He spent almost four years continually in the front lines of the largest, fiercest and bloodiest military campaign in human history.
There was no relief for him when the war wound down. Comments in a letter he wrote to a friend criticizing Stalin's policy of universal pillage, rape and destruction in the conquest of Germany brought Solzhenitsyn to the attention of the Soviet secret police, and he was thrown into the Gulag concentration camp system for an eight-year sentence under Article 58 of the Stalinist penal code. Finally released into perpetual exile in Kazakhstan and into extreme poverty in 1953, he could not even enjoy the most modest pleasures of freedom in the arid semi-desert steppe of Central Asia. He fell deathly ill: It was diagnosed as stomach cancer.
At this moment, in the most extraordinary and miraculous of developments, his luck lastingly changed for the better: He proved abnormally resistant to the negative effects of X-rays during treatments at a hospital in Tashkent in what is today independent Uzbekistan. His tumor was bombarded and went into remission. He fully recovered and led an full, active and amazingly productive life for more than another half-century.
Even during his years in the Gulag, Solzhenitsyn had, at enormous risk to his survival, been gathering eyewitness accounts, statistics and every kind of fact, and he had been writing first drafts of his seminal works and memorizing them. After his release, he spent more than 20 years outwitting the Soviet internal security services, the most efficient, repressive, largest and long-lived secret police organizations in history. He continued his research, wrote his manuscripts and hid them successfully under the eyes of the so-called security "organs." He later told the remarkable story of those years of defiance in his autobiographical memoir "The Oak and the Calf." He became a devout lifelong Christian in the Russian Orthodox tradition.
Solzhenitsyn succeeded in getting "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" published within the Soviet Union in 1962 in the literary magazine Novy Mir ("New World"). Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev personally approved its publication. His great novels had to be smuggled out and published in the West. But once "Gulag Archipelago" started appearing, for the rulers in the Kremlin, it was the last straw.
Solzhenitsyn was by then already a Nobel laureate, and he had become far too much of a world figure to be quietly disposed of. Even the Soviets did not dare murder him or imprison him or fake his "accidental" death or fictitious "suicide." He was flown into exile in Frankfurt, West Germany. Eventually, he settled in Vermont in the United States. He lived there, working on yet more ambitious works, and survived to see the collapse of communism and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. In 1994 he returned with his family to live in the chaotic, destitute and crime-ridden but certainly free Russia of President Boris Yeltsin. He even had his own TV show for a while in which he fulminated at the sufferings, social privations, excesses, corruption and abuses of the new Russia.
In his last years, he fell out of critical favor in the West and was forgotten as a relic of a long-dead past at home in Russia. The enormous historical novels of "The Red Wheel" on which he toiled in his later years proved to be unreadable, even to his greatest admirers. And the revisions he made on his classic early novels, especially "The First Circle," made them appear simplistic and strident compared with the perfect pitch of the first published editions.
But in death and after, his miraculous achievements far outshadowed his understandable human limitations: Alexander Solzhenitsyn defied, survived and helped bury a monstrous system of tyranny that claimed even more lives than the Nazi Germany of Adolf Hitler. His work and testimony stripped the last remaining rose-colored spectacles regarding the Soviet system from the eyes of Western leftists and other sympathizers. He consciously saw himself as the latest descendant and heir in the great line of Russia literary and moral titans. And he proved to be a living example of the power of literature and moral dissent. He proved the truth of his conviction that "One Word of Truth Can Change the Whole World," and that, contrary to the most fundamental dictates of the Marxist-Leninist secular faith, the efforts of a single individual really do matter and can indeed transform the world for the better.