Before the anthrax news, um, hit the fan, the top story everywhere was on the death last night of 89-year-old Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago revealed the terrors underlying Soviet Communism.
The various treatments of Solzhenitsyn’s death reveal a struggle about how to deal with a figure whose life is so weirdly conflicted. He became famous in the 1960s when, while working as a high school science teacher, he drew from his own experiences to write about Soviet prison camps. The quote-heavy AP article maintains, somewhat dramatically, that: “At a time when government reports ask whether Americans care about reading anymore, the legacy of Nobel laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn reminds us that books can matter as much as life and death.”
Awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970, he was subsequently arrested for treason. With the end of the Soviet Union he returned to Russia in 1994 and became a talk show host who rarely let his guests talk: “a combination of Charlie Rose and Moses.” At the same time, as the BBC succinctly put it, he “wrote several polemics on Russian history and identity.” These polemics did not sell well.
Most treatments of Solzhenitsyn’ s life downplay the stories of the author’s later career, in which he sometimes veered into unpopular or even irrational territory. In later years he was often dismissed as a crank, even if his criticisms of Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Putin, and Western materialism later turned out to be mostly valid. Solzhenitsyn was usually right, but only sporadically did what he had to say coincide with what it was people wanted to hear.