Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the great Russian writer who died this month, was an unparalleled witness to the Gulag – Joseph Stalin’s system of slave labour camps.
His books are a savage indictment of Stalinism, but also a monument to the humanity of the six million people who passed through the camps from 1930 to the mid-1950s.
Solzhenitsyn was an enthusiastic Leninist in his youth. But he died a fanatical religious nationalist and friend of the far right. He backed the US war in Vietnam, railed against democracy, supported General Franco in Spain, and backed Russia’s invasions of Chechnya.
Like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky before him, he failed as a political prophet, but his literary works are stunning achievements. It would be foolish to turn our back on Solzhenitsyn simply because of his politics.
He was born in 1918, a year after the Russian Revolution. A child prodigy, he was a brilliant student of mathematics, studying literature in his spare time.
When war broke out he became an elite artillery officer, but was arrested in 1945 after letters to a friend, in which he was critical of Stalin, were intercepted by counter-intelligence. He was sentenced to eight years in the Gulag.
Forbidden to put anything down on paper, he remembered what he saw in the form of poems. After serving his sentence, he became a maths teacher in a provincial town and started to write.
By the mid-1950s the slave labour camps had served their purpose for the Stalinist regime. They were hugely important in creating the primitive infrastructure for Soviet heavy industry, but as the economy developed the camps became inefficient.
This was the background to the 1956 “secret speech” by new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in which he denounced Stalin. This marked the beginning of a political “thaw” in Soviet life.
In 1962 Solzhenitsyn’s first novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, was published in a liberal journal. It evokes a single day in the 10,000-day sentence of a Gulag prisoner – it caused a sensation.
But the mild reforms set in motion by the thaw threatened to weaken the leadership’s control, and two years later Leonid Brezhnev led a renewed clampdown.
Solzhenitsyn’s next two novels – Cancer Ward, based on his experience of cancer as a prisoner, and The First Circle, describing life in a camp for technical specialists – were published abroad. It was the latter that won him the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970.
In 1972 the KGB secret police forced one of Solzhenitsyn’s friends to reveal where he had buried a copy of his great historical work, The Gulag Archipelago. Solzhenitsyn was expelled from Russia in 1974 and went into exile in the US.
Based on the testimony of 220 prisoners, The Gulag Archipelago is a devastating investigation of what the camps meant for the people who experienced them. The account is peppered with the author’s personal reflections and black humour.
One chapter describes the doomed but ecstatic 40-day revolt of the Kengir camp in Kazakhstan in 1954. Another documents the workers’ uprising in Novocherkassk eight years later.
Solzhenitsyn’s writing is infused with respect for his fellow prisoners and his disgust for the authorities. The result is profound sympathy for the poor and downtrodden, one of the most attractive features of his writing.
But The Gulag Archipelago is also an attempt to demonstrate that Lenin led directly to Stalin, and that the camps flowed directly from Marxist ideology and were present in embryo from the first days of the revolution.
Many of Solzhenitsyn’s arguments are quite simply wrong. In political terms his understanding of the Gulag is superficial.
What would we say of a historian of Nazism who explained its victory without taking account of the hyperinflation and economic collapse? Only an approach rooted in the social consequences of the isolation of the revolution in the 1920s can explain the horrors of the Gulag.
But we can forgive Solzhenitsyn a great deal. And even in The Gulag Archipelago there are shades of his youthful support for the revolution, when he asks rhetorically whether this was really what Lenin had in mind.
His religious conversion in a camp hospital is often cited as a turning point in Solzhenitsyn’s politics.
But this is to underestimate the optimism with which the Khrushchev thaw was greeted by most Russian intellectuals.
It was the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 that finally killed all hope of reforming the Soviet system for Solzhenitsyn, opening the doors to his bizarre religious fanaticism.
Solzhenitsyn’s political journey ended pathetically last year when he accepted a lifetime achievement award from Vladimir Putin, the KGB official and Russian prime minister who resurrected so many authoritarian features of the Soviet system.
This was a final reminder that we must reject Solzhenitsyn the prophet – but celebrate him as a witness to Stalin’s crimes and the voice of his victims.