Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008)

The great Russian dissident and author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn has died at 89 in Moscow.

What a life the man lived. In many ways, his story is the history of Russia over the last century as he went from a passionate belief in the promises of Marxism as a remedy for his country’s ills to a victim of the totalitarianism enabled by Marxism. His choice to then struggle against Stalinist oppression became the symbol of a generation–a symbol made all the more powerful by his extraordinary literary skill that allowed him to convey the bizarre, terrible reality of the gulag.

It can be all too easy to call for the spread of freedom around the globe from the comfortable security of the United States. Solzhenitsyn is one who spoke out from the icy confines of a prisoner’s cell, memorizing his work when he didn’t have pen and paper–let alone a laptop and internet access–to record it. He adamantly refused to be silent and in finding his own voice against tyranny gave voice to countless silent victims around the globe.

Solzhenitsyn’s return to Russia in 1994 was a great day for him and for his country, which was fortunate to have him in residence over the turbulent years since the fall of the Iron Curtain. While it may be fashionable to criticize what Russia has become, we might do well to remember what things were like in the 1950s when Solzhenitsyn was a prisoner.

Solzhenitsyn was, in some ways, a difficult hero for Americans–just as Russia is a difficult ally. Then again, nothing seemed to come easily for him. He was the guest of the United States for many years, but never embraced his ex-patriot status. He stubbornly refused to be categorized according to American standards of what a Russian dissident should be. This is perhaps because he was so profoundly Russian that it would be hard for any American to understand that while he might be willing to give his life to oppose Stalin, he did not necessarily want to trade Stalin for a US-style capitalist democracy in Russia. His vision of what his country could be was driven by his understanding of its history, its strengths and weaknesses, and he was first and foremost a Russian patriot.

His passing is an opportunity to reflect on the extraordinary history of a country–and of a man–over the last 90 years. I can think of no better way to learn from Solzhenitsyn’s example than to read his work, much of which has been lovingly translated into English by his own sons.

Speaking of his family, it is also important to remember tonight that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was a man as well as a giant, and he leaves behind a grieving widow, three surviving sons, and an adorable–and adoring–passel of grandchildren. It may not always be easy to live in the shade of so towering a tree, but the quality of those he leaves behind speaks volumes about him.

May Solzhenitsyn truly be walking free, on his own two legs tonight, and may his voice never be silent.