The death of Alexander Solzhenitsyn in Moscow this weekend, aged 89, has created a media sensation, with most major newspaper running two or three stories on the author and dissident. Solzhenitsyn was a Nobel literature prize winner, whose first short novel “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” (1962), based on his own experiences as a prisoner, shattered taboos by exposing the reality of the Soviet Union’s gulags. His longer project, “The Gulag Archipelago”, was a huge documentation of the Soviet system of mass police terror from 1918 to 1956, apportioning some of the blame for the imprisonment of millions of people to Lenin’s establishment of a “ruthless police state”. Despite his valuable work exposing the brutality of Soviet slave labor camps, Solzhenitsyn’s eventual warming to Vladimir Putin and support of state control and aggressive foreign policy puts his legacy into a somewhat confusing light. Last year, Vladimir Putin awarded him the State Prize for humanitarian work, and personally visited him to present the award, having originally met with him in 2000, with a BBC report of the time saying that “the two men share a vision of Russia as a restored state.” But The Times says “it is worth noting that when, last year, Vladimir Putin awarded Solzhenitsyn the Russian State Prize for work in the humanities, Putin remarked on the writer’s contribution to the study of the Russian language; The Gulag Archipelago was ignored.” Solzhenitsyn’s early work as an advocate of human rights is hugely important. His original aim of exposing state cruelty is summed up by the Russian proverb he favored, quoted in many of this weekend’s obituaries: “one word of truth shall outweigh the whole world”. This remains a strong message today in light of Russia’s media restrictions and ongoing false imprisonments, for example, but we should be careful not to confuse it with his more recent affiliations with Putin’s government.
Below is a summary of some of the articles printed on Solzhenitsyn over the weekend:The Washington Post has reprinted two pieces, one from Reuters and another from the Associated Press, the latter being the most open about Western opposition to Solzhenitsyn’s pro-Putin opinions in his later life.UK newspaper The Telegraph has published two opinion pieces – ‘Voice of the Gulag’ and a piece accompanied by a video. The BBC has also posted a video, together with a selection of extracts from Solzhenitsyn’s writings. The International Herald Tribune has also compiled a series of excerpts from his writing.The New York Times has a mammoth obituary with full details of Solzhenitsyn’s life and times, The Times has a timeline and The Guardian has published a couple of comment pieces as well as a summary of key moments.PHOTO: Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Alexander Solzhenitsyn shake hands as Putin visits his home in Troitse-Lykovo in Moscow in this June 12, 2007 file photo. (RIA Novosti/Kremlin/Files/Reuters)