Chronicler of the Gulags: Russian Literary Giant Solzhenitsyn Dies

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the man whose writings exposed the brutality of Stalin's murderous labor camps, has died at the age of 89. Death, he told SPIEGEL last year, "is a natural milestone of one's existence."

Alexander Solzhenitsyn died on Sunday.
AFP

Alexander Solzhenitsyn died on Sunday.

Russian literary giant Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who opened the eyes of the world to the brutality of Stalin's labor camps, has died. The 89-year-old Nobel Laureate had not made any public appearances for months and on Sunday he died at home of heart failure, his son said on Monday.

Solzhenitsyn's unflinching accounts of torment and survival in the gulags provoked persecution by the Soviet authorities and forced him into an unhappy exile in the West. Although he had not given interviews for years, he made an exception in 2007, speaking with SPIEGEL extensively about his views on Russian history, the failures of Gorbachev and Yeltsin and his disappointment with a West that had showered him with accolades.

Solzhenitsyn was arrested in 1945 while fighting Hitler's forces as a captain in the Red Army. His crime -- writing a letter criticizing Stalin -- earned him eight years in the slave labor camps, where tens of millions of people perished. He was released in 1953, suffering from stomach cancer, and in 1962, as part of Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin, he was allowed to publish his scathing account of his gulag experiences "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich."

His acceptance of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970 earned him the wrath of the new hardline regime of Leonid Brezhnev. He managed to smuggle out his epic work "The Gulag Archipelago," to be published in Paris. The book's searing description of the brutal repressiveness of the Soviet system changed the way many Western intellectuals viewed the USSR. It also forced Solzhenitsyn into exile. He was arrested in 1974, stripped of his Soviet citizenship and then expelled to West Germany, where he stayed for a time with the German writer Heinrich Böll. He eventually settled in the US state of Vermont with his wife Natalya.

The writer became a leading critic of the Soviet Union but he also attacked the West for its materialism and what he saw as the shallow obsession with individualism and liberty. He returned to Russia in 1994 and was outraged by the huge gap between rich and poor, refusing to accept an honor from then President Boris Yeltsin because of his disgust with post-Soviet society.

Solzhenitsyn gradually warmed to Yeltsin's successor Vladimir Putin, despite his background as a former KGB officer. Some Western critics began to accuse the writer of becoming an apologist for the increasingly authoritarian rule in Russia and he was also dogged by accusations of anti-Semitism.

Last June Putin awarded him with Russia's State Prize, though he was too frail to attend the ceremony in person. Speaking to SPIEGEL last July, Solzhenitsyn said that he was not afraid of death any more. "I feel it is a natural, but no means the final, milestone of one's existence."

smd/ap/reuters

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