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Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's eternal archipelago
by Thanos Kalamidas
2008-08-04 08:22:58
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It was sometime in the late-70s when I first read the first part of The Gulag Archipelago that had just been published in Greek. Semantics, of course, but I must remind you that during that period the USSR was the gigantic bear, the fear of the western world. Semantics again but the other side was not so innocent, dictatorships in South America reminded us that the USA was so far on the other side that often made the same mistakes and Greece was just coming out of a very hard dictatorship that based and excused its existence on the fear from the North; Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Albania and the other communist countries.

So when I read the book I felt a bit …suspicious. Everything that the dictatorship had proven a huge lie and on top of that has nearly cost a war and Cyprus had been invaded, the economy was in pieces and the number of missing and dead or in exile was still unknown, while the heads of the dictatorship were led to the court rooms with bitter truths and crimes coming one after the other. So Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had a wrong timing with me and most of the people at that time in Greece.

Furthermore, his escape to the west and the way the conservative propaganda often used him and his work made him less favourite in my eyes. Being in my most romantic period I couldn’t believe that it could ever be true behind the description of a prisoner’s camp just two decades before the time I was reading the book but then came the eighties. The Wall fell in every sense and the truth came out in the worst possible way showing that the king was not only naked but dangerous as well.

The Soviet concentration camps were not a myth but a reality that could be compared only with the Nazi concentration camps and I remembered again Solzhenitsyn. This is when I read his very first book One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich followed by The Cancer Ward and the Prisoners and this is the period I understood why this secondary school teacher from Russia was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature and why he should have a place in my bookcase.

A few hours ago I learned that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had died from heart failure or a stroke and I feel that I owe him a big apology because I misunderstood him when I was young. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had a personal experience of the Soviet system; he was imprisoned in a Gulag and then sent to Kazakhstan for exile for the crime that he spoke loud and freely, his crime was that he had opinion and Stalin’s system had serious issues with opinion.

When The Gulag Archipelago was published after being smuggled in from the west the Soviet regime denounced him as a traitor and his life became hell from the good old KGB and in 1974 he escaped to the west to settle in Vermont USA and finish the other two parts of his Archipelago trilogy. In 1994 he decided that things had changed, so he returned to Russia to start new controversies with his novels and essays. Characteristically in his last major work, Two Hundred Years Together, he talks about the position of the Jews in the Russian society and their role during Lenin’s revolution and after.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, born December 11, 1918 and died August 3, 2008, fought in WWII against the fascists of Hitler and, since 1945 when he first went to a Gulag, against Stalin’s fascists. He published his first work One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in Russia in 1962 and he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970. The first volume of his major book ‘The Gulag Archipelago’ was published in 1974 in Paris, the same year he was denounced a traitor of the Soviet Union and exiled to the USA only to return to Russia in 1994. He died a few hours ago and may his spirit find the rest he could not find in the Russia he loved so much and disappointed him constantly.

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Emanuel Paparella2008-08-04 10:43:06
Great laudatio, Thanos. I join in that wish poetically expressed at the end ot it. Solzhenitsyn was one of my heroes too, a giant on whose shoulder we stand so that we can see much further. He spoke truth to power and was not afraid to remind the West, which wished to use him as an anti-Communist, of its own decadence and oblivion of the spiritual.

We now need another Solzhenitsyn to describe for us the "Laogais Arhipelago" of China which will all but be forgotten in the hoopla of the Olympics. The silver lining is the knowledge that the truth always wins out in the end.

AP2008-08-04 17:20:46
I read "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" when I was 13 or 14. It was an old book of my father, who from a young communist became a no-party and independent movements kind of person.
That and some other works show how much he deserved the Nobel - you feel instantly that you're getting in touch with a far from common writer. And a free man.

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