In 1918, Taisia became pregnant with Aleksandr. Shortly after this was confirmed, Isaakiy was killed in a hunting accident. Aleksandr was raised by his widowed mother and aunt in lowly circumstances; his earliest years coincided with the Russian Civil War; by 1930 the family property had been turned into a collective farm. Solzhenitsyn stated his mother was fighting for survival and they had to keep his father's background in the old Imperial Army a secret. His educated mother (who never remarried) encouraged his literary and scientific leanings and raised him in the Russian Orthodox faith; she died in 1944.
On April 7, 1940, Solzhenitsyn married chemistry student Natalya Alekseevna Reshetovskaya. They divorced in 1952 (a year before his release from the Gulag); he remarried her in 1957 and they divorced again in 1972. The following year he married his second wife, Natalya Dmitrievna Svetlova, a mathematician who had a son from a brief prior marriage. He and Svetlova (b. 1939) had three sons: Yermolai (1970), Ignat (1972) and Stepan (1973).
Solzhenitsyn studied mathematics at Rostov State University, while at the same time taking correspondence courses from the Moscow Institute of Philosophy, Literature and History (at this time heavily ideological in scope; as he himself makes clear, he did not question the state ideology or the superiority of the Soviet Union before he had spent some time in the camps).
During World War II, he served as the commander of a sound-ranging battery in the Red Army, was involved in major action at the front, and twice decorated. In February 1945, while serving in East Prussia, he was arrested for writing derogatory comments in letters to a friend, Nikolai Vitkevich, about the conduct of the war by Joseph Stalin, whom he called "the whiskered one, "Khozyain" ("the master") and "Balabos", (Odessa Yiddish for "the master"). He was accused of anti-Soviet propaganda under Article 58 paragraph 10 of the Soviet criminal code, and of "founding a hostile organisation" under paragraph 11. Solzhenitsyn was taken to the Lubyanka prison in Moscow, where he was beaten and interrogated. On July 7, 1945, he was sentenced in his absence by a three-man tribunal of the Soviet security police (NKGB) to an eight-year term in a labour camp, to be followed by permanent internal exile. This was the normal sentence for most crimes under Article 58 at the time.
The first part of Solzhenitsyn's sentence was served in several different work camps; the "middle phase," as he later referred to it, was spent in a sharashka, special scientific research facilities run by Ministry of State Security, where he met Lev Kopelev, upon whom he based the character of Lev Rubin in his book The First Circle, published in the West in 1968. In 1950, he was sent to a "Special Camp" for political prisoners. During his imprisonment at the camp in the town of Ekibastuz in Kazakhstan, he worked as a miner, bricklayer and foundry foreman. His experiences at Ekibastuz formed the basis for the book One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. While there he had a tumor removed, although his cancer was not then diagnosed.
In March of 1953, Solzhenitsyn's sentence was commuted to internal exile for life at Kok-Terek in southern Kazakhstan. His undiagnosed cancer spread, until, by the end of the year, he was close to death. However, in 1954, he was permitted to be treated in a hospital in Tashkent, where his tumor went into remission. These experiences became the basis of his novel Cancer Ward and also found an echo in the short story "The right hand". It was during this decade of imprisonment and exile that Solzhenitsyn abandoned Marxism and developed the philosophical and religious positions of his later life; this turn has some interesting parallels to Dostoevsky's time in Siberia and his quest for faith a hundred years earlier. Solzhenitsyn gradually turned into a philosophically-minded man in prison. He repented for what he did as a Red Army captain and in prison compared himself with the perpetrators of the Gulag: "I remember myself in my captain's shoulder boards and the forward march of my battery through East Prussia, enshrouded in fire, and I say: 'So were we any better?'" His transformation is described at some length in the fourth part of The Gulag Archipelago ("The Soul and Barbed Wire").
During his years of exile, and following his reprieve and return to European Russia, Solzhenitsyn was, while teaching at a secondary school during the day, spending his nights secretly engaged in writing. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech he wrote, "during all the years until 1961, not only was I convinced I should never see a single line of mine in print in my lifetime, but, also, I scarcely dared allow any of my close acquaintances to read anything I had written because I feared this would become known.
Finally, when he was 42 years old, he approached Alexander Tvardovsky, a poet and the chief editor of the Noviy Mir magazine, with the manuscript of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. It was published in edited form in 1962, with the explicit approval of Nikita Khrushchev, who defended it and declared at the presidium of the Politburo hearing on whether to allow its publishing, "There’s a Stalinist in each of you; there’s even a Stalinist in me. We must root out this evil". The book became an instant hit and sold-out everywhere. During Khruschev's tenure, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was studied in schools in the Soviet Union and three more novellas of Solzhenitsyn's were published in 1963. These would be the last of his works published in the Soviet Union until 1990.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich brought the Soviet system of prison labour to the attention of the West. It caused as much a sensation in the Soviet Union as it did the West—not only by its striking realism and candour, but also because it was the first major piece of Soviet literature since the twenties on a politically charged theme, written by a non-party member, even by a man who had been to Siberia for "libelous speech" about the leaders, and still it had not been censored. In this sense, the publication of Solzhenitsyn's story was an almost unheard of instance of free, unrestrained discussion of politics through literature. Most Soviet readers realized this, but after Khrushchev had been ousted from power in 1964, the time for such raw exposing works came quietly, but perceptibly, to a close. Solzhenitsyn did not give in but tried, with the help of Tvardovsky, to get his novel, The Cancer Ward, legally published in the Soviet Union. This had to get the approval of the Union of Writers, and though some there appreciated it, the work ultimately was denied publication unless it were to be revised and cleaned of suspect statements and anti-Soviet insinuations (this episode is recounted and documented in The Oak and the Calf).
The publishing of his work quickly stopped; as a writer, he became a non-person, and, by 1965, the KGB had seized some of his papers, including the manuscript of The First Circle. Meanwhile Solzhenitsyn continued to secretly and feverishly work upon the most subversive of all his writings, the monumental Gulag Archipelago. The seizing of his novel manuscript first made him desperate and frightened, but gradually he realized it had set him free from the pretences and trappings of being an "officially acclaimed" writer, something which had come close to second nature, but which was getting increasingly irrelevant (the circumstances of how he actually survived in this period, without any income from his books, are obscure; he had quit his teaching post when he broke through as a writer).
In 1970, Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. He could not receive the prize personally in Stockholm at that time, since he was afraid he would not be let back into the Soviet Union. Instead, it was suggested he should receive the prize in a special ceremony at the Swedish embassy in Moscow. The Swedish government refused to accept this solution, since such a ceremony and the ensuing media coverage might upset the Soviet Union and damage Sweden's relations with the superpower. Instead, Solzhenitsyn received his prize at the 1974 ceremony after he had been deported from the Soviet Union.
The Gulag Archipelago was a three-volume work on the Soviet prison camp system. It was based upon Solzhenitsyn's own experience as well as the testimony of 227 former prisoners and Solzhenitsyn's own research into the history of the penal system. It discussed the system's origins from the founding of the Communist regime, with Lenin himself having responsibility, detailing interrogation procedures, prisoner transports, prison camp culture, prisoner uprisings and revolts, and the practice of internal exile. The appearance of the book in the West put the word gulag into the Western political vocabulary and guaranteed swift retribution from the Soviet authorities.
In Germany, Solzhenitsyn lived in Heinrich Böll's house in Cologne. He then moved to Zurich ,Switzerland before Stanford University invited him to stay in the United States to "facilitate your work, and to accommodate you and your family." He stayed on the 11th floor of the Hoover Tower, part of the Hoover Institution, before moving to Cavendish, Vermont in 1976. He was given an honorary Literary Degree from Harvard University in 1978 and on Thursday, June 8, 1978 he gave his Commencement Address condemning, among other things, materialism in modern western culture.
Over the next 17 years, Solzhenitsyn worked on his cyclical history of the Russian Revolution of 1917, The Red Wheel. By 1992, four "knots" (parts) had been completed and he had also written several shorter works. Despite an enthusiastic welcome on his first arrival in America, followed by respect for his privacy, he had never been comfortable outside his homeland.
Despite spending two decades in the United States, Solzhenitsyn did not become fluent in spoken English. He had, however, been reading English-language literature since his teens, encouraged by his mother. More important, he resented the idea of becoming a media star and of tempering his ideas or ways of talking in order to suit television. Solzhenitsyn's warnings about the dangers of Communist aggression and the weakening of the moral fiber of the West were generally well received in Western conservative circles, alongside the tougher foreign policy pursued by U.S. President Ronald Reagan. At the same time, liberals and secularists became increasingly critical of what they perceived as his reactionary preference for Russian patriotism and the Russian Orthodox religion. Solzhenitsyn also harshly criticised what he saw as the ugliness and spiritual vapidity of the dominant pop culture of the modern West, including television and rock music: "...the human soul longs for things higher, warmer, and purer than those offered by today's mass living habits ... by TV stupor and by intolerable music."
In 1990, his Soviet citizenship was restored, and, in 1994, he returned to Russia with his wife, Natalia, who had become a United States citizen. Their sons stayed behind in the United States (later, his oldest son Yermolai returned to Russia to work for the Moscow office of a leading management consultancy firm). From then until his death, he lived with his wife in a dacha in Troitse-Lykovo (Троице-Лыково) in west Moscow between the dachas once occupied by Soviet leaders Mikhail Suslov and Konstantin Chernenko.
The writer, however, deplored what he considered Russia's spiritual decline, increasingly adopting Western materialistic values, but in the last years of his life he praised President Vladimir Putin for Russia's revival.
After returning to Russia in 1994, Solzhenitsyn published eight two-part short stories, a series of contemplative "miniatures" or prose poems, a literary memoir on his years in the West (The Grain Between the Millstones).
The most complete 30-volume edition of Solzhenitsyn’s collected works is soon to be published in Russia. The presentation of its first three volumes, already in print, recently took place in Moscow. On June 5, 2007 then Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree conferring on Solzhenitsyn the State Prize of the Russian Federation for his humanitarian work. Putin personally visited the writer at his home on June 12, 2007 to present him with the award. Like his father, Yermolai Solzhenitsyn is an author and has translated some of his father's works. Stephan Solzhenitsyn is an urban planner in New York. Ignat Solzhenitsyn is the music director of The Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia.
The reception of this work confirms Solzhenitsyn remained a polarizing figure both at home and abroad. According to his critics, the book confirmed Solzhenitsyn's anti-Semitic views as well as his ideas of Russian supremacy over other nations. Professor Robert Service of Oxford University has defended Solzhenitsyn as "absolutely right", noting that Trotsky himself claimed Jews were disproportionately represented in the early Soviet bureaucracy.
Another Russian dissident writer, Vladimir Voinovich, wrote a polemical study A Portrait Against the Background of a Myth ("Портрет на фоне мифа", 2002.), in which he paints Solzhenitsyn's egoism, anti-Semitism, and poor writing craftsmanship, describing Two Hundred Years Together as the book that is "long, tedious, and slanderous". Voinovich had previously parodied Solzhenitsyn in his novel Moscow 2042 through the self-centered egomaniac character, Sim Simych Karnavalov, an extreme and brutal dictatorial writer who tries to destroy the Soviet Union and, eventually, to become the king of Russia. Using a more circuitous line of argument, Joseph Brodsky, in his essay "Catastrophes in the Air" (in Less than One), argued that Solzhenitsyn, while a hero in showing up the brutalities of Soviet Communism, failed to discern that the historical crimes he unearthed might be the outcome of authoritarian traits that were really part of the heritage of Old Russia and of "the severe spirit of Orthodoxy" (venerated by Solzhenitsyn) and much less due to the more recent (Marxist) political ideology.
Shortly after his death, professor Richard Pipes wrote of him: "Solzhenitsyn blamed the evils of Soviet communism on the West. He rightly stressed the European origins of Marxism, but he never asked himself why Marxism in other European countries led not to the gulag but to the welfare state. He reacted with white fury to any suggestion that the roots of Leninism and Stalinism could be found in Russia’s past. His knowledge of Russian history was very superficial and laced with a romantic sentimentalism. While accusing the West of imperialism, he seemed quite unaware of the extraordinary expansion of his own country into regions inhabited by non-Russians. He also denied that Imperial Russia practiced censorship or condemned political prisoners to hard labor, which, of course, was absurd. While alive, Solzhenitsyn accused Pipes, who is of Jewish Polish descent, of advancing "the Polish version of Russian history".
He considered it far-fetched to blame the catastrophes of the 20th century on one 16th century and one 18th century czar, when there were many other examples of violence which could have inspired the Bolshevik in other countries earlier in time, especially mentioning similarities with the Jacobins of the Reign of Terror of France.
Instead of blaming Russian conditions, he blamed the teachings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, arguing Marxism itself is violent. His conclusion is Communism will always be totalitarian and violent, wherever it is practiced. There was nothing special in the Russian conditions which affected the outcome.
He also criticized the view that the Soviet Union was Russian in any way. He argued Communism was international and only cared for nationalism as a tool to use when getting into power, or for fooling the people. Once in power, Communism tried to wipe clean every nation, destroying its culture and oppressing its people.
According to Solzhenitsyn, the Russian culture and people were not the ruling national culture in the Soviet Union. In fact, there was no ruling national culture. All national cultures were oppressed in favour of an atheistic Soviet culture. In Solzhenitsyn's opinion, Russian culture was even more oppressed than the smaller minority cultures, since the regime was more afraid of ethnic uprisings among Russians than among other peoples. Therefore, Solzhenitsyn argued, Russian nationalism and the Orthodox Church should not be regarded as a threat by the West but rather as allies.
In 1994, Solzhenitsyn said that many American politicians and publicists are frozen in a mode of thought they developed a long time ago. With unchanging blindness and stubbornness they keep repeating and repeating this theory about the supposed age-old aggressiveness of Russia, without taking into consideration today's reality.
Solzhenitsyn said that for every country, great power status deforms and harms the national character and that he has never wished great power status for Russia. He rejected the view that the USA and Russia are natural rivals, saying that before the [Russian] revolution, they were natural allies and that during the American Civil War, Russia supported Lincoln and the North [in contrast to Britain and France, which supported the Confederacy], and then they were allies in the First World War. But beginning with communism, Russia ceased to exist and the confrontation was not at all with Russia but with the Communist U.S.S.R.
Give them their ideology! Let the Chinese leaders glory in it for a while. And for that matter, let them shoulder the whole sackful of unfulfillable international obligations, let them grunt and heave and instruct humanity, and foot all the bills for their absurd economics (a million a day just to Cuba), and let them support terrorists and guerrillas in the Southern Hemisphere too if they like. The main source of the savage feuding between us will then melt away, a great many points of today's contention and conflict all over the world will also melt away, and a military clash will become a much remoter possibility and perhaps won't take place at all [author's emphasis].
In his commencement address at Harvard University in 1978 (A World Split Apart), Solzhenitsyn alleged that many in the U.S. did not understand the Vietnam War. He rhetorically asks if the American antiwar proponents now realize the effects their actions had on Vietnam: "But members of the U.S. antiwar movement wound up being involved in the betrayal of Far Eastern nations, in a genocide and in the suffering today imposed on 30 million people there. Do those convinced pacifists hear the moans coming from there?
During his time in the West, Solzhenitsyn made a few controversial public statements: notably, he characterized Daniel Ellsberg as a traitor.
In an interview with the newspaper Izvestia, he explained that the famine was caused by the corrupt ideals of the Communist regime, under which all suffered equally. It was not an assault by the Russian people against the people of Ukraine, and that the wish to view it as such is only a recent development.
This provocative outcry of genocide was voiced only decades later. At first, it thrived secretly in the stale chauvinist minds opposing the "bloody Russians". Now it has got hold of political minds in modern Ukraine. It seems they've surpassed the wild suggestions of the Bolshevik propaganda machine. "To the parliaments of the world" - a nice teaser for the Western ears. They have never cared about our history. All they need is a fable, no matter how loony it appears.
…there also exists another alliance — at first glance a strange one, a surprising one—but if you think about it, in fact, one which is well - grounded and easy to understand. This is the alliance between our Communist leaders and your capitalists. This alliance is not new. The very famous Armand Hammer, who is flourishing here today, laid the basis for this when he made the first exploratory trip into Russia, still in Lenin's time, in the very first years of the Revolution.
And if today the Soviet Union has powerful military and police forces—in a country which is by contemporary standards poor—they are used to crush our movement for freedom in the Soviet Union—and we have western capital to thank for this also.
Testimony to the U.S. Congress, July 8, 1975.
Until I came to the West myself and spent two years looking around, I could never have imagined to what an extreme degree the West had actually become a world without a will, a world gradually petrifying in the face of the danger confronting it…All of us are standing on the brink of a great historical cataclysm, a flood that swallows up civilization and changes whole epochs.
It has made man the measure of all things on earth—imperfect man, who is never free of pride, self-interest, envy, vanity, and dozens of other defects. We are now paying for the mistakes which were not properly appraised at the beginning of the journey. On the way from the Renaissance to our days we have enriched our experience, but we have lost the concept of a Supreme Complete Entity which used to restrain our passions and our irresponsibility.