Although more than three decades have now passed since the winter of 1974, when unbound, hand-typed, samizdat manuscripts of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago first began circulating around what used to be the Soviet Union, the emotions they stirred remain today. Usually, readers were given only 24 hours to finish the lengthy manuscript—the first historical account of the Soviet concentration camp system—before it had to be passed on to the next person. That meant spending an entire day and a whole night absorbed in Solzhenitsyn’s sometimes eloquent, sometimes angry prose—not an experience anyone was likely to forget.
Members of that first generation of readers remember who gave the book to them, who else knew about it, and to whom they passed it on. They remember the stories that affected them most—the tales of small children in the camps, or of informers, or of camp guards. They remember what the book felt like—the blurry, mimeographed text, the dog-eared paper, the dim glow of the lamp switched on late at night—and with whom they later discussed it.
In part, his Soviet readers responded so strongly because Solzhenitsyn—who died on Sunday at 89—was simultaneously very famous and strictly taboo. Twelve years earlier, the Soviet regime had serendipitously allowed him to publish, officially, the first fictional account of Stalin’s concentration camps—A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. It was also the last: Too honest for the Soviet Union’s leaders at the time, the book, though a publishing sensation, was quickly banned along with its author, whose later works would be “published” illegally—or abroad.
It didn’t matter: Even Solzhenitsyn’s expulsion from Russia in 1974 only increased his notoriety as well as the impact of The Gulag Archipelago. That book, though based on the “reports, memoirs, and letters by 227 witnesses,” was not quite a straight history—obviously, Solzhenitsyn did not have access to then-secret archives—but, rather, an interpretation of history. Partly polemical, partly autobiographical, emotional and judgmental, it aimed to show that, contrary to what many believed, the mass arrests and concentration camps of the Soviet Union were not an incidental phenomenon but an essential part of the Soviet system—and that they had been from the very beginning.
Not all of this story was new: Credible witnesses had begun reporting on the growth of the gulag and the spread of the terror from the time of the Russian revolution. But what Solzhenitsyn produced was simply more thorough, more monumental, and more detailed than anything that had been produced previously. It could not be ignored or dismissed as a single man’s experience. As a result, no one who dealt with the Soviet Union, diplomatically or intellectually, could ignore it. So threatening was the book to certain branches of the European left that Jean-Paul Sartre described Solzhenitsyn as a “dangerous element.” The book’s publication certainly contributed to the recognition of human rights as a legitimate element of international debate and foreign policy.
In later years, Solzhenitsyn lost some of his stature, thanks partly to Soviet propaganda that successfully portrayed him as a crank and an extremist, but thanks also to his own failure to embrace liberal democracy. He never really liked the West, never really took to free markets or pop culture. When the Soviet Union finally collapsed in 1991, he went back to Russia, where he was first welcomed and then forgotten. In a Russia that is no longer interested in examining its history, he came to seem outdated, a spokesman from an irrelevant past. Even his Russian nationalism, now a popular cause, had something crusty and old-fashioned about it. His vision of a more spiritual society, of Russia as an alternative to the consumerist West, doesn’t hold much appeal for the supercharged, superwealthy, oil-fueled Russian elite of today. His apparent endorsement of ex-President Vladimir Putin seemed more like an old man’s foible than a serious change of heart.
In the week of his death, though, what stands out is not who Solzhenitsyn was, but what he wrote. It is very easy, in a world where news is instant and photographs travel as quickly as they are taken, to forget how powerful, still, written words are. And Solzhenitsyn was, in the end, a writer. A man who gathered facts, sorted through them, tested them against his own experience, composed them into paragraphs and chapters. It was not his personality, but his written language that forced people to think more deeply about their values, their assumptions, their societies. It was not his TV appearances that affected history—it was his written words.
His manuscripts were read and pondered in silence, and the thought he put into them provoked his readers to think, too. In the end, his books mattered not because he was famous—or notorious—but because millions of Soviet citizens recognized themselves in his work. They read his books because they already knew that they were true.