Introduction And Background Of Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Introduction And Background Of Alexander Solzhenitsyn

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"For the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions

of Russian literature." - From the Nobel Prize Citation for Alexander

Solzhenitsyn, October 8, 1970.

In mid-century - 1962 to be exact - a bright new talent appeared with

stunning suddenness on the literary horizon. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, together

with his epoch-making work, One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich, flared up

like a supernova in the Eastern skies and incandesced the Western skies as

well. Today Solzhenitsyn remains the most impressive figure in world

literature of the latter half of the 20th century.

Before One Day was throttled in the USSR, it had become an overnight

sensation. The 100,000 copies of Novy Mir (New World) carrying the novella

sold out in November 1962 in a matter of hours; so did the almost 1 million

copies of immediate second and third printings. But by 1963, not only

Solzhenitsyn, who had earlier been a protege of the Soviet leader Nikita

Khrushchev, but Khrushchev himself fell under a cloud as a new wave of

political and cultural Reactionism again loomed in the Soviet Union. By the

end of 1964, the editor of Novy Mir (Tvardovsky), Khrushchev, Solzhenitsyn,

and a number of other liberal elements or influences in Soviet culture became

the targets of a widening campaign to restore Stalinist orthodoxy and a rigid

party line to the arts.

Nineteen sixty-two, debut year for One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich

and its author, was an important episode in the most unusual, if brief, epoch

in recent Soviet history. This was the time-1961-1962-of crisscrossing,

incongruous developments, both in domestic as well as foreign policy.

Condemnation Of Stalinism

On the Soviet home scene, the De-Stalinization Campaign reached a

crescendo. Stalin's embalmed body, which lay next to Lenin's, was abruptly

removed from the Lenin Mausoleum on the party's orders and reinterred in a

humble plot at the foot of the Kremlin Wall. This action became a potent

symbol of the widening condemnation of Stalin's draconic policies with respect

to other party comrades, the arts, and the population at large. In the arts,

the liberals now sought to make new inroads, to come out of the closet and

with them, their manuscripts out of desk drawers. This process was illustrated

by the liberal poets Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Andrei Voznesensky, and other

writers acquiring new posts in writers' unions and on editorial boards of

journals. "The younger generation of Russians," Yevtushenko announced

confidently during a lecture tour to England in May 1962, "are increasingly

beginning to feel themselves masters in their own country." The liberal

journal Yunost' (Youth) published Vasily Aksenov's trailblazing story A Ticket

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to the Stars while a heterodoxical work also published in Yunost's pages (each

issue of which sold like hot pirozhkis) was that a youthful rebellion of sorts

was underway in the USSR, that younger people were becoming outspokenly

critical of the values and policies identified with the older. Stalinist


Such heretical works and attitudes by no means were left unchallenged by

the conservatives and hardliners attached to the regime. In fact, 1962 and

1963 represented the beginnings of an effort, culminating in the mid-1970s,

to clamp down on the liberal tendencies that were in such evidence during

these years and upon whose crests Solzhenitsyn and One Day rode to prominence.

One of the signs that a crackdown was imminent was barely concealed (by

Aesopian language) in Yevtushenko's sensational poem published during the

Cuban Missile Crisis week in October 1962 entitled, "The Heirs of Stalin." In

this short but trenchant political poem (which, incidentally, was printed in

the party daily Pravda, edited at the time by Khrushchev allies), Yevtushenko

warned against the possible recrudescence of Stalinism in his country. "A

telephone line is installed [in Stalin's coffin]," he wrote. "Stalin has not

given up," his "telephone line" runs all the way to Communist reactionaries

in Tirana (Albania), Peking, and to the Kremlin. The poem concludes: "As long

as Stalin's heirs exist on earth/It will seem to me/That Stalin is still in

the Mausoleum."

Yevtushenko's warning of a political rollback began to take on concrete

meaning at the end of 1962, after publication of One Day, and especially in

the spring of 1963. First came the Cuban Missile Crisis, or what came to be

called for the Soviets the "Cuban fiasco." Soviet merchantmen bound for

Havana with lethal missiles lashed to their decks were turned back in

humiliating U-shaped wakes-a retreat forced on the Russians by a U.S. naval

blockade ordered from the White House by President John F. Kennedy. Kremlin

watchers immediately detected slippage in Khrushchev's standing in the Moscow

leadership; Soviet loss-of-face became obvious to hundreds of millions of

newspaper readers throughout the world.

The second straw-that-broke-Nikita's-back was the embarrassing exposure

found in the notorious Penkovsky Papers. Col. Oleg Penkovsky had been a deputy

chief of a department in the hush-hush State Committee for Coordinating

Scientific Research and probably, too, a member of Soviet military

intelligence. In October 1962 he was arrested in Moscow for having acted as a

double agent, for the USSR but also for both the U.S. and U.K. intelligence

services. Needless to say, he was executed, in somewhere like the basement of

Lubyanka prison, but not without leaving behind in the West his papers, which

then became available to Western media. The Penkovsky Papers told a story of

slack discipline among Soviet intelligence agents (not to mention the treason

of Penkovsky himself), revealed the names of secret agents and their means of

conducting espionage in the West, and seemed to illustrate a general laxity

which, to the conservatives, had been brought on by Khrushchev-endorsed

policies of liberalization.

Third, there was the poor showing of the Soviet economy, according to the

fourth-quarter 1962 economic report; the crucial sector of agriculture was

especially shortfallen.

Encouraged by these and other turns of events as the year 1963 opened,

the Kremlin hardliners, joined by the culture hawks, were loaded for bear.

Khrushchev, his liberal-minded son-in-law (Adzhubei), and a whole flock of

liberal-lining authors and critics came under the sights of the

reactionaries. The list of dramatis personae in this unfolding drama to unseat

the First Secretary and to turn back the clock on the Soviet cultural scene is

too long to recount here; in any case, it is the results that speak just as

loud as the step-by-step causal chain which brought them about.

Solzhenitsyn Attacked

The blips of reaction were clearly manifest at the turn of the year 1962.

The Soviet super-patriotic, party-lining author and critic, Nikolai Gribachev,

aimed a stinging attack against Yevtushenko in the pages of Pravda in January

1963. Ilya Ehrenburg, one of the more respected of old generation liberals,

author of the pace-setting novel of 1953, ironically titled The Thaw, was

raked over the coals in the government daily Izvestiya. In these and other

party-initiated criticisms, the message was that the cultural expression of

de-Stalinization must be halted. Moreover, there was the implication that

de-Stalinization as a whole, not only in the arts, should be discontinued.

liberal journals - Yunost' and Novy Mir particularly - came under sharp

attack. One Lydia Fomenko attacked both Solzhenitsyn and the magazine that had

carried One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (for showing a lack of

"philosophical perspective"); socialism, she wrote, was built in the Soviet

Union, and along with it the various Stalinist institutions, quite aside from

and despite the fact of Stalin's "personal short-comings" (!). It was

profoundly mistaken, she maintained, to identify socialism with Stalin, as

Solzhenitsyn had done implicitly in One Day.

Nikita Khrushchev himself felt obliged to join the swelling chorus of

straight-laced neo-Stalinists on the cultural front. Whether he was under

duress or not, the First Secretary took out after Ehrenburg and Yevtushenko,

and Viktor Nekrasov, all of whose modest literary heresies he had apparently

once tolerated, perhaps even encouraged, to further his own political ends.

Now Khrushchev talked the language of the conservatives: "Our Soviet youth,"

the Leader reminded his audience at a special Kremlin conference of 600

writers, artists, and intellectuals in March 1963, "has been brought up by our

party; it follows our party; and it sees in it its educator and leader."

Harangued on the rostrum by the party apparatchik Leonid Ilyichev and other

spokesmen for a hard line on the arts, this conference heard one

orthodox-minded speaker after another defend the older generation against the

younger, while at the same time each denied that any "fathers-and-sons"

confrontation or minor generation gap could possibly exist under Soviet

conditions. Some, including Khrushchev, held up the example of the author

Mikhail Sholokhov, famous for his great novel Quiet Flows the Don (but some,

Solzhenitsyn for one, question the authenticity of his authorship of the work)

but for precious little else. They pitted this author against the other of his

generation, Ehrenburg, in a subtle but nonetheless obvious display of

anti-Semitism to prove that the one (Sholokhov) was a genuine revolutionist

and Communist while the other (Ehrenburg) was a sham, a coward, even a

"silent" collaborator in the foul deeds of Stalin.

The next step - and this, too, was crucial for the careers of One Day

and its author - was the start of a gradual but steady Rehabilitation Of

Stalin. Just as Khrushchev had used the de-Stalinization campaign to

embarrass the old Stalinist rivals in his leadership, even to purge some

of them as he did in 1957, likewise and anti-Khrushchev forces pushed for

Stalin's rehabilitation precisely for the purpose of sandbagging the First

Secretary. Some of the most denunciatory of anti-Stalin spokesmen of the

recent past (Leonid Brezhnev among them) one-by-one joined the anti-Khrushchev

alliance. This was the group of conservatives, a virtual crypto-cabinet, who

not only opposed any continuance or broadening of the anti-Stalin campaign,

but who also wished to overturn a number of Khrushchev domestic and foreign

policies. The grounds were that these policies were ill-advised, too liberal,

or too "hare-brained," as the Central Committee's indictment against

Khrushchev put it in October 1964 - that is when the First Secretary was

finally replaced by a team of neo-Stalinists headed by Brezhnev, Alexei

Kosygin, and Mikhail Suslov.

For One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, 1963-1964 was a turning

point. In fact, the pressure to rehabilitate Stalin and contain

de-Stalinization had an obvious connection with the nomination of One

Day - and for its failure to win - the Lenin Prize. During the autumn of

1963 and into 1964, literati in Russia discussed the possibility of

Solzhenitsyn's receiving the prize for 1964. The Communist youth daily,

Komsomolskaya Pravda, went so far as to publish a letter to the editor by a

reader who recommended that One Day get the Lenin Prize for literature.

(Several works are customarily nominated for the prize, the final decision

being made by an "illustrious" body of judges who are under strong pressure

from the party.) The same newspaper, answering as it were the reader's letter,

criticized the behavior of the novella's main character, the prisoner, Ivan

Shukhov, for being "distasteful." Another Solzhenitsyn writing which figured

in the pre-prize discussion was Matryona's Place, a story published in Novy

Mir shortly after One Day. In the discussion, the "pros" seemed outnumbered,

at least by their connections, by the "cons" on the matter of whether

Solzhenitsyn should receive the prize. Finally, in February 1964 a joint

meeting of the secretariats (which are customarily saturated with partiytsi

[party-liners]) of the RSFSR and Moscow writers' organizations determined that

One Day "cannot be placed among the outstanding works which are worthy of the

Lenin Prize." A bitterly ironic remark began to circulate around Moscow after

this, to many people, shocking rejection of One Day: "Tell me what you think

of One Day and I will proceed to tell you just who you are."

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