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“In February 1956, the Soviet Union’s new leader, Nikita Khrushchev, initiated a period in Soviet history known as ‘The Thaw’ … Millions of former political prisoners were granted amnesty, including [Aleksandr] Solzhenitsyn.” (Shattan 149) Solzhenitsyn is Russia’s most prolific writer of the 20th century was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a man who rose to fame through his literature. It was Khrushchev’s thaw, however, that resulted in Solzhenitsyn’s exile. Solzhenitsyn made his break in literature because of Khrushchev’s thaw. Yet as time went by, the Soviet leadership became increasingly conservative after the thaw. Initially, the conservative leadership did not know what to do with Solzhenitsyn, but after deciding to take action against Solzhenitsyn, they eventually worked towards a final solution, his deportation from Russia. Had it not been for the thaw, though, Solzhenitsyn would never have made the rise to fame, and his deportation.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn first became active in politics during his time in Rostov University prior to World War II, during which time he became “a convinced Communist - a member of the Komsomol (Young Communist League)… and the proud holder of a Stalin scholarship.” (Shattan 137) After graduating in 1941, Solzhenitsyn joined up with the Russian artillery to fight the Nazi army. During this time, he began to formulate a belief that Stalin “had betrayed Leninism and was responsible for the defeats in the first phase of the war” (Shattan 140) He communicated these ideas with a friend through letters, but was caught by censors and imprisoned. During his time in prison, which would provide the material for One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, it was discovered by Soviet authorities that Solzhenitsyn had a degree in physics. Because of this, he was transferred to a special science prison, where prisoners worked on Soviet experiments. In 1953, his term served, Solzhenitsyn was released from prison, but forced into an internal exile in southern Kazakhstan. However, in 1956 this exile was ended by the new Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, who initiated “The Thaw” by releasing millions of political prisoners. Solzhenitsyn was free to write and to travel.
In a society that had repressed its writers for the last 30 years, it was extremely difficult, and quite a gamble, for an author to try to publish a book, much less one that criticized one of the only two leaders the single party state had known.
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The right time to print would not come, though, until after the 22nd Party Congress. During the Congress, the Soviet government made moves towards correcting, or at least acknowledging the flaws of Stalinism. In this new environment, the criticism of Stalin, as laid out in One Day, fit in perfectly. In fact, “Khrushchev had announced from the platform that A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was an important work which [the Soviets at the 22nd Congress] should all read.” (Scammell 448) Given this official nod to One Day, the delegates to the Congress rushed to purchase their own copies. The novel became an instant success across Russia, and was the first work criticizing Stalin to be published in Russia.
In 1964 a successful coup was enacted against Khrushchev because of his controversial efforts at de-Stalinization. This allowed conservative influences within the Politburo to solidify power, and continue a campaign against Solzhenitsyn, of which “the official effort… began only a few months after One Day was published, but it took a few years for the Soviet animus to harden into action against him.” (Ericson 54-55) This animus stemmed from the Solzhenitsyn’s accurate portrayal of Russian history, which went against previous literary works.
“[L]iterature operated within a clearly defined framework of restrictions that curtailed any truthful discussion of the central events that had shaped Soviet history. Topics considered highly sensitive included… the imprisonment of deportation of vast numbers of people by virtue of… the policies affecting the conduct of the war with Nazi Germany, and the vast network of prison camps that underpinned the entire Soviet economic system... The 1962 publication of One Day made history be breaking each of these taboos.” (Klimoff vi)
Cases where these taboos were broken led “…members… [to object] the book, pointing out [for example] that the camp guards ought not to have been depicted so unfavorably.” (Scammell 425)
Internal pressure from Stalinist elements also led to an end of the Khrushchev thaw, further eroding his support. Historian Joseph Shattan wrote, “Stalinist elements had begun to reassert themselves, and… feared (not unreasonably) that Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization campaign eventually would spin out of control and undermine the entire Soviet system.” (Shattan 155) When Solzhenitsyn asked Tvardovsky to request permission from Khrushchev to publish another novel, Cancer Ward, Tvardovsky went through Khrushchev’s secretary, who “retorted, ‘If only you knew who has now taken a dislike to Ivan Denisovich and regrets that it was ever published.’” (Scammell 506) Khrushchev’s change of heart is accounted for by the intense strain he must have been placed under to end his reforms by Stalinists.
This pressure from Stalinist elements within the Politburo was intensified by the success of dissidents in creating international support against Communism, which helped to persuade moderate members of the leadership to move against reforms. In a Politburo meeting on March 30, 1972 Brezhnev forcefully declared that, “we need to make it clear in a tangible way that we will not allow these people, the scum of human society, to poison our healthy atmosphere… Out main task, in my view, is to improve ideological work.” (qtd. in Scammell 2: 201) The clearly anti-Communist message in many new works of literature provided a platform from which conservative hard liners in Russia could launch attacks against the reforms. Solzhenitsyn’s play, The First Circle, which drew parallels between Communist Russia and Hell, “was being passed around senior members of the Politburo, the calculation being that their content was so blatantly Anti-Soviet that all right-thinking Communists were bound to be revolted by them.” (Scammell 561) The effect was as expected, and the Russian leadership decided to take action against the liberal writers, but especially Solzhenitsyn.
Because of Solzhenitsyn was created by the Soviet system (Khrushchev’s thaw), his incredible popularity, and the international attention paid to him because of the publication of One Day, the Soviet leadership did not initially know how to punish him. The first problem facing the Politburo was that Solzhenitsyn grew within the system. This created the perception within some members of the Politburo that he was an acceptable member of the party, and his writings were also permissible. “What seems to have spared him initially was the circumstances that, since he had been raised to eminence by a former First Secretary of the Communist Party, he retained a vestigial respectability as a member of the ‘loyal opposition’ long after he deserved the description, and hence was given the benefit of the doubt even in the face of overwhelming evidence of his political unreliability.” (Scammell 2: XXV)
The popularity achieved by the release of Ivan Denisovich also prevented any immediate harsh action. “Simonov, Ermilov, and the many critics who followed them were taking no risks when they placed Solzhenitsyn’s story firmly within the bounds of official Party policy, emphasizing its role as an instrument of de-Stalinization” (Scammell 1: 450) Because Ivan Denisovich was associated with Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization, it only increased Solzhenitsyn’s popularity.
The international attention now paid to Solzhenitsyn did not allow for an internal exile. Yuri Andropov, the Chairman of the Committee for State Security, wrote in an internal memo that in “seeking to attract public attention to himself, Solzhenitsyn continues to produce provocative political documents in which he appeals to the Western reader by criticizing certain aspects of the socialist system.” (internal memo [Scammell 233]) By gaining publicity in the west, he made the likelihood of an internal exile a decreasing likelihood because Western countries would not stand for such an attack on a dissident.
Ultimately, the Soviet leadership did take action against Solzhenitsyn. This action increased overtime. This came because of the “unprecedented offensive against the Soviet Regime” (Shattan 161) posed by Solzhenitsyn and his increasingly dangerous literature. In 1967, “Yuri Andropov… demanded a stern response… ‘We should take decisive measures to deal with Solzhenitsyn, for he is involved in anti-Soviet activities,’ he told his fellow members of the Central Committee Secretariat on March 10, 1967.’” (Shattan 161)
There was argument among the Soviet regime about what form the measures against Solzhenitsyn should take. Some writers pushed the leadership to take a gentler route, while more conservative elements of the Communist party called for harsher tactics. The Minister of Internal Affairs, N. Schelokov argued in an internal memo in October 1971 that “in this case, what needs to be done is not to execute our enemies publicly, but to smother them in embraces.” (qtd. in Thomas 369)
After Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Peace prize, the Politburo considered revoking his citizenship while he was away because it considered the award to be politically motivated. Andropov was in favor of this, stating that “if… he was expelled, or his visa revoked during a visit to Stockholm, there would be a short-lived outcry but he would lose the advantages of being an ambiguous figure, an internal émigré.” (Thomas 363)
Ultimately, though, the release of The Gulag Archipelago forced the Politburo to take rapid action against Solzhenitsyn. Unlike previous novels, “[The Gulag Archipelago] is too large for the craw of the Soviet propaganda machine. It will stick there, with increasing discomfort, until it has done its work,” (qtd. in Ericson 87) wrote George Kennan in 1974. The only question for the Soviet leadership was what form Solzhenitsyn’s final punishment should take.
The opening came “in early February, when Andropov submitted a… memo pointing out that West German Chancellor Hilly Brandt had ‘made a statement that Solzhenitsyn could live and work freely in the FRG [Federal Republic of Germany],’” (Shattan 169) This statement provided the conditions by which the Russians could deport Solzhenitsyn, as that previously no country had said it would accept him as a sign of protest against deportation. “On February 11, the Politburo issued a resolution ‘agree[ing] with the proposals of Comrade Andropov’ to revoke Solzhenitsyn’s citizenship and deport him from the country.” (Shattan 169) So ended the last of the Soviet punishment against Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
After being deported, Solzhenitsyn stayed in Germany briefly before moving to Switzerland for two years. Soon thereafter he moved to Vermont in the United States of America. In America he was welcomed by some, but was put off by the administration of President Gerald Ford, who along with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger perceived Solzhenitsyn as a threat to détente. “Solzhenitsyn initially declined [an offer to speak to the AFL-CIO in 1974, but] a year later - convinced that the Ford -Kissinger policy of Soviet-American détente was endangering the very survival of the West… accepted it.” (Shattan 133) Indeed Solzhenitsyn believed that “détente was a fraud and [a] sham.” (Shattan 170) In keeping with his goals, Solzhenitsyn delivered two powerful speeches. The first at the AFL-CIO meeting in 1975 and another at the Harvard University commencement in 1978. “Having by now delivered his warnings to the West several times over, Solzhenitsyn retired from the public arena to devote himself to his writing.” (Shattan 176)
When Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn first broke into the literary scene, he was an exception to the rule, a Soviet writer whose attacks on the soviet government were being printed by the government. This would not have happened without Khrushchev’s thaw, though, and the temporary easing of Soviet literary restrictions that came with it. Consequently, his writings created an immensely popular dissident. This popularity, and the fact he was made by the system created an armor that protected him from Soviet reprisals, and thus let him write increasingly damaging works. It was these writings that eventually led to his exile, as the Soviet government looked for any possible method to quiet the dissenter.