The recent death of author Alexander Solzhenitsyn (Aug. 4) brought attention to the life of a towering figure in modern Russian literature. Author of such books as One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn illuminated life in Soviet Russia in a style so starkly honest that he became a revered literary figure in the Soviet Union, the United States and Europe. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970. James Roney, professor of Russian, assigns students to read Solzhenitsyn for his Russian literature course. He agreed to talk about the author’s legacy.
Q: How will Alexander Solzhenitsyn be remembered, as a great writer or as a historically significant novelist?
A: He’s a great moral figure for his time. He was not a highly literary novelist, one who experiments with and creates new literary forms. His goal was to reveal the truth about the gulag (the Soviet prison camp system) and the moral corruption that caused and sustained it. He became a great moral figure for Russia and the world because his personal integrity and courage enabled him to tell the truth about what was happening (in the Soviet Union). He also fought and cured his own cancer and spoke the truth openly to any authority (Russian or American).
Q: Which Solzhenitsyn novel is the best example of his literary and moral legacy as the conscience of the Soviet Union?
A: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is still my favorite. Solzhenitsyn used the novel to slowly reveal truth. The book takes one person and shows the life he leads on a fairly good day, but when you finish it, you’re horrified. You also realize that one day in one camp has become a metaphor for all of Stalinist Russia.
Q: When he left the Soviet Union and came to the United States in 1976, was he able to continue as a moral compass?
A: Without a doubt. He was so stern and strict that it was difficult for him and American society to adapt to each other. He gave a famous speech at Harvard University where he criticized the United States for our moral failings. His explored not only what it meant to be Soviet and Russian but also what it meant to be a good person.
Q: To Solzhenitsyn, what did it mean to be Russian?
A: Through Russian Orthodoxy he came to believe that Russians are communal and religious. He came to see communism as a Western contamination of Russia. He praised the Russian people’s innate ability to endure anything with tolerant patience.
Q: How relevant will his best work be today and in the future?
A: I don’t think he’s going to go away; they will continue to teach his works. I didn’t find his later historical fiction (“The Red Wheel”) to be as interesting. When he did return to Russia in 1994, he was treated as a hero, but there was already a sense that he was of another generation. If you walked down the street in Moscow, I don’t think you’d see very many people reading his books. We as readers get interested in writers when they are new, and as the writers (produce more books), we want them to continue providing new things and yet we don’t want them to change. It’s a difficult challenge that’s hard to escape, which was also true of Ivan Turgenev and Leo Tolstoy. In some ways, Solzhenitsyn was a 20th century Tolstoy.
John Wall, director of media relations