‘Own only what you can always carry with you: know languages, know countries, know people. Let your memory be your travel bag’ – The Gulag Archipelago (1973).
And this is exactly what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn did. It is hard to imagine how much talent and creativity has been stifled by oppressive regimes around the world. The Soviet Union was notorious for its brutal censorship. And yet people found a way to express themselves.
Solzhenitsyn used his experiences as an outsider, expelled from his birth country and never quite at home in the United States, to comment on both regimes. His refugee status and political disillusionment enabled him to see past ‘East’ and ‘West’, and explore instead what it means to be simply human.
Solzhenitsyn was born in Kislovodsk. Early childhood during the Civil War sparked his interest in Russian history, politics, religion and human nature. While serving in East Prussia during WW2, Solzhenitsyn witnessed atrocities committed against German civilians, which made him question whether those fighting against the Nazis had a moral right to condemn them: ‘The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being’ (Gulag Archipelago).
In 1945, Solzhenitsyn was arrested for criticising Stalin in his letters, and sentenced to eight years in a labour camp. These experiences influenced some of his major works such as One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962) and In the First Circle (1968). In 1953, he was sent into exile at Birlik. Although he was pardoned by Khrushchev and allowed to return, his persecution did not stop there. After Khrushchev was removed from power in 1964, the KGB confiscated his writing materials and eventually deported him to West Germany. Solzhenitsyn spent two decades in the United States, before finally returning to Russia in 1994.
In 1970, Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. The themes raised in his works continue to be prevalent in our society to this day.