Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky were the twin towers of 19th-century Russian writing. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who died on Aug. 3 at age 89, was Russia's paramount 20th-century writer, a birch who stood virtually alone amid the attempts of Josef Stalin and his successors to clear-cut the Soviet Union's literary forests.
(In Tolstoy's greatest short story, "What Men Live By," God removes the powers of a disobedient angel and sends him to earth, assigning him to "learn three truths: what dwells in man, what is not given to man, and what men live by.")
Solzhenitsyn grew up in the Russian Orthodox Church and later recalled how older boys once ripped a cross from his neck. He became a loyal Communist and fought in World War II, but in one letter to a school friend he referred to Stalin as "the man with the mustache." For that bit of "disrespect," he spent the years from 1945 through 1953 in the Gulag, the Soviet prison camp system.
Once, Solzhenitsyn decided to try to escape from prison, knowing he would almost certainly be shot down in the process. But a supernaturally compassionate prisoner he had never before seen pushed Solzhenitsyn to rethink his plan by using a stick to draw a cross in the dirt. He later said that prisoner was Christ Himself.
(The angel learns the first truth when he is naked and miserable after his forced descent from heaven, until a husband and wife make sacrifices for his benefit: He sees that love is present even amid hardship.)
Solzhenitsyn spent the first nine years after his release teaching in a secondary school by day and writing by night. He never expected to see his work published, but in 1962 Stalin's successor Nikita Khrushchev wanted to show the world that the bad old days were over: Khrushchev read and approved publication of Solzhenitsyn's novel about prison life, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.
That thaw ended with Khrushchev's ouster in 1964, and during the following decade Solzhenitsyn often faced KGB pressure. Had Kremlin leaders begun to reform their regime in the mid-60s rather than the mid-80s, perhaps the Soviet Union would have survived. Instead, they would not allow publication of The First Circle and Cancer Ward, which then came out abroad-and they deported Solzhenitsyn in 1974.
(Tolstoy's angel, working as a shoemaker, learns his second lesson when a scowling baron orders a pair of boots out of fine leather, only to die hours later: "It is not given to man to know his own needs.")
Solzhenitsyn lived in the United States for two decades, mostly in Vermont, and continued to write. He developed almost as much antipathy for contemporary Western culture as for Soviet life: One seemed anarchic, the other dictatorial. With his high forehead and long beard he increasingly looked like Tolstoy but did not share the revered writer's disdain for the Russian Orthodox Church.
Solzhenitsyn's second wife Natalya and their three sons all became U.S. citizens, but when the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991 Solzhenitsyn yearned to go back and rebuild the Russian tradition of a powerful state working with a powerful church rather than against it.
(The angel's summary of the third lesson he learned: "Though it seems to men that they live by care for themselves, in truth it is love alone by which they live." Solzhenitsyn, though, garnered increasing criticism in Russia and abroad for supporting church authoritarianism that, among other things, suppressed the religious freedom of evangelicals.)
Ironically, during the last years of his life Solzhenitsyn praised former KGB agent Vladimir Putin's "restoration" of Russia, and Putin last year personally awarded Solzhenitsyn the State Prize of the Russian Federation. But a troubled 21st-century old age did not make any less significant Solzhenitsyn's 20th-century resistance to Communism, which inspired many Americans to persevere through the Cold War.
Solzhenitsyn's recipe for survival is still worth remembering: "When you've been pitched head first into hell, you just write about it."