Although more than three decades have passed since the winter of 1974, when unbound, hand-typed samizdat versions of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s “The Gulag Archipelago” began circulating in what used to be the Soviet Union, the emotions they stirred remain today. Usually, readers were given only 24 hours to finish the lengthy manuscript — the first-ever historical account of the Soviet concentration camp system — before it had to be passed on to the next person. That meant spending an entire day and night absorbed in Solzhenitsyn’s sometimes eloquent, sometimes angry prose, not an experience anyone was likely to forget.
People in that first generation of readers remember who gave them the book, who else knew about it, to whom they passed it. They remember the stories that affected them most — tales of small children in the camps, or of informers, or of camp guards. They remember what the book felt like — the blurry, mimeographed text; the dog-eared paper; the dim glow of the lamp switched on late at night — and with whom they discussed it.
In part, his Soviet readers responded so strongly because Solzhenitsyn — who died Sunday at age 89 — was simultaneously very famous and strictly taboo. Twelve years earlier, the Soviet regime had serendipitously allowed him to publish, officially, the first fictional account of Stalin’s concentration camps, “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.” It was also the last: Too honest for the leaders at the time, the book, a publishing sensation, was quickly banned along with its author, whose later works would be “published” illegally — or abroad.
It didn’t matter: Even Solzhenitsyn’s expulsion from Russia in 1974 only increased his notoriety, as well as the impact of “The Gulag Archipelago.” Though it was based on “reports, memoirs and letters by 227 witnesses,” the book was not quite a straight history — obviously, Solzhenitsyn did not have access to then-secret archives — but, rather, an interpretation of history. Partly polemical, partly autobiographical, both emotional and judgmental, it aimed to show that, contrary to what many believed, the mass arrests and concentration camps were not an incidental phenomenon but an essential part of the Soviet system — and had been from the very beginning.
Not all of this was new: Credible witnesses had reported on the growth of the Gulag and the spread of terror since the Russian Revolution. But what Solzhenitsyn produced was simply more thorough, more monumental and more detailed than anything that had preceded it. His account could not be dismissed as a single man’s experience. No one who dealt with the Soviet Union, diplomatically or intellectually, could ignore it. So threatening was the book to certain branches of the European left that Jean-Paul Sartre himself described Solzhenitsyn as a “dangerous element.” Its publication certainly contributed to the recognition of “human rights” as a legitimate element of international debate and foreign policy.
In later years, Solzhenitsyn lost some of his stature, thanks partly to Soviet propaganda that portrayed him as a crank and an extremist but thanks also to his own failure to embrace liberal democracy. He never really liked the West, never really took to free markets or pop culture. When the Soviet Union finally collapsed in 1991, he went back to Russia, where he was first welcomed, then forgotten. In a Russia that is no longer interested in examining its history, he came to seem outdated, a spokesman from an irrelevant past. Even his nationalism, now a popular cause, had something crusty and old-fashioned about it: His vision of a more spiritual society, of Russia as an alternative to the consumerist West, doesn’t hold much appeal for the super-charged, super-wealthy, oil-fueled Russian elite of today. His apparent endorsement of former president Vladimir Putin seemed more like an old man’s foible than a serious change of heart.
In the week of his death, though, what stands out is not who Solzhenitsyn was but what he wrote. It is very easy, in a world where news is instant and photographs travel as quickly as they are taken, to forget how powerful, still, are written words. And Solzhenitsyn was, in the end, a writer: A man who gathered facts, sorted through them, tested them against his own experience, composed them into paragraphs and chapters. It was not his personality but his language that forced people to think more deeply about their values, their assumptions, their societies. It was not his television appearances that affected history but his words.
His manuscripts were read and pondered in silence, and the thought he put into them provoked his readers to think, too. In the end, his books mattered not because he was famous or notorious but because millions of Soviet citizens recognized themselves in his work: They read his books because they already knew that they were true.