Solzhenitsyn in Vermont near his U.S. home in exile
Yesterday The New York Times and National Review offered contrasting profiles of the great Russian dissident and writer, who passed away at his home outside Moscow on Sunday. Russian Orthodox funeral services will be held tomorrow at the Dimitri Donskoy Monastery in Moscow, where Solzhenitsyn requested to be buried. The Donskoi necropolis houses the tombs of many prominent families and liberal scholars from 19th century Russia, the graves of Red Army soldiers who died defending Moscow from the invading Nazis, and anonymous victims of the NKVD buried by the Church. Solzhenitsyn, who fought his way into East Prussia in 1944-45 as a Red Army artillery officer, wanted to be buried close to his comrades.
Photo of Solzhenitsyn at the time of his Nobel Peace Prize, 1970
Solzhenitsyn's Tragic Love Story
The New York Times goes into considerable detail about Solzhenitsyn's years spent in the gulags and his literary career, including the terrible strains his opposition to Soviet dictatorship placed on his first marriage to a university classmate, Natalya Reshetovskaya. World War II followed by years of Solzhenitsyn's exile in the camps meant that the couple would spend only one year out of their first sixteen years together. Natalya divorced him and remarried shortly after Solzhenitsyn's release. A few years later, she divorced her second husband to remarry Solzhenitsyn, but the couple divorced again in 1971 after Alexander fathered children with a younger woman, Natalya Svetlova.
When Solzhenitsyn triumphantly returned to Russia in 1994, he supported his first wife financially, but reportedly never met with her again. For her part, Natalya told newspaper interviewers that in spite of the Soviet authorities putting pressure on her to criticize Solzhenitysn publicly in 1974, she had never stopped loving him. Natalya Reshetovskaya died in 2003 at the age of 84, her Moscow apartment still full of her husband's mementoes. Natalya Svetlova accepted the State Prize from President Vladimir Putin on Solzhenitsyn's behalf at a Kremlin ceremony in June 2007, while her ailing husband recorded a video greeting for the audience.
Solzhenitsyn's Western Critics
The NYT also quotes some who, even before Solzhenitsyn's speech condemning what he saw as Western and Soviet materialism at Harvard University in 1978, denounced him as a Slavophile, a reactionary right-winger, a nationalist, and, after the publication of his controversial book 200 Years Together, an anti-Semite (you can read Intercollegiate Studies Institute faculty member and Assumption College Prof. Daniel J. Mahoney's defense of Solzhenitsyn from this charge here).
Solzhenitsyn's Views of Modern Russia Versus the West
The article concludes with quotes from Solzhenitsyn's interview with Der Spiegel last summer, one of the final interviews he conducted with the media, in which he denounced the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 and the Atlantic alliance's proposed expansion into Ukraine. In the same interview, which was conducted a few days after Solzhenitsyn was presented with the State Award of the Russian Federation by President Putin, Solzhenitsyn said, "Putin inherited a ransacked and bewildered country, with a poor and demoralized people. And he started to do what was possible, a slow and gradual restoration." On the controversial question of his father's views of Putin, Stepan Solzhenitsyn said, "Undoubtedly, Russia has turned some kind of corner...look around you. This is not a country where people cower in fear."
In contrast, National Review's memorial largely overlooks Solzhenitsyn's final years following his return to Russia in 1994 (since NR's editors might not have agreed with one of their heroes about Russia's present leadership), while defending the man and his work from his critics. The editors of NR point to the profoundly humane way Solzhenitsyn treated the people he came into contact with, including the American neighbors who protected his privacy when the exiled author and his family moved to Vermont in 1974. NR also championed Solzhenitsyn'sfamous 1978 commencement address at Harvard as a call for the West to evaluate itself in moral and spiritual terms.