Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s father, Isaaki Solzhenitsyn, was a farmer and intellectual who worked his way to the University of Moscow and was the first in his family to go to school. He studied literature but left school to join the army and spent three years at the German front in World War I. In August of 1917, he married Taissia Shcherbak. Born into a wealthy landowning family, Taissia was educated in exclusive schools and then attended the Golitsyn Academy of Agriculture in Moscow, where she met Isaaki Solzhenitsyn. They were married less than a year when he died in a hunting accident. Six months later, on December 11, 1918, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was born in Kislovodsk.
In 1924, after several years of increasingly hostile Bolshevik disturbances in Kislovodsk, Taissia and the young Solzhenitsyn moved to Rostov-on-Don. His mother worked as a stenographer and they lived in part of a reconstructed stable without adequate heat and little money for food. After he graduated high school in 1936, Solzhenitsyn attended Rostov University on a Stalin Scholarship, an exclusive and political honor. Although he studied mathematics and physics, writing took up the majority of his time. Despite many submissions to publishers, none of his early works was published. Solzhenitsyn met his first wife, Natalia Reshetovskaya, at Rostov University.
She was a chemistry student and as passionate about music as Solzhenitsyn was about literature. They married in 1940 and became teachers in the small town of Morozovsk. In October 1941, Solzhenitsyn was called to war; he was 22 and would not return home for 15 years. His first military assignment was as a horse and cart driver, a humiliating experience he would later write about in The First Circle. Eventually he was transferred to artillery and recorded his experiences in a journal and letters to his wife and friends. In 1943, he was appointed commander of an “instrumental reconnaissance battery” and was on the front lines until 1945. He received two decorations for his bravery, the Order of the Red Star and the Order of the Patriotic War, before he was arrested and stripped of his rank and decorations.
In The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn recounts the details of his arrest. Without any way to notify his wife or friends, he was taken to Lubyanka prison in Moscow, his journals were burned, and he was beaten and interrogated for months. On July 7, 1945, he was sentenced to eight years of hard labor for criticizing Stalin in a letter to a friend. After sentencing, he was transferred to a series of correctional and labor camps just outside of Moscow.
Shortly before his scheduled release date, he noticed a lump in his lower abdomen but was not provided treatment until it grew larger. He was released in 1953, shortly after Stalin’s death, and exiled to Kazakhstan. He worked as a teacher, but his cancer soon metastasized and he sought treatment in Tashkent. By 1956, Solzhenitsyn had recovered and returned home to central Russia after release from exile. Solzhenitsyn submitted a short novel about his labor camp experiences to the editor of a Moscow literary journal, Novy Mir. Its editor, Alexander Tvardovsky, sought permission from Nikita Khrushchev to publish the novel. Khrushchev decided that the novel’s publication would help him consolidate his power base. In his memoirs, he lamented his decision and implied that it contributed to his downfall. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich appeared in the November 1962 issue, which sold more than 1 million copies. Overnight, Solzhenitsyn became a literary sensation. His novel was the most explosive account of Stalin’s labor camps to appear in the official press.
However, Solzhenitsyn’s popularity was short-lived; as his stories became more politically outspoken, he received increasingly bad press. He was nominated but not selected for the Lenin Prize for Literature in 1964. Soon after, his books were banned from publication.
Manuscripts of The First Circle and Cancer Ward were smuggled out of the Soviet Union and published in the United States in 1968-1969, further harming Solzhenitsyn’s reputation in Russia. He was expelled from the Union of Writers and stripped of his status as a Soviet author. At the same time, his fame in the West was on the rise, and he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970. Soviet officials pressured him to refuse the award. He accepted it in absentia, knowing if he left the Soviet Union there was a chance he would be refused re-entry.
Solzhenitsyn and Natalia Reshetovskaia divorced in 1950, remarried in 1957 and divorced in 1972. In 1973, Solzhenitsyn married Natalia Svetlova; they had three sons, Yermolai, Stephan and Ignat. Solzhenitsyn also has a stepson, Dmitri, from Svetlova’s first marriage.
In 1974, Solzhenitsyn was arrested, accused of treason, striped of his citizenship and deported from the Soviet Union after the publication in the West of The Gulag Archipelago, a firsthand account of the Soviet prison system. Solzhenitsyn and his family eventually settled in Vermont. Mikhail Gorbachev restored his citizenship in 1990 and he returned to his homeland in 1994 where he lived until his death in 2008.
- Burg, David. Solzhenitsyn: A Biography. Stein and Day, 1972.
- Moody, Christopher. Solzhenitsyn. Harper & Row Publishers Inc., 1973.
- Scammell, Michael. Solzhenitsyn: A Biography. W.W. Norton & Company, 1984.
- “Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.” Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Volume 49. Gale Group: 2003.
Content last updated: April 30, 2006