Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn RIP

Very sad to hear of the death of one of Russia's greatest writers Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Reading One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was an experience that I think I could say changed my life.

My dad built a bookcase his architect friend said was impossible. It should have collapsed or fallen over right away but it didn't. It withstood many years of use and held hundreds of books of all shapes and sizes, completely covering one wall in the living room from floor to ceiling. As time goes by I am increasingly convinced that this wall of books is one of the reasons I now find myself surrounded by books on all sides. If I was bored I could just go and grab a book. And because my parents were big readers there were always plenty of great books just waiting to blow my tiny teenage brain apart...

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was a book that seemed to ooze importance. I passed over it it several times until the day arrived when I felt ready to read it. I was suitably impressed. As a portrayal of survival, the sheer power of the imperative to live at all costs, it was stunning. What I was less aware of were the political surroundings. I knew that Stalin was a monster - but only in a vague and hazy way. How could ideas, mental constructs - ideas that were supposed to enhance the living conditions for all mankind - lead to such horrors?

Later I read Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon

And I have recently read Simon Sebag Montefire's Sashenka which charts the progress of a youthful revolutionary's arc from idealistic Bolshevik through to her despicable end at the hands of the party she helped to create.

(If you prefer non-fiction then Anne Applebaum's superb book Gulag is essential reading)

Solzhenitsyn was an important figure because he never shut up. He insisted on reminding people of the horrors of the gulag in the same way that Primo Levi and others have helped to keep the holocaust in the minds of the masses.

A great man has died. But his books survive and will continue to be read for as long as a civilised and just society remains a work in progress...

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