A zek's life: Solzhenitsyn's death

Too late for the UK papers, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s death last night is, as you might expect, featuring heavily in online and broadcast coverage today (and Global Voices has some blog reaction).

For anyone who cares about literature and human rights, Solzhenitsyn was a giant. Today that other gigantic figure of modern Russia – a certain Vladimir Putin – has led Russian tributes to Solzhenitsyn’s “selfless service to the people, motherland, the ideals of freedom, justice and humanism."

(All well and good, but it does may you wonder what the Solzhenitsyn of The Gulag Archipelago would have made of this former KGB man’s remarks – or, indeed, the scorched earth tactics, torture and “disappearances” of Putin’s military in Chechnya.)

All commentators have picked up on the unpredictable politics of the older Solzhenitsyn, but for me it’s the effect of reading his major works that really counts.

Up until last year I must confess I’d only read One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich, but last year I finally took the plunge with the Gulag monster-work – and it really is incredible. The depiction of the suffering of the political prisoners (the “zeks”), the interrogations, torture, bone-numbing fear, and the bureacracy and cruel relentlessness of the Soviet Union’s political prisons is genuinely stunning. Anyone who’s read and admired Pimo Levi should definitely tackle Solzhenitsyn.

To me The Cancer Ward and The First Circle are also close to brilliant (For The Good Of The Cause maybe less so) and Solzhenitsyn surely demonstrates the power of the written word to convey a sense of injustice and how to overcome it.

It’s something that Amnesty’s “Imprisoned Writers” series at the Edinburgh Book festival (read my other Amnesty blog on Edinburgh’s annual multi-media Festival jamboree) is exploring. This year, with distinguished authors like Ali Smith reading extracts from Anna Politkovskaya (to start with a Russian example), Michael Holroyd reading Moazzam Begg and Ilan Pappé on Hrant Dink, it’s very likely to be one of the most moving events at the entire Festival.

But back to Solzhenitsyn. Hearing about his death this morning, it dawned on me that the Russian maestro’s demise is – in my mind at least! – now linked to the world-famous diary kept by Anne Frank during her two years desperately hiding out from the Nazis in Amsterdam.

Last night I happened to be finishing off my reading of Frank’s account of life in the “Secret Annexe”. The diary “ends” of course, because the eight people in the annexe are suddenly denounced to the Gestapo and taken to concentration camps and near-certain death.

It’s exactly the sort of totalitarian terror that Solzhenitsyn would later condemn. And the end came for Anne Frank exactly 64 years ago today.

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