The Soul of a Poet

My generation is perhaps the last to whom the figure of Aleksandr Sol-zhe-nitsyn looms as large as a legend.  I have vague, hazy recollections as a boy, and as a teenager, of the man in the news who was depicted as a hero against Soviet totalitarianism.  I was eight when Solzhenitsyn was expelled from the Soviet Writers’ Union, nine when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and thirteen when he was forced into exile—first in Switzerland, and then in the United States.  Back then, all that I really knew about the Russian was that he was famous.  His picture was as familiar to me as that of the most famous politicians.  His imposing beard, his stern expression, and his lofty brow made him instantly recognizable.  He was, to employ the modern inane label, a celebrity.  It was only later, when I read The Gulag Archipelago around the age of 17, that I fully realized that the lofty brow was also a highbrow, that the imposing presence had as much to do with the wisdom of what he said as with the heroism with which he said it.  And when I read Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, at around the same time, it struck me that Solzhenitsyn was a real-life Winston Smith, except that the real-life version had succeeded, against all the seemingly insuperable odds, to defeat Big Brother.  Fact was not merely stranger than fiction; it had a happier ending!  With these experiences...

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