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The legendary Russian writer, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, has died at age 89, that according to Russian media reports. The Novel winner exposed the horrors of Stalin's labor camps and the criminal nature of the Soviet regime in such works as "The Gulag Archipelago."

Later, he spent years in exile in the United States, churning out historical fiction, before returning home, but what he's remembered for today is his earlier work.

NPR's Martha Wexler has this reflection of his life.

MARTHA WEXLER: "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" is must-reading for every student of modern Russian literature. The novella brought Alexander Solzhenitsyn to the attention of the world and the Nobel Committee, which awarded him the literature in 1970.

Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language)

WEXLER: For years, Solzhenitsyn had written with scant hope of seeing his works in print. Then, in 1962 during the brief post-Stalin thaw, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev ordered the publication of "Ivan Denisovich." It was a grueling take of one inmate's survival, rich in prison-camp slang.

Lyudmila Alekseeva, a human-rights activists in Moscow, recalls the work's appearance in an official journal as a great event in Soviet public life.

Ms. LYUDMILA ALEKSEEVA (Human-rights Activist, Moscow): It was very important for us that such a story was published. It means that this topic after this event wouldn't be a forbidden topic.

WEXLER: And so Alexander Isaevich Solzhenitsyn, an unknown math teacher from the provinces, leapt to literary fame.

Solzhenitsyn didn't start out as an anti-Soviet crusader. He was born in southern Russian in 1918, one year after the revolution. He grew up fatherless in extreme poverty, during the tumultuous formative years of the Soviet Union, an era of civil war, famine and repression.

At the outbreak of World War II, Solzhenitsyn joined the Red Army. Then in February, 1945, while serving as an officer at the front, he was arrested. The secret police had intercepted his correspondence with a school friend, criticizing Stalin.

Solzhenitsyn, though, had not yet lost faith with the Soviet system, as his biographer, Michael Scammell, notes.

Mr. MICHAEL SCAMMELL (Biographer of Alexander Solzhenitsyn): Solzhenitsyn was not your average communist or a token believer. I mean, it's quite clear he was fire-breathing, extreme communist when he became a communist. What got him into trouble was that, you know, he was holier than the pope.

WEXLER: He believed Stalin had betrayed the revolution, and so he spent the next decade in prison, labor camps and internal exile in Kazakhstan. These ordeals would provide the material for his greatest works.

"The Cancer Ward" was inspired by his own affliction with the disease while still a prisoner. "The First Circle" drew on his internment at a scientific research station. It was there, in heartfelt discussions with other inmate-intellectuals, that Solzhenitsyn began to question not just Stalinism but the entire communist state founded by Lenin.

The atrocities he witnesses propelled him to write "The Gulag Archipelago." The three meticulously researched volumes documented the torture, hunger and numbing cold suffered in the vast Soviet network of prisons and labor camps. Biographer Michael Scammell sees this as Solzhenitsyn' masterpiece, a narrative that crystallized a particular form of evil.

Mr. SCAMMELL: It turned a mealy-mouthed, bureaucratic, obscure term describing the state management of labor camps. That crazy little word, gulag, has now become a metaphor on the scale, almost of the Holocaust.

WEXLER: Solzhenitsyn had "The Gulag Archipelago" published abroad. It was smuggled back into the Soviet Union, reproduced and circulated underground. This proved too much for the Soviet authorities, and in February of 1974, they put him on a plane for Frankfort.

He was later joined by his second wife and chief editor, Natalia Svetlova, and their young children. They settled into exile in Cavendish, Vermont.

The author established The Solzhenitsyn Fund, sending his Nobel Award money and Gulag royalties back home to the families of political prisoners. He also plunged into a project he had conceived of as a young man, a project he saw as his most important work. It was a densely written series, more history than fiction, about the Russian revolutionary period.

Mr. ALEXANDER SOLZHENITSYN (Author): (Speaking foreign language).

WEXLER: From exile, he read this series, "The Red Wheel," over The Voice of America, sending his words back into Russia.

Mr. SOLZHENITSYN: (Speaking foreign language).

WEXLER: Biographer Michael Scammell, who teaches writing at Columbia University, calls "The Red Wheel" a dreadful falling-off of Solzhenitsyn's literary talent. Few Russians would plow through the entire "Red Wheel." What's more, critics said it revealed a deep, anti-liberal bias.

Human-rights activist Lyudmila Alekseeva took issue with the author's slant.

Ms. ALEKSEEVA: I am historian, and I don't believe that all events which were described in this book was described correctly. It was selection of facts.

WEXLER: And "The Red Wheel" fueled suspicions that Solzhenitsyn, the Slavophile, the extoller of village life in Orthodox Christian Russia, had a problem with Jews. Biographer Scammell believes Solzhenitsyn was not anti-Semitic in his personal interactions, but Scammell says Solzhenitsyn did imply that Jews played a disproportionate role in the revolution.

Mr. SCAMMELL: That the Jews are the carriers of the revolutionary seed, which is what blew up Russia in the first place and that secular, Westernized Jews brought this poison from the West to Russia.

WEXLER: In 1978, Solzhenitsyn shocked his admirers with a commencement speech he delivered at Harvard University, heard here through an interpreter.

Mr. SOLZHENITSYN: (Through translator) How has this unfavorable relation of forces come about? How did the West decline from its triumphal march to its present sickness?

WEXLER: Solzhenitsyn thundered against the West's materialism, its boundless freedom, its reliance on secular law and its spiritual and moral weakness.

Many observers said the author never really got to know America, that he shut himself off from the country like a recluse at his Vermont estate. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Solzhenitsyn was able to realize his dream and return home.

He flew first to Russia's far east, the heartland of "The Gulag Archipelago."

Mr. SOLZHENITSYN: (Speaking foreign language).

WEXLER: As he stepped off the plane in 1994 in Magadan, in Siberia's frigid Kolyma region, Solzhenitsyn remembered the victims of the camps.

Mr. SOLZHENITSYN: (Through translator) I pay homage to the land of Kolyma, where many hundreds of thousands, even millions, of our murdered countrymen are buried, the land where innocent marchers rest has become sacred, and we will honor it as sacred.

WEXLER: After traveling across Russia, Solzhenitsyn settled in Moscow. He launched a bi-weekly television show and railed against the greed and corruption of post-Soviet Russian until Russian public TV canceled the broadcast. He produced his final work, a two-volume history of the Jews in Russia, which stirred hot debate but failed to win critical acclaim.

Russia seemed to have passed Solzhenitsyn by. His later political tracts sounded preachy and irrelevant compared to the early, banned works that had kept Russians up late at night, furtively reading typed carbon copies.

These works, written before his exile, are what prompted biographers to compare the influence of Solzhenitsyn to that of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy.

Martha Wexler, NPR News.

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