Alexander Solzhenitsyn, A 'Man With A Mission' The Nobel Prize-winning author whose books chronicled the horrors of the Soviet gulag system has died of heart failure. Alexander Solzhenitsyn was 89. NPR's Anne Garrels recalls a rare interview she had with Solzhenitsyn just after he was expelled from the Soviet Union in the 1970s.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, A 'Man With A Mission'

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. We're about to hear about a few scenes from the long life of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. He was the writer who exposed the Soviet Union's prison system, which he knew from personal experience in a Soviet gulag. Unlike so many prisoners, Solzhenitsyn survived and lived to the age of 89. His family says he died over the weekend of heart failure.

Solzhenitsyn's many experiences later in life included an interview with NPR's Anne Garrels, who's on the line. Anne, good morning.

ANNE GARRELS: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Let's remember this time when you met Solzhenitsyn. It's the 1970s. He's just published a book called "The Gulag Archipelago," which has outraged Soviet authorities, and they threw him out of the country. Where'd you meet him?

GARRELS: Up in Cavendish, Vermont. It reminded him of his beloved Russia, and he strode through the snow to meet me with a Saint Bernard romping behind him. The amazing thing was he was a vibrant, strong, very physical man, far from the frail victim of Stalin's camps that I expected.

He showed me where he worked seven days a week, and he invited me to come back, but when it came to the actual interview, I saw the imperious side of him. You know, most of the time he would only conduct interviews in writing, vetting the questions, carefully writing out his answers, and a TV interview - I was then working for ABC - was really rare. But it turned out he would only talk about his fund to support families of political prisoners. He would talk about nothing else. He demanded the interview run on such-and-such a date in its absolute entirety.

He was man with a mission, and it was basically, as I found out, everyone's obligation to support him.

INSKEEP: Was he in some way as dictatorial as the regime that he criticized?

GARRELS: Well, in many ways he was. Certainly, he fought with dissidents. He fought with pretty much everyone: Democrats, communists, socialists. I mean, you supported his mission or else.

INSKEEP: Would you remind us of the importance of this man's writing, why that mattered so much?

GARRELS: It mattered because he, Solzhenitsyn, tore away the curtain of silence about the Stalinist repressions: the camps, the millions of innocent people who perished, the waste of life. I mean, he was able to publish a book, amazingly, in the Soviet Union, "A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," which was drawn from his own experience in the labor camps.

It was short, it was highly readable, unlike many of his later books, and it proved too much for the Soviet authorities. It was withdrawn. Although he did continue to publish overseas, and he was a thorn in the side of the Soviet authorities.

INSKEEP: So he was exiled in 1974, kicked out, and this is the period when you met him. What was that like for him?

GARRELS: You know, he never wanted to leave the Soviet Union, and instead of imprisoning him again, which would have only increased his profile, the Soviets sent him into exile, as you note, hoping that sort of out of the country he would lose his shock value. And he proved to be a very complicated guest here in the United States.

He lived largely in isolation with his family. He didn't meet with the press. He didn't really speak out at all until he spoke at Harvard in 1978, and he shocked people. He complained about the West as much as the Soviet Union. He complained about the Western materialism - vulgar materialism, he called it. He criticized a free press.

He was against Washington's d├ętente with the Soviet Union and said the West didn't have the spine to live up to its ideals. He criticized the U.S. for failing to win the Vietnam War. This was not the kind of Solzhenitsyn people really expected.

INSKEEP: Well, what happened when the Soviet Union fell and he was able to go back to his country?

GARRELS: He was appalled at the country he found when he got back in the '90s. He said it was a country brought to its knees by avarice and cowardice by the ruling elite. And while many agreed with him, he still couldn't connect with the people because he scolded too much.

Young people didn't want to be lectured about the past sins of the Soviet Union. They wanted to enjoy the materialism he condemned.

INSKEEP: Well, when you think today of this man that you met during his period in exile, did he have the effect on the world that he wanted to have?

GARRELS: He will always be revered for what has been called the living memory of a nation, but his legacy has been complicated. I don't think he was read nearly as much as he wanted to be.

For some, he is a stubborn nationalist; for others, a revered patriot. And I don't think we really know how he's ultimately going to be regarded.

INSKEEP: NPR's Anne Garrels, thanks very much.

GARRELS: Thank you.

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