Today is a gray and sad day for all of those who feel a passion for liberty. Being free is a sensation that you can only appreciate when you don’t have it. People like Nelson Mandela, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and John McCain were imprisoned for a long time and came back to tell us how it was like. They know in spirit, flesh and bone what freedom means.
I read last night that Solzhenitsyn had died. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel Prize-winning author whose books chronicled the horrors of the Soviet gulag system, has died of heart failure, his son said Monday. He was 89. Stepan Solzhenitsyn told The Associated Press his father died late Sunday, but declined further comment.
I first head about Solzhenitsyn when I was studying at the University of Costa Rica. I was very young then; only 18 years old. I purchased his 1962 short novel dubbed, “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” at the college library and read it in one night. The impressions of this book has lasted to this day. It was, and still is, difficult to understand to what degree a human being can be degraded by another human being. Hommo homini lupus (Man is a wolf to man) were the famous words of Plautus more than two thousand years ago.
I tried to read his most famous book, “Gulag Archipelago”, but couldn’t find it. Perhaps I would go out later today and see if it’s available in Panama City.
Through his writings, Solzhenitzen made the world aware of the Gulag, the Soviet labor camp system, and for these efforts, Solzhenitsyn was both awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970 and exiled from the Soviet Union in 1974. He returned to Russia in 1994. That year, he was elected as a member of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts in the Department of Language and Literature.
When Alexandr Solzhenitzen’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” appeared in the thick monthly literary magazine Novy Mir back in November of 1962, taboos were shattered. Buried secrets were unearthed. And the Soviet Union was shaken to its foundations.
Solzhenitsyn’s short novel described a single day in the life of a carpenter caught up in the Soviet Union’s secret network of slave labor camps, where starvation, bitter cold and punishing work regimes were the rule and, it has been said, the average life expectancy was only one winter.
The author was working as a provincial math teacher, and his greatest work,“The Gulag Archipelago” was still to come. But “One Day” was to shock the U.S.S.R. and the world.
Even though he received shelter and many awards while he was exiled in the West. He had the courage to criticize Western culture for what he considered its weakness and decadence.
In a testimony to the U.S. Congress on July 8, 1975, Solzhenitsyn said:
Until I came to the West myself and spent two years looking around, I could never have imagined to what an extreme degree the West had actually become a world without a will, a world gradually petrifying in the face of the danger confronting it . . . All of us are standing on the brink of a great historical cataclysm, a flood that swallows up civilization and changes whole epochs.
Today is a gray and sad day for those who understand and cherish the value of freedom. Rest in peace Solzhenitsyn; you’ve earned it.