Biography

Winner of the 1970 Nobel Prize for Literature, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was born in 1918 in Kislovodsk, Russia. He studied mathematics at Rostov University, while at the same time taking correspondence courses from the Moscow Institute of Philosophy, Literature, and History.

During World War II, he served as the commander of a sound-ranging battery in the Soviet Army, was involved in major action at the front, and was thrice decorated for personal heroism. In 1945 he was arrested for criticising Stalin in private correspondence and sentenced to an eight-year term in a labour camp, to be followed by permanent internal exile. The experience of the camps provided him with raw material for One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which he was permitted to publish in 1962. It would remain his only major work to appear in his motherland until 1990.

Solzhenitsyn’s exile was cut short by Khrushchev’s reforms, allowing him to return from Kazakhstan to central Russia in 1956. He taught mathematics, astronomy and physics at a high school while continuing to write. In the early 1960s he was allowed to publish, in addition to One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, only four stories, and by 1969 he was expelled from the Writers’ Union. The publication in the West of the initial version of August 1914 (the first part of The Red Wheel) and of Gulag Archipelago soon brought retaliation from the Soviet authorities. In February 1974, Solzhenitsyn was arrested, stripped of his Soviet citizenship, and flown against his will to Frankfurt, West Germany.

After a sojourn in Zurich, Solzhenitsyn moved to Vermont in 1976 with his wife and sons. Over the next eighteen years, spent mostly in the quiet of rural seclusion, Solzhenitsyn would complete his epic historical cycle, The Red Wheel, as well as several shorter works. In his essays and speeches throughout the free world, he decried the weak will displayed by Western governments in the face of continuing manifestations of Communist aggression. He also warned against the dangers of encroaching materialism for East and West alike.

In May 1994, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn returned to his native Russia via the Pacific port of Vladivostok and traveled extensively, meeting with thousands of people throughout the country. He continued to write prodigiously, publishing Between Two Millstones, a memoir of his years in the West; Russia in Collapse, which rounded out the quadrilogy of historical essays begun with Letter to the Soviet Leaders, Rebuilding Russia and The Russian Question; eight “two-part” stories, exploring a new genre; twelve essays of literary criticism on twentieth-century writers; and, in 2001-03, a work on the mutual history of the Russian and Jewish peoples in Russia, 200 Years Together: 1795-1995. In 1997 the Russian Academy of Sciences elected Solzhenitsyn as a member, and in 2007 awarded him the Russian State Prize. Meanwhile, 2006 saw the beginning of the publication of a major new 30-volume collected works. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn died in Moscow in 2008 at age 89.

Solzhenitsyn’s other works include the novels The First Circle and Cancer Ward; his literary memoirs, The Oak and the Calf, and their addendum, The Invisible Allies; collections of plays and early works; and numerous speeches and essays, including his Nobel Lecture and his Harvard address — "A World Split Apart".

Biographies & In-Depth Studies

IN ENGLISH

The Soul and Barbed Wire: An Introduction to Solzhenitsyn
by Edward E. Ericson Jr., & Alexis Klimoff
The account of Solzhenitsyn’s life is completely reliable (it is an extension of the authors’ essay in the Dictionary of Literary Biography) and the discussion of Solzhenitsyn’s works is lucid, accurate,and comprehensive. Very good for students and the reading public, and anyone curious about the full range of Solzhenitsyn’s reflection. 

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The Ascent from Ideology
by Daniel J. Mahoney
An examination of the moral framework of Solzhenitsyn’s political philosophy and a foundational text of Solzhenitsyn criticism.

Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile
by Joseph Pearce
A fine general biography, well-written, with a focus on the moral and spiritual dimensions of Solzhenitsyn’s life, thought, and writing.

The Other Solzhenitsyn: Telling the Truth about a Misunderstood Writer and Thinker
by Daniel J. Mahoney
An insightful exploration of the philosophical, political, and moral themes in The Gulag Archipelago, The Red Wheel, and In the First Circle.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The Writer Who Changed History
by Margo Caulfield
A brief biography of Solzhenitsyn intended for young readers, with a thoughtful graphic design, and helpful callouts, glossary, and timeline.

Solzhenitsyn: A Biography
by Michael Scammel
An impressively researched volume, full of useful detail, but deeply skeptical of Solzhenitsyn’s mature philosophical and moral convictions. Written from the perspective of an anti-totalitarian secular liberal fully enamored of Enlightenment values. The book grows more hostile to Solzhenitsyn as it proceeds.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn: A Century in His Life 
by D.M. Thomas
This work is indebted to Scammell’s research but is much more appreciative of Solzhenitsyn’s political judgments and religious convictions. Well-written if quite idiosyncratic and full of attempts at Freudian analysis. 

IN FRENCH

Alexandre Soljénitsyne
by Liudmila Saraskina
Translated from the Russian, this is to date the most thorough and comprehensive biography of Solzhenitsyn.

Soljénitsyne, un destin: Portrait littéraire
by Véronique Hallereau
Part biography, part literary and philosophical reflection, it is always thoughtful and equitable in its judgments.

Le phénomène Soljénitsyne
by Georges Nivat
An excellent account of Solzhenitsyn’s two “literary cathedrals” (Gulag Archipelago and Red Wheel) and the tensions between the writer and fighter (“lutteur”) in Solzhenitsyn’s life and soul.

Additional Resources

Editor's Introduction to The Solzhenitsyn Reader
by Edward E. Ericson, Jr. & Daniel J. Mahoney

Dictionary of Literary Biography
by Edward E. Ericson, Jr. & Alexis Klimoff

Encyclopædia Brittanica Biography of Solzhenitsyn