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Solzhenitsyn Could Have Been One of Our Founders

August 11, 2008

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev called Alexander Solzhenitsyn "one of the greatest thinkers, writers and humanists of the 20th century" and "an irreplaceable loss."

The last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, said Solzhenitsyn's name would go down in Russian history. "Until the end of his days he fought for Russia, not only to move away from its totalitarian past, but also to have a worthy future, to become a truly free and democratic country. We owe him a lot," Gorbachev said.

Gorbachev said Solzhenitsyn played a key role in undermining Stalin's totalitarian regime. His works "changed the consciousness of millions of people, forcing them to think about past and present in a different way."

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin called his death "a heavy loss for Russia," adding, "We will remember him as a strong, brave person with enormous dignity."

His widow said he had lived "a difficult but happy life."

Alexander Solzhenitsyn died on August 3rd at the age of 89. He was a mathematician, a writer, a soldier, a dissident and a patriot. He loved his country, yet endured years of cruelty in Josef Stalin's prison camps. He fought in the Soviet Army during World War II, yet was persecuted by the very government he had served.

Solzhenitsyn was born in 1918, a pivotal moment in Russian and world history. With World War I ending, the bloody Russian revolution was replacing the tsarist regime with Soviet Communism, the brutality of which he would later chronicle from firsthand knowledge and experience.

He studied mathematics, but loved literature, and so he became a writer. But it was his love of liberty that got him in trouble with Stalin, whose regime sentenced Solzhenitsyn to a "mild sentence" of eight years in 1945 for criticizing the Soviet dictator in a letter to a friend. It was the first of several incarcerations in some of the worst prisons in the world.

His writing career began with the publication of a short book called "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich." He would go on to write 19 more. He survived stomach cancer in the 1950s and won the Nobel Prize in 1970, although he refused to leave the Soviet Union to receive the award lest he not be allowed back into his beloved mother country.

I remember thirty years ago trying to plow through "The Gulag Archipelago," his shocking account of conditions in Stalin's prisons. It was a massive task, not so much because of the size of the book (although it was large), but because it was tedious and dry. I remember thinking that it must have lost something in the Russian-to-English translation. Still, its tale of the Soviet brutality in the prison camps haunted me for a long time. I remember feeling terribly cold and depressed as I read Solzhenitsyn's description of the camps he knew so well.

I also remember thinking that if Solzhenitsyn had lived two hundred years earlier, in America, his name would probably have appeared with Hancock, Jefferson, Adams, Washington, Franklin and our other Founders who pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to establish a new republic.

This was a man who knew the consequences of his actions, and yet, he continued to speak out and to expose the Soviet system for what it was - brutal, inhumane and repressive. His revelations about Stalin shook American intellectuals, who clung to their idealistic view of the U.S.S.R., to their core.

As a committed, orthodox Christian, Solzhenitsyn was never entirely comfortable in the West. Consumerism, he told us, would not make us happy, and he warned us about the dangers of spiritual weakness and national decadence.

When the roll of heroes who brought down the old evil empire that was the Soviet Union is written, there with the names of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II and Lech Walesa, will be Alexander Solzhenitsyn. May he finally rest in peace.

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Copyright ©2008 Doug Patton

Doug Patton describes himself as a recovering political speechwriter who agrees with himself more often than not. His weekly columns are syndicated by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate. Readers are encouraged to email him at dpatton@cagle.comand/or to follow him on Twitter at @Doug_Patton.