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Alexandr Solzhenitsyn is Dead

The writer Alexandr Solzhenitsyn died yesterday. In his youth, he was imprisoned for eight years in Stalin’s gulag–prison camps, about which he wrote extensively and beautifully, with dry and subtle humor–for writing some “disrespectful remarks about Stalin” in personal letters to a friend. The magnitude of this injustice leaves a sour taste in my mouth.

Solzhenitsyn wrote some of the enlightening books on prison and oppression–in secret, for most of life.  He wrote the Cancer Ward, Right Hand, Matryona’s Farm, The Gulag Archipelago, a treatise on the forced labor camp system, and, my favorite by him, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.  He won the Nobel prize for Literature in 1970. And he had to smuggle most of his work out of the Soviet Union to see any word in print.

His work, like George Orwell’s, reminds me of our collective nature. We’re never far from the casual brutality they described. When we abdicate personal responsibility in favor of convenience, or out of fear, we give absolute power to those who crave it. Stalin was heinous, and a terrible person, but he wasn’t an alien–he was human, and merely unrestrained. Given the right circumstances, any country could have her Stalin.

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