Soviet Union Expels Solzhenitsyn

In 1974, the Soviet government charged Russian writer and critic Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn with treason and sent him into exile. He continued to speak out against the Soviet regime, as well as Western culture, while living in the United States.

Summary of Event

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, one of Russia’s and the world’s greatest writers, is the author of plays, poetry, and essays. He is best known for his novels, particularly V kruge pervom (1968; The First Circle, 1968) First Circle, The (Solzhenitsyn) and Rakovy korpus (1968; Cancer Ward, 1968), Cancer Ward (Solzhenitsyn) the novella Odin den’ Ivana Denisovicha, (1962; One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Solzhenitsyn) 1963), the historical novel Avgust chetyrnadtsatogo (1971; August 1914, 1972), August 1914 (Solzhenitsyn)[August Nineteen Fourteen] and the monumental three-volume literary investigation Arkhipelag Gulag, 1918-1956: Opyt khudozhestvennogo issledovaniya (1973-1975; The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, 1974-1978). Gulag Archipelago, The (Solzhenitsyn) The underlying theme of Solzhenitsyn’s writings is humanity’s struggle for truth and decency against the forces of oppression and corruption. Soviet Union;political exiles
Human rights abuses;Soviet Union
[kw]Soviet Union Expels Solzhenitsyn (Feb. 13, 1974)
[kw]Solzhenitsyn, Soviet Union Expels (Feb. 13, 1974)
Soviet Union;political exiles
Human rights abuses;Soviet Union
[g]Soviet Union;Feb. 13, 1974: Soviet Union Expels Solzhenitsyn[01540]
[g]Europe;Feb. 13, 1974: Soviet Union Expels Solzhenitsyn[01540]
[g]North America;Feb. 13, 1974: Soviet Union Expels Solzhenitsyn[01540]
[g]Russia;Feb. 13, 1974: Soviet Union Expels Solzhenitsyn[01540]
[g]Switzerland;Feb. 13, 1974: Soviet Union Expels Solzhenitsyn[01540]
[g]United States;Feb. 13, 1974: Soviet Union Expels Solzhenitsyn[01540]
[c]Civil rights and liberties;Feb. 13, 1974: Soviet Union Expels Solzhenitsyn[01540]
[c]Government and politics;Feb. 13, 1974: Soviet Union Expels Solzhenitsyn[01540]
Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr
Khrushchev, Nikita S.
[p]Khrushchev, Nikita S.;de-Stalinization[destalinization]
Tvardovsky, Aleksandr
Brezhnev, Leonid
[p]Brezhnev, Leonid;Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn exile[Solzhenitsyn]

Although he is a critic of the materialism and license of contemporary Western society, the dominant struggle of his life was against the hollowness and brutality of the Soviet regime. By virtue of his writings and the life he lived, Solzhenitsyn became one of the great moral prophets of the twentieth century. In October, 1970, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature Nobel Prize in Literature;Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn[Solzhenitsyn] with the citation “For the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature.”

Solzhenitsyn’s struggle with the Soviet state began during World War II, when, as a battery commander fighting the Germans, he wrote some oblique remarks critical of Joseph Stalin Stalin, Joseph in a private letter to a friend. For this, Solzhenitsyn was arrested, charged with engaging in “anti-Soviet propaganda,” and sentenced to eight years of imprisonment in corrective labor camps. After his release, he was again sentenced (in absentia) to perpetual exile. The harsh experience of prison life provided Solzhenitsyn with material for some of his most important later writings.

Another source for material was his life in exile in a remote, primitive village in southern Kazakhstan. While there, he was struck with cancer (for a second time), miraculously surviving with the aid of hormone and X-ray treatments. The novel Cancer Ward recorded some of his experiences in the Tashkent hospital.

Stalin’s death in 1953 marked the beginning of a change in the Soviet Union’s political life. As Nikita S. Khrushchev, Stalin’s successor, consolidated his power, he initiated a process of de-Stalinization, De-Stalinization[Destalinization] which involved ending some of the worst features of Stalin’s terror. In 1956, Solzhenitsyn was released from exile, and in the following year he successfully petitioned the Soviet Supreme Court to overturn his original conviction. One feature of Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization was a cultural “thaw” that permitted Soviet writers to deal with subjects that previously had been forbidden. During this period, Solzhenitsyn wrote One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a gripping account of life in Stalin’s labor camps. He submitted the manuscript to Novy Mir, one of the country’s most respected literary magazines, the editor of which, Aleksandr Tvardovsky, was an active proponent of using literature to examine honestly the problems of Soviet society. Tvardovsky persuaded Khrushchev to permit publication of Solzhenitsyn’s novella. The book was a sensation in the Soviet Union and abroad and made Solzhenitsyn an instant celebrity. He was even invited to join the Soviet Writers’ Union, the official organ for accepted Soviet writers.

Solzhenitsyn’s literary success brought mixed results. On one hand, he became the hero and spokesman for those critics of Soviet life who sought to use the literary weapon to enlarge the realm of free thought and speech. On the other hand, he was opposed by many of the conservative elements who did not support Khrushchev’s policy of de-Stalinization. Even during the Khrushchev years, Solzhenitsyn became the object of public attacks in the press.

The coup in 1964 that replaced Khrushchev with Leonid Brezhnev led to an abandonment of the de-Stalinization campaign and a renewal of political and cultural repression. The repression intensified in September, 1965, when the writers Yuli Daniel and Andrei Sinyavsky, whose satirical attacks on the Soviet establishment and Socialist Realism had been published abroad, were arrested for anti-Soviet slander. In that atmosphere, Solzhenitsyn himself became more outspoken and uncompromising in his criticism. In 1965, KGB surveillance and harassment of the writer began.

On September 11, the KGB devastated Solzhenitsyn by raiding his apartment and confiscating his personal archive, an action that provoked momentary thoughts of suicide in the writer. Solzhenitsyn’s antagonisms toward the regime deepened as he sought without success to publish several of his major works, including The First Circle and Cancer Ward. In May, 1967, he made an unprecedented public condemnation of censorship in the Soviet Union with an open letter to the Fourth Congress of Soviet Writers. In 250 copies sent to key delegates, Solzhenitsyn decried the fact that “our writers are not supposed to have the right . . . to express their cautionary judgments about the moral life of man and society.” Notwithstanding the public support of eighty writers, the Congress bowed to Communist Party authorities and ignored the challenge to censorship.

Meanwhile, though his novels could not be published legally, many were read in the Soviet Union as samizdat, a form of publication by means of typed reproductions circulated to an underground readership. Both The First Circle and Cancer Ward were eventually published in the West (without Solzhenitsyn’s authorization) from such samizdat editions. Worldwide distribution of these writings added to the author’s already distinguished reputation as a writer and social critic. Indeed, his global reputation became so great that the Brezhnev regime was constrained from taking harsh measures—such as imprisonment—to stop him. The government could and did see that he was vilified in the government-controlled press, and it forced Solzhenitsyn’s expulsion from the Soviet Writers’ Union in November, 1969.

Further support from the West came in 1970, with the Nobel Prize in Literature. Moscow treated the award as a deliberate provocation by the West. Those in the Soviet Union who dared to send congratulatory telegrams to the Russian writer were summoned by KGB and Communist Party officials for warnings. Solzhenitsyn seriously considered going to Oslo to accept the award but ultimately decided against it for fear that he would not be permitted to return to Russia. That year, the historical novel August 1914 was completed. It was offered to seven Soviet publishers, all of whom rejected it. With all avenues for publication blocked at home, Solzhenitsyn decided to authorize, for the first time, publication of his writings abroad. August 1914 was published in Paris in June, 1971. It immediately became a best seller in several countries.

Pressure against Solzhenitsyn intensified during 1973. He was barred from living in Moscow, and threats were made against his life. A rumor that the KGB planned for him to be “accidentally” killed in an automobile accident induced Solzhenitsyn to give up driving altogether. Unquestionably the most devastating blow was the KGB seizure of a copy of his The Gulag Archipelago. The authorities obtained the manuscript by tortuously interrogating Solzhenitsyn’s close associate, Elizaveta Voronyanskaya, Voronyanskaya, Elizaveta for five days, forcing her to reveal the manuscript’s location. Upon her return home, Voronyanskaya hanged herself. Solzhenitsyn defiantly authorized the publication of the first two parts of The Gulag Archipelago, which went on sale in Paris in December, 1973.

From that point, war between the writer and the Soviet state was virtually total. Twice he was summoned to the state prosecutor’s office, and twice he refused the summonses. Finally, on February 12, 1974, seven KGB officers arrested Solzhenitsyn in his apartment. He was taken to the infamous Lefortovo prison, stripped of his clothing, searched, and informed that he was charged with treason, a crime punishable by death. The next day, Solzhenitsyn was told that he had been deprived of his citizenship and ordered deported. Without being informed of his destination, he was put on an Aeroflot plane, and several hours later, he arrived in Frankfurt, Germany, to begin his exile.


Solzhenitsyn was exiled because he was too respected abroad to be imprisoned, but one way or another the Soviet regime was determined that Solzhenitsyn’s subversive voice at home would be silenced. Although he was only one of many domestic critics, his campaign had been particularly insistent, uncompromising, and eloquent. The more Solzhenitsyn was threatened, the greater was his defiance. As a convict, he had refused an assignment at a privileged research institute and willingly accepted the life of an ordinary prisoner; when denied publication, he read chapters of his prohibited works in public; he ignored official summonses from the police. It became evident that he meant it when he told his persecutors in the Soviet Writers’ Union, “No one can bar the road to truth, and to advance its cause I am prepared to accept even death.”

The truth he propagated undermined the regime. He debunked the myriad falsehoods that had become the foundation of Soviet communism. Most devastating was his critique of Lenin, who symbolized Soviet legitimacy. It was not only Stalin and the “personality cult” that created “distortions” in socialism. Solzhenitsyn traced the long evolution of terror, the labor camps, the frame-up trials, the mass shootings, and the secret disappearances back to the period of Vladimir Ilich Lenin. By comparison, Solzhenitsyn showed that czarist autocracy was benign, even humane. Decades before anyone even suggested that the roots of Stalinism were in Lenin, Solzhenitsyn had debunked the myth of a humane Lenin.

Exile did not silence Solzhenitsyn’s voice; instead, it broadened the range of his critique. Solzhenitsyn chose Zurich as his initial place of residence, possibly to gather materials for his historical volume Lenin v Tsyurikhe (1975; Lenin in Zurich, 1976). Lenin in Zurich (Solzhenitsyn) Life in Switzerland, however, dissatisfied him, in part because of the difficulty of living a fully private life. In the summer of 1976, he moved to the United States, settling on a fifty-acre tract in Cavendish, Vermont. Although Solzhenitsyn fought tenaciously for his privacy, he became involved in some of the political currents of his adopted country. He traveled, spoke in public on occasion, was lionized by his admirers, and was scathingly criticized by some members of the press who disagreed with his ideas. Solzhenitsyn was a critic of détente, Détente (U.S.-Soviet relations) which was in vogue in the mid-1970’s. No détente was possible, he said, with a country that continually perpetuated “acts of cruelty and brutality” against its own citizens and neighboring peoples. A notable event was the commencement address which he gave at Harvard University on June 8, 1978. In it, he attacked the Western world, which he charged had lost its “civic courage.” He condemned the press for misguiding public opinion, popular culture for its television stupor and intolerable music, and the West as a whole for its loss of religious faith. As a result of these and other observations, Solzhenitsyn was a controversial figure during his stay in the United States.

Throughout his exile, the one enduring theme behind all of his jeremiads was the oppression and aggression of the Soviet regime and the fundamental dishonesty of Marxism-Leninism. In the end, history justified his crusade. Solzhenitsyn lived to see the collapse of Communism he had predicted. He had the satisfaction of having the charges of treason against him dropped, of seeing his works published in his native country, and of being invited to return home. In May, 1994, he returned to Russia to live. Soviet Union;political exiles
Human rights abuses;Soviet Union

Further Reading

  • Carter, Stephen. The Politics of Solzhenitsyn. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1977. Dissects Solzhenitsyn’s critique of the impact of Marxism-Leninism on Soviet society and examines the writer’s critique of Western democracy.
  • Feuer, Kathryn, ed. Solzhenitsyn: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1976. Thirteen essays on either specific works of Solzhenitsyn or important themes in his writings. Most are purely literary, but a few examine his politics. An interesting collection.
  • Labedz, Leopold, comp. Solzhenitsyn: A Documentary Record. New York: Harper & Row, 1971. Useful and interesting collection of documents covering the period 1956-1970. Among the subjects highlighted are Solzhenitsyn’s literary debut, struggles with the authorities, expulsion from the Soviet Writers’ Union, and the Nobel Prize.
  • Mahoney, Daniel J. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The Ascent from Ideology. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002. Casts Solzhenitsyn as a moderate and dismantles Western intellectual assumptions about him.
  • Pearce, Joseph. Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2001. A comprehensive, readable account of Solzhenitsyn’s life.
  • Scammell, Michael. Solzhenitsyn: A Biography. New York: W. W. Norton, 1984. This is the best English-language biography to date. The author had limited cooperation from Solzhenitsyn and his first wife. This volume examines the writer in the context of the society in which he lived.

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