Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was a leading figure of 20th-century Russian literature, winning the 1970 Nobel Prize in Literature. He is best known for writing about the Soviet gulags, where he had been imprisoned for criticizing Stalin. In 1974 he was stripped of his Soviet citizenship and exiled, but he returned to Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union, where he died in 2008.
We asked Russian literature specialist Michael Nicholson, Emeritus Fellow at University College, Oxford, to talk us through the best books to learn more about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
Books by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
“The KGB knew about Gulag Archipelago in the mid-60s. He’d been writing it furtively while he was publicly writing Cancer Ward, and they bugged a conversation in which he told a friend he was secretly writing this book that would be a huge bombshell when it was published in the 1970s. The KGB couldn’t then have doubted that there was another, secret book that was not Cancer Ward, which was basically pretty innocuous. This was a good five or six years before they actually located a copy of Gulag Archipelago and before the brouhaha that culminated in his expulsion in the 1970s.
So the Soviets, allegedly, made Solzhenitsyn the menace he became. But here, in these archives, we can see that he clearly did have an agenda already that would rock the Soviet Union on its heels and the KGB knew about it. The KGB report and transcript were sent by Semichastny to the Central Committee back in 1965.
This material also details all the counterfeits that were brought out to damage Solzhenitsyn’s reputation. There is a sizeable black museum of these things. One is a document alleging that he was an informer at Ekibastuz labour camp. Everyone knew he’d been approached and asked to be an informer because he wrote about it in Gulag Archipelago, and here is a forged document in which he denounces fellow prisoners who are planning an escape. The dates are all wrong but it’s a good forgery. This material shows you the wonderful world of spy stuff.”
Interviews where books by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn were recommended
The Russian revolution was the beginning of the modern age, says award-winning author Roland Chambers. He tells us what Solzhenitsyn imagined Lenin was like, and about the children’s author who led a double life as a spy in Bolshevik Russia.
They’re among the finest novels ever written, often vast in their scope and ambitious in their subject matter. Some are long, others can be read in an afternoon. They’re also one of the best ways of understanding Russian history. Historian Orlando Figes, author of The Story of Russia, recommends his favourite Russian novels, from the 19th century to today.