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Alexander Isaevich Solzhenitsyn

December 11, 1918, marks the birthday of Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, born in Kislovodsk, Russia, in the northern Caucasus Mountains between the Black and Caspian seas.  His father, a tsarist artillery officer, was killed in a hunting accident six months before his son's birth.

To support herself and her son, Solzhenitsyn's mother worked as a typist.  Solzhenitsyn did well at school, but because the family was extremely poor, he gave up his plans to study literature in Moscow.  He enrolled instead in Rostov University, where he studied mathematics and physics, more practical subjects.  He was graduated in 1941.

Solzhenitsyn went to great lengths to write and eventually publish his novels under the Communist regime of the Soviet Union.  After fighting in World War II, he was arrested for writing letters that criticized Joseph Stalin.  He was sentenced to eight years in Russian labor camps, where he worked as a miner, a bricklayer, and a foundryman. 

Upon his release, he was exiled to a village in Kazakhstan, where he taught math and physics.  He wrote of the experience, "I served this exile from March 1953 (on March 5, when Stalin's death was made public, I was allowed for the first time to go out without an escort) until June 1956.  Here my cancer had developed rapidly, and at the end of 1953, I was very near death.  I was unable to eat, I could not sleep and was severely affected by the poisons from the tumour.  However, I was able to go to a cancer clinic at Tashkent, where, during 1954, I was cured."

While in exile, Solzhenitsyn began writing prose in secret, being careful not to show his work to even his closest friends, to prevent word from reaching Soviet authorities.  He said he was "convinced that I should never see a single line of mine in print in my lifetime."

Then, in 1961, the Soviet government adopted slightly looser censorship standards.  Solzhenitsyn decided to risk trying to publish his first novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962).  He succeeded, but two years later the government took his books out of print and forced him to stop publishing.

In 1968, he met Natalya (Alya) Svetlova.  They were married in 1973 after his divorce from his first wife was finalized.  Svetlova would bear him three sons. 

Solzhenitsyn's manuscripts were smuggled into Europe and America, where they drew the attention of several major writers.  In 1970, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, even though he still couldn't publish in his home country.  He was deported to West Germany in 1974 following the publication abroad of the first part of his trilogy, The Gulag Archipelago.

In exile in Switzerland, he criticized the Soviet system and its denial of human rights. After moving with his family to Vermont in 1976, he turned to criticizing the decadence and materialism of the West.

In 1991, the political climate in Russia changed, and Solzhenitsyn's works began receiving attention locally.  News of the author in exile created a national furor.  While some people began comparing his books to the works of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, others were hailing him as a national hero.  

Finally, in 1994, Solzhenitsyn returned to his native land.  On his arrival, he denounced politico Vladimir Zhirinovsky as a xenophobic nationalist and spoke scathingly of the new class of cut-throat businessmen "who thieve our national wealth" while their countrymen were dying of poverty.  Continuing changes in Russian society affected the author's reputation.  As one Moscow critic wrote, "Everyone knows his name, but no one reads his books."  In October 1994, Solzhenitsyn addressed the parliamentary Duma on a government's responsibilities to its citizens, but his speech left most deputies unmoved.

In 1997, Solzhenitsyn was admitted to the cardiac intensive care unit of a Moscow hospital.  He recovered and was released from the hospital.

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