Born December 11, 1918, in Kisovodsk, Russia, Solzhenitsyn came from a family of Cossack intellectuals. Little is known about his childhood except that his father was killed before his birth and he was raised by his mother. He went to the University of Rosov-na-Donu and majored in mathematics. He fought in the second World War but was arrested for writing a letter in which he criticized Joseph Stalin and spent eight years in prison and labor camps. Solzhenitsyn was then placed in enforced exile for three more years, after which he became a mathematics teacher and began to write.
As an after effect of the de-Stalinizing policies of the early 1960's, Solzhenitsyn submitted his first novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962). The story, based on his own experiences, depicted the average day in the life of a prisoner in a forced-labor camp during the Stalin era. It was the first such true life depiction ever presented in the post-Stalin era, and possibly in any era in Russia. It encouraged other writers to produce accounts of their own imprisonment.
Intellectual freedom, what little there was, tightened up after Nikita Khrushchev fell from power in 1964, and Solzhenitsyn met with increasing criticism and overt harassment from the government. He published some short stories in 1964, and quickly thereafter he was officially denied any further publication of his work. It was at this period that he first resorted to "underground" circulation of what was now "illegal" literature, as well as publishing his works abroad.
Solzhenitsyn's literary reputation grew in the next few years with the foreign publication of several new novels. The First Circle (1968) was based on his time as a mathematician while working in a prison research facility. It looks at different responses by scientists to requests by the secret police; responses that could mean the difference between freedom and labour camps. Cancer Ward (1968) looks at the hospitalization and treatment of a recently released inmate who was diagnosed with terminal cancer, as was Solzhenitsyn.
In 1970 Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature but decided not to travel to Stockholm for fear of retaliation by the Soviet Union. He next wrote a historical novel about Germany's victory over Russia in World War I at the Battle of Tannenburg entitled August 1914 (1971). It especially looked at the tsarist regime and its weakness which led to its downfall in the revolution in 1917.
The first volume of Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago was published in Paris in 1973 and was immediately attacked by the Soviet Press. This book was Solzhenitsyn's effort to present a historical record of Russia's vast prison system and how that system deals with a prisoner's arrest, conviction, transportation and imprisonment. On February 12, 1974, Solzhenitsyn was arrested and charged with treason. He was immediately exiled from the Soviet Union and the following December he finally claimed his Nobel Prize.
Solzhenitsyn sought asylum in the United States and moved to a secluded estate in Cavendish, Vermont. He finished the second and third volumes of The Gulag Archipelago in 1975 . In 1980 he produced two books of non-fiction, The Oak and the Calf and The Mortal Danger. The first spoke of literary life in Russia and the second with the misconceptions by Americans about Russia. In 1973 he began work on a series of books that began with August 1914. In the '80's, access to Solzhenitsyn's work in the Soviet Union became widespread, and in 1989 a Soviet magazine, Novy Mir, published excerpts from The Gulag Archipelago. His citizenship was officially restored in 1990 and in 1994, Solzhenitsyn ended his exile and returned to Russia.
Editor's note: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn died at his home near Moscow on August 3, 2008