Recalling Solzhenitsyn, the genius of socialist realism

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Most of the recent tributes to Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who died earlier this month, have concentrated on his titanic struggle against the Soviet regime, and rightly so. But what seems to have gotten lost is the reason he was listened to in the first place - namely, his virtues as a writer.

What I most remember from my first reading of"One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" (published in 1962 in the journal Novy Mir) isn't just the feeling that its author had miraculously circumvented the censors, but the thrill of confronting an astonishing stylistic tour de force. Here was a realistic story of labor camp life, based on Solzhenitsyn's own eight years in various camps, that leapt off the page in a living idiom that in places was racy to the point of obscenity, an unheard-of phenomenon in published Soviet literature and rare in Russian literature of any period. The language was rich in folk idioms and allusions, and laced with ingenious neologisms. Their effect on sophisticated Moscow palates can be summed up in a probably apocryphal remark attributed to Anna Akhmatova:"Oh my God, socialist realism has found its genius."

What Solzhenitsyn had done, in fact, was wrest from the dead language of socialist realism a powerful colloquial style that proved an ideal instrument for mirroring the harsh world of the camps and infusing it with a moral and ethical perspective antithetical to Communism. His hero, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, was a striking new kind of Everyman, a Russian Sancho Panza or Good Soldier Schweik, whose sly resourcefulness embodied the plight of the Russian people under Communist rule. The"small compound" of the camp became a microcosm of the"big compound" of the country as a whole, and readers instantly understood the comparison....

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