In 1949 a publication of the Soviet Academy of Sciences carried an item about a bizarre incident that occurred during excavations near the Kolyma River in the gold-mining region of northeastern Siberia. A subterranean stream was discovered, frozen long ago, containing fish and salamanders tens of thousands of years old. They were so well preserved that the men who discovered the stream broke open the ice and ate them.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who died on Sunday at the age of 89, managed somehow to read that piece. By then four bitter years had taught him a great deal about the Soviet prison system. The Academy editors obviously thought the freshness of the ancient fish was the news story, but Solzhenitsyn saw a more significant reality.
Kolyma gold was mined by slave labourers, so badly nourished that they would eat anything that appeared even marginally edible. "We understood instantly," Solzhenitsyn recalled. "We could picture the scene: how those present broke up the ice in frenzied haste; how, elbowing each other to be first, they tore off chunks of the prehistoric flesh and hauled them over to the bonfire to thaw them out and bolt them down."
Solzhenitsyn and his fellow prisoners understood what the outside world (including much of Russia) couldn't comprehend: The Soviet Union had established scores of slave labour camps where prisoners were overworked, underfed and brutally treated.
He told the frozen fish story to introduce his masterpiece, The Gulag Archipelago. Published in 1974 in three thick volumes, it's a unique account of a paranoid dictatorship that set a world record for infamy: No regime in recent centuries has ever been so cruel for so long.
A twice-decorated artillery captain in the Second World War, Solzhenitsyn was imprisoned in 1945 when government spies intercepted a private letter in which he complained to a friend about Stalin's policies. For this crime he served eight years in prison, then three more years of "internal exile" in Kazakhstan, where he taught high school mathematics and physics.
In the camps Solzhenitsyn and other prisoners nourished murderous fantasies of what they might have done to their tormentors if they had understood their fate. What if, instead of waiting for the knock on their door, they had (knowing there was nothing to lose) set ambushes, several people in each apartment building, armed with axes and hammers, ready to crack the skulls of the police? What if every security operative, going out at night to make an arrest, was uncertain whether he would return alive?
A tantalizing prospect, but Solzhenitsyn did much better than that. He ambushed the Soviet Union from the inside. In the greatest literary coup of the 20th century, he made himself an avenging angel who never stopped confronting the Soviet bosses with their crimes.
His first triumph was the publication in 1962 of his short, sharply pointed novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, issued during a brief period when Nikita Khrushchev relaxed state censorship. Its message was simple: This is organized evil in the service of the state -- and this is just how terrible it is on just a single ordinary day. It made Solzhenitsyn a national figure. But it didn't begin to satisfy him. He remained anxious to tell the truth about the camps, about the people he had seen killed by malnutrition and hard labour and the others who were driven crazy or physically crippled. By persistently and bluntly stating the facts, he exhibited astonishing courage. He accomplished what he argued a writer should do: stand in judgment of the state. He defied the Kremlin by sending his books to be published in the West (including The First Circle and Cancer Ward) and by giving interviews to foreign journalists. The government grew so angry that he decided he couldn't risk a trip to Sweden to accept the Nobel Prize in 1970; he was sure that the Soviets would refuse to let him come home.
For years he had been working on The Gulag Archipelago and in 1972 began sending sections of it to the West. After a Paris firm published it, the Politburo in January, 1974, discussed how to handle him. Leonid Brezhnev, the chairman, said, "By law, we have every basis for putting him in jail. He has tried to undermine all we hold sacred: Lenin, the Soviet system, Soviet power -- everything dear to us. This hooligan Solzhenitsyn is out of control." They did charge him with treason but decided that exile should be his punishment. A few weeks later they cancelled his citizenship and put him on a plane to West Germany, the beginning of his 20 years in exile, most of them spent in Vermont.
He never wanted to leave home. A Russian nationalist, he wanted to live in Russia. And of course he could cause more trouble there than from abroad.
He returned to Russia to stay in 1994, two years after the end of communism, and lived a relatively private life.
An enemy of communism, he was never the friend of capitalism, or of the West in general. Freedom in the West, he said, was corrupted by greed, pornography and the denial of spiritual values. Western commentators accused him of being nostalgic for czarism and suggested that his works contained elements of anti-Semitism. He denied both.
In recent years he has been only occasionally discussed but no one will ever be able to write a history of the 20th century without dealing with him. He did more than any other Russian to discredit his government. And for at least a dozen years, beginning in 1962, he seemed nothing less than the bravest man in the world.