Alexander Solzhenitsyn died this week. He was 89. Here is an interesting article on his legacy, if you want more. I read The First Circle sometime during college back in '91 or '92 most likely. I became really fascinated with Soviet political prisoners after this. I don't know if Solzhenitsyn's book was the one that got me started, but I know it was one of the first (and I really liked it). And from that point through the next 5 or 6 years, I read a ton of Soviet dissident memoirs, combing through the shelves in every used bookstore in Sarasota and Charlottesville for any I could find. (They are now still sealed in boxes in my closet, 3 1/2 years after moving into this house). I sat in the archives at U.Va.'s Alderman library reading library bound periodicals like the Chronicle of Human Rights in the USSR from the 70's and 80's. I bought all three volumes of Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago, but I didn't make it all the way through it. (I'm a lazy scholar, as well, even when the scholarly pursuit is self-selected.)
I even took Russian at U.Va. as a non-degree speaking student, making it through Russian III. (Possibly my biggest compliment [as a writer?] came from that professor, a Russian woman, who said of a short story that I turned in, that I had captured the Russian sense of humor! I don't know where that short story is. I probably couldn't read it now anyway!) That was in 1996. I haven't used my fragile semi-fluency since. I loved to write in Cyrillic, forming the letters: it felt like drawing, especially when I learned the cursive. I think I can still do the alphabet and phonetically spell things like my name. I feel some nostalgia or maybe just wistfulness at the intensity of my interest. Am I interested in anything that much now?
So even though I can't remember exactly where my interest in Russian and the Soviet times in particular came from, or where it went, I felt like Solzhenitsyn's death deserved some thoughts, even if these thoughts ended up being all about me.
I just remembered that all this reading about political prisoners did lead me to get involved with a local chapter of Amnesty International for a couple of years. I'd like to do that again, too.
After losing his Soviet citizenship in 1974, Solzhenitsyn lived in Vermont for many years. He returned to Russia in 1994, where he died. Rest in peace.