I know many people whose lives his books changed. I started reading him soon after his first books appeared in the U.S. in English. At the time, I had a Russian-American girlfriend, who shared her copies of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The First Circle with me.
Later, my wife Judy shared Cancer Ward with me. I got August 1914 when it came out, and have read it three times. But his work that had the most long-lasting effect on me was the three-volume version of The Gulag Archipelago.
Solzhenitsyn believed deeply in the human spirit. He made few compromises during his life, even when he was a political prisoner, being offered better treatment if he would cooperate with camp authorities.
I've wondered if our illegal, torture-ridden war prisons in Afghanistan, Iraq, Guantanamo Bay and other places will produce a Solzhenitsyn.
Late in his life, beginning with his famed 1978 Harvard commencement speech, Solzhenitsyn took a right turn, eventually embracing many right-wing groups in post-Communist Russia. One of his statements, made a few years ago, encapsulates that view:
It has made man the measure of all things on earth—imperfect man, who is never free of pride, self-interest, envy, vanity, and dozens of other defects. We are now paying for the mistakes which were not properly appraised at the beginning of the journey. On the way from the Renaissance to our days we have enriched our experience, but we have lost the concept of a Supreme Complete Entity which used to restrain our passions and our irresponsibility.
From about the year 2000 until his death, some of his writings, especially a book-in-progress, Dvesti let vmeste (Two Hundred Years Together), have been judged as anti-Semitic by some, exonerated by others, including Russophile New Yorker editor, David Remnick, an expert on post-Soviet anti-Semitism in Russia.
Of the controversies Solzhenitsyn insinuated himself into, my favorite was the one in which he, with mixed success, questioned the authorship, by Mikhail Sholokhov, of the epic 1930s masterpiece And Quiet Flows the Don. I never bought Solzhenitsyn's arguments, and remain convinced Sholokhov actually wrote the book.
Another of Alexsandr's sons, Ignat Solzhenitsyn, is a great musician. He has appeared in Anchorage twice, as soloist with the Anchorage Symphony in Shostakovich's First Piano Concerto, and as guest conductor of the ASO. That 2000 performance was a memorable rendition of Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony.