Alexander Isayevich Solzhenitsyn was born in Kislovodsk, a small resort town in the Caucasus mountain range on December 11, 1918, six months after the death of his father in a hunting accident. Shortly afterward, Solzhenitsyn's mother moved to Rostov-na-Donu, a city some 600 miles south of Moscow. Life was extremely difficult there; the young mother and son had to live in thatched huts and, at one time, even in a stable.
Solzhenitsyn attended school there, and in 1938, he entered Rostov University as a student of mathematics and physics. He claims that he chose these fields of study only because of the financial security which they would provide him, but that even at this time, literature was the greatest attraction in his life, a fact that was recognized by his teachers. Thus, he enrolled in a correspondence course in literature from the University of Moscow and even tried to get a role on stage as an actor while pursuing his science studies.
Following his marriage in 1940 and his graduation in 1941, he joined the Red Army immediately after Nazi Germany's invasion of Russia and became an artillery officer. He was promoted to captain in the Battle of Leningrad, but was arrested in February of 1945 for veiled but unmistakable criticism of Stalin in some letters to a friend, in which he alluded to the dictator as "Whiskers," the same allusion used in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.
When he was only twenty-seven, Solzhenitsyn was thrown into prison because of "counterrevolutionary activity" and was sentenced to eight years of forced labor and exile by one of Stalin's infamous troikas, courts consisting of three military judges. After first serving in a correctional labor camp and then in a prison research institute near Moscow, the author was finally sent to a special camp in the mining region of Kazakhstan, because, as he claims, he would not make moral compromises with the secret police. It was there, in Siberia, that he conceived of the idea of writing One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich; like the hero of the novel, Solzhenitsyn had to wear his prison number stamped on the areas of the forehead of his cap, as well as on the heart, the knees, and the back of his uniform.
After serving out his complete eight-year sentence, plus one month, and having had a cancer operation, which he miraculously survived, Solzhenitsyn was released but was forced to live in Siberia, where he found a position as a high school mathematics teacher.
In 1957, Solzhenitsyn was permitted to return to European Russia in connection with a decree of the Twentieth Congress of the Russian Communist Party. He settled down in Ryazan, some 100 miles southeast of Moscow, and continued to teach physics and mathematics until the publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in the November 1962 issue of the literary magazine Novy Mir (New World). The novel catapulted him to national and international fame.
The reason for the Soviet regime's acquiescence to the publication of One Day was Premier Nikita Khrushchev's attempt to expose some of the horrors of Stalin's reign of terror in order to assert himself in the power struggle following the dictator's death. It was during this brief period of the so-called Khrushchev "thaw" that Solzhenitsyn was allowed to publish his works in the Soviet Union.
The end of 1964 marked the end of the de-Stalinization efforts of Khrushchev, and it also signaled the end of Solzhenitsyn's being officially tolerated. The praise for One Day and for his other popular short prose piece, "Matryona's Home," soon turned to criticism and to threats. His candidacy for the Lenin Prize, the most prestigious literary award in the USSR, was defeated, and after he had managed to smuggle a manuscript of his novel The First Circle out of the country, his private papers were confiscated in 1965 by the secret police. Subsequently, after much controversy and many debates inside the Soviet Union and in the West, Solzhenitsyn was expelled from the Union of Soviet Writers — thus, in practice, withdrawing all publication privileges from him and forcing him to publish his work abroad by smuggling the manuscripts out of the country. The First Circle, Cancer Ward, August 1914, and The Gulag Archipelago were published in this fashion.
In 1971, Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, but he decided not to go to the award ceremony in Stockholm for fear of not being allowed back into the Soviet Union. While the international fame of having won the Nobel Prize probably saved him from being arrested and imprisoned again, his continued refusal to compromise with the political system, and his steady criticism of his own and some fellow dissidents' treatment, finally led to his forcible deportation to West Germany on February 13, 1974.
Since this time, Solzhenitsyn has made his home in the West, changing his permanent domicile frequently. He continues to criticize the Soviet regime, but he is convinced that any change in Russia will come from within, gradually brought about by the triumph of the inherent goodness of the Russian people, rather than by a violent overthrow of the government. The author has been increasingly critical of the West for not taking a stronger political, moral, and military stance against Soviet international aggression. In addition, he is a vociferous opponent of "detente," since he believes that it will weaken the Russian people's resolve to resist and subvert the Communist regime.