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Born in southern Russia in 1918, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was brought up in highly straitened circumstances. By the time he graduated from Rostov University in 1941 with a degree in mathematics and physics, Solzhenitsyn was an enthusiastic champion of Marxist ideology who hoped to describe anew what he considered the glorious advent of the Russian Revolution. To this end Solzhenitsyn intended to pursue postgraduate literary studies, but the outbreak of hostilities in 1941 led to army service and eventual assignment to a sound-ranging battery on the front lines. In early 1945, Solzhenitsyn was arrested for critical comments on U.S.S.R. leader Joseph Stalin (1879-1953) in letters to a friend (the mail was censored) and sentenced to eight years imprisonment, to be followed by “eternal exile” in a remote area of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
Solzhenitsyn served his sentence in various labor camps and prison research institutes, emerging in 1953 with his Marxist faith shattered and his head full of literary plans. The First Circle, composed mostly in the 1950s (after his exile was annulled), but published only in 1968, reflects his experience in a Moscow prison institute, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962) is based on his incarceration in Central Asia. One Day, Solzhenitsyn’s first publication, appeared in Moscow by special permission of Communist Party leader Nikita Khrushchev (18941971), who deemed it useful for his campaign against Stalin. One Day caused a worldwide sensation by its depiction of a Stalinist concentration camp and generated hundreds of letters to Solzhenitsyn from former inmates of Soviet prisons and camps. Much of this material was later incorporated into The Gulag Archipelago, a three-volume indictment of the Soviet penal system that Solzhenitsyn published in Paris the following decade.
In the intervening years Solzhenitsyn gained prominence as a resourceful opponent of the Soviet regime, releasing bitterly critical statements that were distributed by the samizdat network and typically beamed back to the Soviet Union by Radio Liberty. Samizdat literally means “self-publishing house,” an ironic term that refers to a method whereby privately typed materials were distributed chain-letter fashion among opposition-minded individuals who could not get access to the tightly controlled Soviet press. Apart from essays of this type, Solzhenitsyn produced Cancer Ward (1968) and an early version of August 1914 (1971) during this period; both texts were published abroad to the great displeasure of the Soviet regime. In 1970 Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, a decision the regime chose to interpret as one more hostile act. The Soviet leadership increasingly viewed Solzhenitsyn as a dangerous political opponent, and an unsuccessful assassination attempt by the KGB was launched in 1971.
The publication of The Gulag Archipelago (19731976) had a profound impact throughout the world and moved the regime to arrest Solzhenitsyn in 1974 and expel him from the Soviet Union. After two years in Switzerland, Solzhenitsyn moved to the United States, settling in Cavendish, Vermont, until his return to Russia in 1994. Apart from several high-profile appearances during this period (e.g., the commencement address at Harvard University in 1978), the writer’s time was almost entirely dedicated to a cycle of narratives describing Russia’s slide toward the revolutionary abyss. Entitled The Red Wheel, the cycle comprises ten volumes in the Russian edition (1983-1991) and encompasses the period between the outbreak of World War I in 1914 and April 1917. After his return to Russia, Solzhenitsyn published sketches of his two decades abroad, a number of short stories, essays on literary and political matters, and a two-volume study of the interactions of Russians and Jews in Russian history, Dvesti let vmeste (2001-2002). A thirty-volume Complete Works of Solzhenitsyn’s work was published in 2006.
- Ericson, Edward E., Jr., and Daniel J. Mahoney, eds. 2006. The Solzhenitsyn Reader: New and Essential Writings, 1947–2005. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books.
- Mahoney, Daniel J. 2001. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The Ascent from Ideology. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
- Scammell, Michael. 1984. Solzhenitsyn: A Biography. New York: Norton.
- Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr. 1978–1991. Sobranie sochinenii [Collected Works]. 20 vols. Paris: YMCA Press.
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