RUSSIA: Solzhenitsyn - a mission to save his people

Obituary: Alexander Solzhenitsyn 11 December 1918 - 3 August 2008

Russia went into mourning last week after the death of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel prize-winning writer and dissident who devoted his life to exposing the horrors of Stalin's police state and prison system.

Famous for his works based upon his own experiences inside the Soviet Gulag that included A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962), and The Gulag Archipelago (1973), Solzhenitsyn died of heart failure at his country home near Moscow late on 3 August.

After being sentenced to eight years in prison in 1945 for criticising Stalin in a letter to a friend, Solzhenitsyn later wrote extensively on the brutalities of Stalinism. Eventually it became too much to tolerate for the Soviet leadership and he spent 20 years living in America following the stripping of his citizenship and exile in 1974.

On his return in May 1994, he spent two months travelling by train from Vladivostok to Moscow. Meeting more than a thousand people - well-wishers as well as protestors - Solzhenitsyn used the trip to criticise President Boris Yeltsin's government for its failure to address the poverty and misery of most ordinary Russians.

His refusal to accept a state award, the Order of St Andrew, from Yeltsin to mark his 80th birthday in December 1998, earned him widespread adoration from ordinary people, although he was criticised for his later good relations with KGB officer turned head of state President Vladimir Putin.

In recent years, Solzhenitsyn worked on editing his 30-volume collected works and also wrote the script for a television adaptation of his chronicle of prison life The First Circle, which state channel Rossiya ran without commercial breaks in 2006.

Actor Yevgeny Mironov, who played the character based on Solzhenitsyn in the TV drama, paid tribute to Solzhenitsyn last week during extended television news coverage of the writer's death.

Solzhenitsyn had "fulfilled a mission to protect and save the Russian people" and had "touched the lives of all those who had lived through his times," Mironov said, adding that Russia and Russians would never forget the great writer.

For a man whose books became required reading for many university students across the free world during the 1970s and '80s - and in Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 - it was fitting that Solzhenitsyn's last public event was his lying in state at the Russian Academy of Sciences on 5 August - the day before his burial in Moscow's 16th century Donskoi Monastery.