Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the great Russian dissident and exposer of communist crimes, has passed away.
In books such as The Gulag Archipelago and A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, he did more than any other Russian writer to expose the crimes of communism. Solzhenitsyn's opposition to the communist regime was in large part a result of a term that he was forced to serve in in a Gulag slave labor camp for writing a letter critical of Joseph Stalin while serving in the Soviet Army during World War II.
Unlike fellow dissidents such as Andrei Sakharov, Solzhenitsyn was a Russian nationalist, not a liberal democrat. As such, he was suspicious of Western-style democracy and individual rights. While he was not as much of a chauvinist as some other Russian nationalists, his writings defending czarist Russia and Russian culture sometimes verged into anti-Semitism. For example in one of his last books, Two Hundred Years Together, Solzhenitsyn made the absurd claim that the czarist-era Russian government was not anti-Semitic and that Russian Jews bear as much or more blame than Russian gentiles do for the historic conflicts between the two groups. As Cathy Young has pointed out, in view of the czarist state's "systematic oppression and violence" against the Jews, this is "a bit like asking blacks to accept their share of blame for Jim Crow." Solzhenitsyn's nationalism also led him to endorse some of Vladimir Putin's authoritarian measures, and to oppose allowing Ukraine to become independent of Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union (he did, to his credit, support independence for all the non-Slavic parts of the former Soviet empire, which he did not consider to be legitimate Russian possessions).
It is not my intention here to emphasize Solzhenitsyn's negative aspects. For what it's worth, I think that while Solzhenitsyn was wrong to excuse and minimize the crimes of czarist Russia, he was right to emphasize that the oppression of the Soviet Union was rooted more in communist ideology and institutions than in Russian cultural tradition. As he pointed out, similar repression occurred in every other communist state, including those whose preexisting cultural traditions were very different from Russia's.
Overall, I believe that the good Solzhenitsyn did greatly outweighs his misguided statements on some issues. Solzhenitsyn deserves to be remembered for the fortitude he showed during his years in the Gulag and for his courage in resisting and exposing the crimes of a brutal totalitarian regime.