Tuesday, 5 August 2008


As a young man in the 90s struggling to make some kind of way in a world which seemed bereft of ideals or values there were two artists who kept me going with their work. Ironically, both of them lived under the Soviet system in Russia. One was the film director Andrei Tarkovsky, the other was the novelist and dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Both worked under appalling conditions and censorship. Both became figureheads for the Truth that lay inside us. Obviously I had never lived through anything as extreme as they had lived through (nor would I ever hope to), but in what was an extremely tough and lonely part of my life they gave me hope where I needed it most...

Always controversial, Solzhelnitsyn stood out against the Gulag System of Stalin and became a figurehead for human rights and freedom of speech in the USSR. Exiled in the 70s, having won the Nobel Prize for his novels, including ONE DAY IN THE LIFE OF IVAN DENISOVICH, THE FIRST CIRCLE and CANCER WARD (possibly the greatest), he became equally critical of what he saw as the decadence of the West. Having ruffled a few feathers in that part of the world (while they were happy for him to criticise the USSR they were less happy to have him criticise them!) he returned to Russia during Yeltsin's time as President, where he continued to be a controversial critic of what he felt was the slide into capitalism and atheism of his own country. A Slavophile and enthusiast for strong rule, he received personal acclaim from President Putin.

Whatever one feels about his politics (and I am sure there will be vigourous debate on these boards about them!), in the 60s, 70s and 80s he stood out as a lone voice in a country he loved but found himself a prisoner in and, as a beacon of how one could hold onto one's soul even in the worst circumstances, was an inspiration to this Westerner at least...

He died this Sunday in his home in Russia. Here is an extract from his book CANCER WARD:


"Shigatov stirred. He grasped the bed and began to raise himself out of his tub. The orderly hurried over to take the tub and carry it out.

Oleg got up too. Before going back to bed he walked down the inevitable staircase.

In the lower corridor he passed the door of the room where Dyoma was lying. The second occupant had been a post-operative case who had died on Monday. They had moved him out and put Shulubin in after his operation.

The door was usually shut tight, but at that moment it was slightly ajar. It was dark inside. In the darkness he could hear a heavy, gasping noise. There was no nurse in sight. Either they were with other patients or they were asleep.

Oleg opened the door a bit more and edged his way in.

Dyoma was asleep. Shulubin was the one gasping and groaning.

Oleg went right into the room. Now the door was open there was a little light coming in from the corridor. 'Alexei Filippovich...' he said.

The gasping stopped.

'Alexei Filippovich... Do you feel bad?'

'What?' the voice came out in another gasp.

'Do you feel bad? Do you want your medicine? Shall I turn the light on?'

'Who is it?' Terrified, the man breathed out and coughed. Then the groaning began again because coughing was too painful.

'Its Kostoglotov. Oleg.' He was right by the bed, bending over it. He was beginning to distinguish Shulubin's great head lying on the pillow. 'What can I get you? Shall I call a nurse?'

'Nothing.' Shulubin breathed the word out.

He didn't cough or groan again. Oleg could distinguish more and more detail. He could even make out the little curls of hair on the pillow.

'Not all of me shall die, ' Shulubin whispered. 'Not all of me shall die.'

He must be delirious.

Kostoglotov groped for the man's hot hand lying on the blanket. He passed it lightly, 'Aleksei Filoppovich,' he said, 'you're going to live! Hang on, Aleksei Filoppovich!'

'There's a fragment, isn't there? ... Just a tiny fragment,' he kept whispering.

It was then it struck Oleg that Shulubin was not delirious, that he'd recognized him and was reminding him of their last conversation before the operation. He had said, 'Sometimes I feel quite distinctly that what is inside me is not all of me. There's something else, sublime, indestructible, some tiny fragment of the universal spirit. Don't you feel that?'"

-CANCER WARD by Alexander Solzhenitsyn ISBN 140032290


Rest in peace!

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