Hundreds mourn Russian writer Solzhenitsyn

August 5, 2008 12:00 am

, MOSCOW, August 5 – Hundreds of mourners paid last respects Tuesday to Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the celebrated dissident writer who chronicled the horror of the Soviet gulags, but was largely forgotten by younger Russians.

The mourners filed past Solzhenitsyn’s open coffin at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, laying flowers and crossing themselves before one of ‘s last literary legends, who died at his home on Sunday aged 89.

The Nobel prize-winner, who spent eight years in Joseph Stalin’s Gulag prison camps, will be buried in an Orthodox ceremony starting at 09:00 a.m. (0500 GMT) in the 16th-century Donskoy Monastery in Moscow on Wednesday.

Among the mourners on Tuesday was Sergei Aristarkhov, who brought a copy of "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," Solzhenitsyn’s groundbreaking account of life in a Soviet forced labour camp, and a bouquet of white flowers.

"I came here because in the 1970s, I read this one little book that completely changed everything for me. When I heard the news yesterday, it was a terrible blow for me," said the 64-year-old, before bursting into tears.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who earlier said the writer’s death was "a heavy loss for the whole of ," was due to attend the lying-in-state, where Solzhenitsyn’s widow Natalya and other relatives were also present.

"He wrote and wasn’t afraid," said another mourner, 34-year-old Alexander Shelyudkov, a builder. "He wasn’t afraid to speak his mind…. He was an example for us all," said Valentina Reshetnikova, a retired geneticist.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev led tributes by world leaders to the writer on Monday, with a condolence telegram to his family in which he praised "one of the greatest thinkers, writers and humanists of the 20th century." French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the Soviet Union‘s last leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, were among the politicians who also honoured the writer.

Russian newspapers on Tuesday mourned the passing of a literary giant.

"A Prophet Has Died In His Homeland," read a headline in the popular Komsomolskaya Pravda daily. The government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta compared Solzhenitsyn to Leo Tolstoy.

"He was not one of those people that everyone loves… But he was one of those people whose role in history cannot be exaggerated — it is not just significant, it is enormous," said the Kommersant daily.

Solzhenitsyn shook the foundations of Soviet power with his haunting accounts of the forced labour camps. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970 and was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974.

He returned to in 1994 in a train journey to Moscow that started in the city of Magadan, where countless thousands perished in the camps. At every stop along the way, he was greeted by large crowds of fans.

But his gloomy harangues on Russian television about the perils of imitating the West and the need to revive Orthodox values were then widely unpopular, although his views have a bigger following in the of today.

He most recently campaigned for greater local self-government in , criticising former president Putin for rolling back democratic freedoms. He also praised Putin, however, for reviving ‘s greatness.

In 2007 he was awarded the State Prize, ‘s highest honour, but has lived largely out of the public eye in recent years, concentrating on the publication of his 30-volume complete works.


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