If Tom Stoppard were to update his Russian trilogy to take in the sweep of the 20th century, Aleksander Solzhenitsyn would have to take centre stage. Soldier, physicist, dissident, religious thinker, historian, novelist, playwright, poet, gulag prisoner and unwilling exile, Solzhenitsyn experienced the whole Russian gamut. His lifespan alone—December 1918 to August 2008—seems to define a Russian century, a rough hundred years of agony and muddle, defeat and hope. The Russian intellectual scene of which Solzhenitsyn was the iconic figure during his lifetime is defined by an arrogant hope for a grand Russian future. It never goes away: you can force it underground, harness it to party discipline, even banish it abroad, and still it reappears, holding on to the view that Russian history, people and destiny are like some special field of philosophy in which the hardest problems are still not solved, but will be one day—and then the world will see.
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