“You only have power over people so long as you don't take everything away from them. But when you've robbed a man of everything, he's no longer in your power - he's free again.”
- Aleksander Solzehenitsyn
Many years later the same concept was embodied in a song which became a No 1 hit. Written by Kris Kristofferson, the song, Me and Bobby McGee, contains the lyric “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” First recorded by Roger Miller in 1969, it was also covered by Janis Joplin in 1970. As part of her recording she changed the sex of Bobby from a woman to a man and also altered some of the lyrics. Joplin was Kristofferson’s friend and lover from the beginning of her career to her death, which happened a few days after recording the song. He was unaware that she had covered the song, hearing her recording of it for the first time the day after she died. Her version became her only No 1 single hit and only the second posthumous No 1 single, the first being Otis Redding’s Dock of the Bay (recorded 1967, released 1968).
Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008) was a Russian writer who, through his critical, suppressed writings helped to raise global awareness of the Soviet Union’s repressive state policies and its forced labour camps, known as gulags.
Solzenhitsyn fought in World War II, was decorated for bravery and achieved the rank of captain of artillery.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Captain in the Red Army, 1943
Arrested in 1945 for writing a letter in which he criticised Joseph Stalin, he spent eight years in prisons and gulags camps, after which he spent three more years in enforced exile.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, during his first months in prison in 1945
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Gulag Mugshot 1953
Rehabilitated in 1956, he was allowed to settle in central Russia, where he became a mathematics teacher and began to write.
After the de-Stalinising of the Soviet Union in the early 1960’s, his novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was published and became a success. It tells the story of a day in the life of a prisoner in a gulag in the 1950’s and was based on his own experiences.
When Soviet policy started to again become repressive from about 1963 he fell out of favour and he was stopped from publishing further material. He responded by distributing material by way of the underground press – samizdat (self published) – and by foreign publication.
In 1970 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature but declined to travel to Stockholm to accept it in case he was not readmitted to the Soviet Union.
Further works followed and in 1973 the first volume of The Gulag Archipelago was published in Paris, a copy of the manuscript having been seized by the KGB, the Soviet Union’s national security agency. Relying upon his own experiences and the personal accounts of other inmates that he had committed to memory during his imprisonment, Solzhenitsyn described in a literary-historical record the vast system of prisons and labour camps that came into being shortly after the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia (1917). That system underwent an enormous expansion during the rule of Stalin (1924-53) and Solzhenitsyn’s book describes the arrest, interrogation, conviction, transportation, and imprisonment of the Gulag's victims as practiced by Soviet authorities over four decades. The book was an immediate success and the subject of intense interest in the West.
Following publication he was denounced, arrested and charged with treason, being exiled from the Soviet Union the next day. He settled in the US, published the next 2 volumes of the Gulag Archipelago and further works.
In his 1978 commencement address at Harvard University he expressed strong critical views of the West. He commenced with the following:
Harvard's motto is "Veritas." Many of you have already found out and others will find out in the course of their lives that truth eludes us if we do not concentrate with total attention on its pursuit. And even while it eludes us, the illusion still lingers of knowing it and leads to many misunderstandings. Also, truth is seldom pleasant; it is almost invariably bitter. There is some bitterness in my speech today, too. But I want to stress that it comes not from an adversary but from a friend.
He then declared that the US was spiritually weak, bogged down in materialism, suffering from a decline in courage and tied up in legalism. "A society which is based on the letter of the law and never reaches any higher is taking very scarce advantage of the high level of human possibilities."
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, his citizenship was restored in 1990 and he returned in 1994.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn receives Russian President Valdimir Putin at his home outside Moscow in 2007. Sozlhenitsyn died the next year, 2008, aged 89.
Some other Solzhenitsyn quotes:
A man is happy so long as he chooses to be happy and nothing can stop him.
Hastiness and superficiality are the psychic diseases of the 20th century, and more than anywhere else this disease is reflected in the press.
How can you expect a man who's warm to understand one who's cold?
I have spent all my life under a Communist regime, and I will tell you that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed. But a society with no other scale but the legal one is not quite worthy of man either.
Literature transmits incontrovertible condensed experience... from generation to generation. In this way literature becomes the living memory of a nation.
Own only what you can always carry with you: know languages, know countries, know people. Let your memory be your travel bag.
“Solzhenitsyn took a sledgehammer to the crumbling foundations of the Soviet system and, more than any other single person, was responsible for its collapse.”
- Action Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty