Lessons from the Writing Path of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn by Sandi Somers

Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008), a Russian novelist and an outspoken critic of communism, has been one of my “shadow mentors.” I was introduced to his work when, years ago, my dad bought his book, The Gulag Archipelago, and I became fascinated with his life and works.

As a young man, Solzhenitsyn dreamed of writing the grand sweep of Russian history. His idea seemed so difficult that he became depressed.

Ironically, his dream began to take shape after a grave error. Although a devoted Marxist-Leninist, he was not a supporter of Stalin. In 1945 he wrote a private letter to a friend in which he called Stalin, a “man with a mustache.” The letter was opened by the Secret Service, and for this one line he was imprisoned for eight years.

There, in what he called “the gulag,” he discovered the horrors of the prison system. He wanted to let the world know the truth. Knowing that writing in prison would arouse suspicion and worse, be confiscated, he began memorizing pieces he wanted to write after he was released.

To keep track of the accuracy of his memory work, he saved bread, rolling them into circlets and drying them to make a “rosary.” Each “bead” represented a sentence, and every 50th bead was different. In this way he ensured that he had memorized his sentences in sequence. He knew the guards would assume he was practicing his religion and would leave him alone. By the end of his prison term, he calculated that he had memorized up to a million words.

In the meantime, he got cancer, and a doctor led him to Jesus. The Lord healed him, and his writing became more deeply focused on righteousness and justice.

After his release from the “gulag,” Solzhenitsyn began writing in secret, scathing novels of the Soviet Union’s prison system. To avoid confiscation and destruction of his work, he made duplicate copies, even squirrelling away some pages in cans hidden in the ground. He surmised that he would never be published in the Soviet Union, and without an outlet, he would eventually stagnate. So, he began smuggling his novels to the West, where they were well-received.

In 1965, his writings were confiscated by the KGB and banned. Yet, in the West, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1970. He was expelled from the USSR in 1974 and eventually moved to the United States, where he continued writing, leaving a huge legacy.

There were a number of turning points in Solzhenitsyn’s life that shaped my writing path. Turning points that can have implications for all of us.

  1. God often gives us a broad vision of His purposes for us (writing and otherwise), but we may not, at first, know the specifics. Sometimes our message arises out of the crucible of suffering and hardship.
  2. It’s important to get God’s message out into the world, not squirrelling our drafts and manuscripts away in computer drafts or in a hidden drawer.
  3. Solzhenitsyn’s projects looked massive, and later, at age 50, he wondered if he would live long enough to accomplish everything (he lived to just months short of his 90th birthday and continued to write to the end of his life). God gives us the time to accomplish all He purposes, whether we live to be 50 or 90.
  4. He was a man of gratitude, writing, “Bless you prison, bless you for being in my life.”[1] We, too, can be grateful for our suffering, especially when we see how God uses our experiences to glorify Himself.

“Write the vision and make it plain on tablets, that he may run who reads it” (Habakkuk 2:2 NKJV).


[1] https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/267601-bless-you-prison-bless-you-for-being-in-my-life#:

IMBd, https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0813681/bio

Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Oak and the Calf—Sketches of literary life in the Soviet Union, Translated from Russian by Harry Willets, (New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1981).

[2] The Holy Bible: New King James Version. (1982). Thomas Nelson. Used with permission.

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  1. Barb Fuller says:

    Fascinating, humbling, and encouraging! Thank you for sharing this.

  2. Tracy Krauss says:

    What an amazing story. Tenacity…

    1. Sandi Somers says:

      Thanks, Tracy! Tenacity for sure! And inspiration for the rest of us!

  3. Barbara Fuller says:

    This is such an amazing and inspiring story; thanks for sharing it, Sandi. Now I want to read The Gulag Archipelago. I know from my own experience of almost departing this earth twice and then being called to focus primarily on writing that “God gives us the time to accomplish all He purposes, whether we live to be 50 or 90.”

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