Alexander Solzhenitsyn is best known for his epic trilogy The Gulag Archipelago, which revealed to the world the full scope of the Soviet Union's infamous forced labor camp system in which millions died but not in vain. Solzhenitsyn's documentation of their lives and deaths set in motion the forces that ultimately led to the collapse of Communism and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Solzhenitsyn understood how important his work was. "Oh, yes," he said, "Gulag was destined to affect the course of history, I was sure of that."
It is a profound work: part history, part memoir, part spiritual essay about the role of redemptive suffering and the need to oppose every form of tyranny over the mind and soul of man.
The Russian author and Nobel Laureate also played a pivotal role in American politics in the mid-seventies shortly after he had been exiled from his homeland.
In 1975, Ronald Reagan was debating whether he should challenge the incumbent president Jerry Ford for the Republican presidential nomination. A turning point for Reagan was Ford's refusal in July 1975 to meet with Solzhenitsyn.
Reagan ridiculed the reasons given: Ford had to attend a party for his daughter; the Russian dissident had not formally requested a meeting; it was not clear to the White House "what [the president] would gain by a meeting with Solzhenitsyn."
Reagan made it clear that a President Reagan would be honored to sit down with and learn from the famed survivor and chronicler of the Gulag Archipelago.
Four months later, Reagan announced his candidacy and began a quest that although thwarted the following year ended in his capturing the presidency in 1980. A core idea of his 1980 campaign and his presidency can be found in the platform of the 1976 Republican National Convention, drafted by Reagan and his supporters, which read: "We recognize and commend that great beacon of human courage and morality, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, for his compelling message that we must face the world with no illusions about the nature of tyranny."
Lee Edwards is a Distinguished Fellow in the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
First published in National Review Online