Putin leads tribute to writer who exposed Gulags

RUSSIAN prime minister Vladimir Putin led hundreds of mourners paying last respects yesterday to Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the dissident writer who chronicled the horror of the Soviet prison camps.

Mourners filed past Solzhenitsyn’s open coffin at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, laying flowers and crossing themselves before one of Russia’s last literary legends, who died at his home on Sunday aged 89. His widow, Natalya, and other family members were also present.

“With his life and work, Alexander Solzhenitsyn greatly boosted society’s immunity to all forms of tyranny,” Putin said in televised remarks, adding that his books should have a “worthy place” in school curriculums.

The Nobel prize-winner, who spent eight years in Stalin’s Gulag prison camps, will be buried in an Orthodox ceremony in the 16th-century Donskoy Monastery in Moscow this morning.

Among the mourners yesterday 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,” said the 64-year-old.

Some of the mostly elderly mourners had personal ties to the Gulag, such as 61-year-old Svetlana Pushkaryova, a retired economist whose mother and grandfather were shut up in the labour camps.

“I’m thankful that I lived to this time so I could be free, so my children can be free. To some extent, this is all thanks to him,” she said. But she expressed disappointment there were not more mourners at the wake.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev led tributes by world leaders to the writer, 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.

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 Russia 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.

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 Russia today.

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

In 2007, Putin gave him the State Prize, Russia’s highest honour, and the author defended Putin — a former KGB agent — on democracy and foreign policy in an interview with German magazine Der Spiegel.

Solzhenitsyn lived largely out of the public eye in recent years, concentrating on the publication of his 30-volume complete works. He was editing the collection the day he died.

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