Solzhenitsyn: A Biography, by Michael Scammell. W. W. Norton, 1985, 1,051 pp.; $29.95.

He once described his life as one fraught with “alarms, excursions, reconnaissance raids, anticipatory moves, and precautions.” Indeed, the novelist said he could hardly ask his readers to believe the intricately woven and crowded tapestry that constituted his existence.

Still, the tapestry that is Alexander Solzhenitsyn has commanded the attention of both East and West since the Stalinist era and the repression of the Russian spirit. And the unraveling of that tapestry has been an obsession of author Michael Scammell, whose massive biography of the dissident is unquestionably the most thorough, the most comprehensive, the most researched available thus far.

Scammell’s own artistic gifts—lucidity, stylistic ease, the novelist’s touch, a gift for metaphor—make the reading of Solzhenitsyn not only pleasurable but compelling, despite its length (996 pages of text, plus 1,540 reference notes and a generous index). Deftly relating the Russian’s life and work, Scammell has placed observers of the “Solzhenitsyn phenomenon” in his debt by not only looking critically and carefully at a single life, but at a social transformation (Soviet Russia) that formed the matrix of that life.

Revolutionary

The guns of war had cooled but revolutionary rhetoric had not when Solzhenitsyn was born on December 11, 1918, in the North Caucasus, six months after his father had died of wounds received in a hunting accident. His mother tried heroically to keep a home for her family, but in the wake of the revolution, they knew only grinding poverty.

Active in the Soviet youth movement, he substituted a Red Star for the ...

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