At a time when government reports ask whether Americans care about reading anymore, the legacy of Nobel laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn reminds us that books can matter as much as life and death.
Solzhenitsyn, who died Sunday at age 89, never stood before a tank in Tiananmen Square, but novels such as "Cancer Ward" and "The First Circle" landed like roadblocks before Soviet might, their power confirmed and magnified by his government's determination to stop them.
"Writers are a problem, they are a great problem, thank God," says Jason Epstein, a longtime editor at Random House who worked with Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal and others. "Without them we would be lost."
Solzhenitsyn's works, many set in Stalinist prison camps, were documents of persecution; his life was an example. Few writers, in any century, so painfully lived through and recorded the events of his time. He was vulnerable to history in a way even the most dangerous American writer couldn't imagine.
A front-line artillery captain in World War II, he was arrested for writing what he called "certain disrespectful remarks" about Stalin and served seven years in a labor camp in the barren steppe of Kazakhstan and three more years in internal exile in Central Asia.
A change in leadership _ the 1964 ousting of Nikita Khrushchev _ again made him an enemy. His papers were seized, his family threatened, his books smuggled abroad like nuclear documents. When his epic study of the Soviet prison system, "The Gulag Archipelago," was published, he was arrested, deported, sent off in handcuffs.
"Anyone who has once taken up the WORD can never again evade it," he once wrote. "Mankind's sole salvation lies in everyone making everything his business; in the people of the East being vitally concerned with what is thought in the West, the people of the West vitally concerned with what goes on in the East."
Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer, the South African writer whose work challenged the apartheid regime, said Solzhenitsyn's death was a "tremendous loss" to literature.
"But one can only be glad that there is this marvelous array of work," she said. "The work remains for our times and all times. He was quite extraordinary in bringing to us so many examples of the confusion and pain in the world that we still see today and is very apposite in the early 21st century."
The end of the Cold War means we may never go back to a time when one writer's fate could set off the superpowers. But the world remains alive with Solzhenitsyns, from Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, put on trial in Turkey for referring to the mass slaughter of Armenians, to Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, whose 2006 murder is believed linked to her reporting of atrocities by security forces against civilians in Chechnya.
"It's a mistake to say the story of Russian dissidents is over," says author Francine Prose, president of the American center of PEN, the international organization that monitors human rights abuses against writers. On Thursday, on the eve of the Olympic games in Beijing, Edward Albee and Russell Banks will be among those participating in a PEN reading in New York on behalf of dozens of writers imprisoned in China.
"It's a good thing for Solzhenitsyn that he's not living in China right now," Prose says.
Dana Gioia, a poet and chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, was in London recently and recalled speaking with officials who said that writers helped create history. World War I, he notes, is seen as a tragedy by the British because of the poems of Wilfrid Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and others.
"There was a moment when the public opinion of the greatest empire in the world, involved in the largest war in their history, was changed by a few poets," Gioia says.
"And Solzhenitsyn changed the story of the story of the Soviet Union. He changed it from this difficult march to Utopia to the decline of a brutal, totalitarian state. And his version of the Soviet Union lived longer than the official account. That is a kind of social and cultural power that is special to writers."
Associated Press writer Celine Jacobson in Johannesburg contributed to this report.