Image: Solzhenitsyn funeral
Misha Japaridze  /  AP
Alexander Solzhenitsyn's son Stepan, widow Natalya and son Yermolai stand by his coffin during a funeral service in Moscow on Tuesday.
updated 8/5/2008 1:44:42 PM ET 2008-08-05T17:44:42

For the thousands of Russians who ventured out in a pelting rain to pay tribute to Alexander Solzhenitsyn, his death marked the end of a brave and defiant generation.

He changed their lives, they said, with books that exposed the horrors of the Soviet labor camp system and with his steely refusal to bend to relentless abuse by the secret police.

Yet a great generation divide loomed Tuesday at the Russian Academy of Sciences, where the Nobel Literature laureate lay in an open casket.

The vast majority of mourners at the wake were in their 50s, or older. Younger Russians — largely unmoved by a Soviet past they read about in school but hardly tasted in real life — were few and far between.

A military honor guard stood next to Solzhenitsyn's casket as mourners filed by and placed long-stemmed flowers at the foot of the bier.

The mourners included Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who embraced Solzhenitsyn's widow, Natalia, in a moment resonating Russia's fraught history. Putin started his career in the KGB, the same agency that persecuted Solzhenitsyn and eventually forced him into 20 years of bitter exile in the West. Years later, as president of Russia, Putin would embrace Solzhenitzyn's fervent nationalist beliefs.

The hug Tuesday brought to mind words from the preface to Solzhenitsyn's seminal "Gulag Archipelago:"

"Those same hands that once screwed tight our handcuffs now hold out their palms in reconciliation."

In the same preface, Solzhenitsyn criticized Russians who avoided recalling and digging up the past, warning that a "polar sea of oblivion" could roll over the crimes committed in Soviet Gulag camps.

'He inoculated our society'
Putin himself expressed concern about public memory, calling later Tuesday for Solzhenitsyn's works to become an important part of the Russian school curriculum.

"Together with the entire nation he lived through a great tragedy of repression," Putin said in a meeting with the education minister. "He not only lived through it, but ... through his works and his entire life he inoculated our society against tyranny in all its forms."

Most mourners Tuesday were older Russians who had read Solzhenitsyn's books when they were first published in underground circles in the 1960s and 1970s.

"He is a great citizen of Russia and my favorite writer," said Yevgeny Bystrov, 56, who held up a large black umbrella with one hand and red carnations in the other as the rain streamed down.

"My favorite novel is 'Cancer Ward.' There is so much optimism in it, so much life affirmation. He never forces his ideas upon you, but rather asks you to meditate — and you come to understand its seriousness and greatness yourself," Bystrov said.

Other attendees worried about their country going forward without voices like Solzhenitsyn's. A gray-haired woman who refused to give her name but described herself as a teacher said today's children were ignorant about life's hardships.

Too long ago for youth?
Young Russians outside Dom Knigi, one of Moscow's biggest bookstores, mostly knew Solzhenitsyn's name but had nothing to say about the impact of his work. Few took notice of a collection of Solzhenitsyn's books set up by the store.

"His novels are about a period that is too distant for young people," said Tatyana Areeneva, 40, standing with her daughter, who did not have anything to say about Solzhenitsyn. "Youth today are already children born in the 1980s, and his novels are about periods of repression and war."

The overall response to Solzhenitsyn's death was muted here. The author, who spent 20 years of exile in the United States following his expulsion from the Soviet Union in 1974, evoked little sympathy among those with fond memories of the Communist era.

Solzhenitsyn, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970, had also estranged himself from liberal reformers with his recent embrace of Putin's efforts to rule Russia with a strong-fisted, top-down approach.

Solzhenitsyn died Sunday at his home outside Moscow at age 89 from a chronic heart condition. He is to be buried Wednesday at the Russian capital's Donskoi Monastery.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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