This week: Alexander Solzhenitsyn The death of Alexander Solzhenitsyn - who won the Nobel Prize for literature for his work about life in slave labour camps under Stalinism - announced by his son Stepan on Monday made me reflect on his work. His books not only reminded the world of the horrors inflicted by the repressive Stalinist regime, but also epitomised bravery of the highest order for daring to speak the damning truth in the face of certain unreasonable punishment. It was 15 years ago when I first came across his work in the form of his first short novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. In Australia at the time, it was an intriguing book that described the semi-fictional life of an inmate's suffering in a Soviet gulag. The book stirred up the nominally imagined horrors of life as a slave imprisoned with very slim hopes of being released. But the real backdrop for the story brings a spine-chilling reminder of life under the Stalinist regime. As I read, I thought how cocooned, comfortable and safe my life was and how lucky that society as it existed in Australia or our urban jungle is so far removed from what was in the book. Even though I had read the book all those years ago, the direct and unpretentious language used and the topic made it very memorable. Life in the camp was freezing and frequently dropped below minus-20 degrees Celsius. When it dropped below minus-40 degrees it was a gulag rule that outdoor labour would cease for the day, like our typhoon 8 warnings. It is sadly amusing the implication that minus-39 degrees was safer than minus-40 degrees. The clothes issued were scanty and worn out or tore easily; the conditions must have been atrocious and millions of people died. The labour often entailed bricklaying work, but due to the sub-zero conditions it had to be done quickly as the mortar would freeze rapidly. The theme of the book is the inhuman, spiteful treatment of man against man and camp survival. The book was inspired by Solzhenitsyn's own imprisonment in a Soviet gulag between 1945 and 1953. He was sent to the gulag for letters written to a friend near the end of the second world war intercepted by the authorities. In the letters he had written some disrespectful remarks of Stalin, calling him 'Old Man Whiskers', which was considered derogatory at the time. For that, a soldier who risked life and limb for the Soviet Union and ranked captain was sent to spend eight years in a gulag. Most didn't survive long, so the length of the sentence was mostly not relevant and was usually almost invariably a death sentence. When he was released from the gulag, he returned to literary life and submitted his manuscript One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich to a Soviet literary magazine; the editor was very impressed and immediately sent it to the central censoring authority for publication. The climate of the Soviet political system had changed when power was handed to Nikita Khrushchev, who wanted to discredit the previous Stalinist regimes, and he ordered the novel published in 1962. If the path to publishing One Day wasn't difficult enough with the first-hand incidental research by actual imprisonment in a gulag, the story continues with the ousting of Khrushchev. The subsequent regime expelled Solzhenitsyn from the Soviet Writers Union, arrested him and sent him to internal exile in Kazakhstan. These events inspired the book Cancer Ward, which used cancer as a metaphor for the Soviet system. It followed the case of a cancer patient whose malignant tumour grew so large that it killed the patient and, in the case of the Soviet Union, it was the prison camps and exile that did the same thing to people. He was quoted as saying that many men more talented than himself were lost in the gulags, and what a loss that must have been. In 1970, he received news that he was to be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature; the Soviet government banned him from going to Stockholm to receive the prize, which the authorities saw as an insult to the Soviet Union. In 1971, he was stripped of his Soviet citizenship and expelled to West Germany. He moved to America where he lived in Vermont in seclusion, and he wrote The Red Wheel, a book that he considered the culmination of his life's work. He was surprisingly critical of the western way of life and considered it wasteful and decadent. He felt that the western pressure on other countries that didn't follow the American democratic model was wrong. And after the fall of the Soviet Union, he found a sympathiser in Vladimir Putin, who also felt that Russia had to form its own version of democracy that took into account its own culture and history. In 1990, Mikhail Gorbachev welcomed Solzhenitsyn back to his homeland. His death not only marks the loss of one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, but a very brave soul. A true hero.