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Solzhenitsyn Hailed as 'One of Greatest Thinkers' of 20th Century

Leaders from around the world offered glowing words about Soviet-era dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, in the wake of his death late Sunday. While condolences poured in from presidents past and present, on the streets of Moscow, his legacy was being debated. Emma Stickgold has this report from the VOA bureau in Moscow.

Word of literary giant Alexander Solzhenitsyn's death slowly rippled its way through the streets of Moscow, with many still unaware of his passing by mid-day. Flowers piled up by the gates of his Moscow home, as the nation began to pay tribute to the man who showed the rest of the world the horrors of Stalin's prison camps.

Solzhenitsyn's bold writing on taboo subjects impressed many, but his criticism of what he described later in life as the West's moral corruption turned many supporters into critics.

Masha Lipman of the Moscow Carnegie Center said he had a hard time fitting in ideologically with those around him over the years.

"He had a conservative and retrograde view of looking back to Russia's roots - idealizing the purity of sprit and making it the center of the Russian universe - that was his dream," said Masha Lipman. "He was totally uncompromised in this attempt and it was difficult for both liberals and conservatives to be his following - to the liberals his conservative views about Russia's - his anti-Western views, his sharp criticism of the west was something they could not accept. To the conservatives his call - his claims he lay on the nation were somehow too rigorous - something that the conservatives may like to listen to but could not live up to. He will remain a figure of gigantic proportion - maybe too big for the modern world."

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin described the death as a heavy loss for the whole of Russia, saying that Solzhenitsyn will be remembered as "a strong, brave person with enormous dignity."

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, of whom Solzhenitsyn was at times critical, described the former math teacher's contributions as invaluable. His writings, Gorbachev said, "changed the consciousness of millions of people,"

French President Nicolas Sarkozy compared him to Dostoyevsky while German Chancellor Angela Merkel said he "played a decisive role in bringing down the totalitarian system.

Few in the younger generations interviewed knew much about his works, or seemed affected by his death, but others used the chance to reflect on his life. Nikolai, a Moscow resident, noted the literary contributions, while also noting the controversies.

Nikolai said Solzhenitsyn was a controversial person, "because there were a lot of issues that could not be evaluated unequivocally. As for his writing, he undoubtedly contributed a lot to literature."

The former math teacher's son, Stepan, told Russian television station Vesti that his father was working until the day he died.

Stepan said that his father's last day was like any other in his life. Solzhenitsyn died of heart failure Sunday in Moscow. He was 89.