The passing of Alexandr Solzhenytsin is an historic moment. Unlike, for example, Anatoly Sharansky, who has dived in to the politics of his adopted home of Israel, Solzhenytsin disdained the celebrity his status brought him, and sought in rural Vermont the quiet life. He was rewarded by his adopted hometown by the protection they could afford (that and a fence surrounding his property).
There is no doubt his Gulag Archipelago opened the eyes of the west to the details of the brutality of the Soviet regime. To be sure, there were few who had illusions about them; yet, in the post-Stalinist era, they at least could pretend that things were different. It was a difference of degree, however, not of kind, as Solzhenytsin's writings made clear. I remember reading them in the midst of the Reagan era of hyper-anti-Soviet rhetoric. It was difficult to maintain the necessity of engaging a state as brutal as theirs, except perhaps through the minimalist position afforded by realpolitique.
There is certainly something of the hero about Solzhenytsin. Yet, as Masha Lipman writes in today's Washington Post, his life and beliefs were so wholly caught up in a peculiar Russian approach - not so much "premodern" as Lipman writes as "nonmodern" - that his example is difficult to follow. He was, in many ways, a combination of two of Russia's great writers and thinkers, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. From Tolstoy comes the kind of idealism that views the modernizing tendencies of western influence as a threat to a certain kind of peculiar Russian agrarian purity. From Dostoevsky comes a love of the purity of Russian ethnic identity, including religious conformity under the Orthodox Church, that cuts through the moral relativism of modernity and offers simple answers and a clarity of vision which, in Solzhenytsin's case, gave him the moral courage to write his book in the face of all the power of the state to silence him, including death.
While there is in the US an intellectual legacy that is similar to his (that of the pantheistic anti-modernism of Thoreau), I do not think that, other than as a symbol of resistance to a particular form of modern tyranny and a gifted artist who could see clearly because he was not willing to see shades of gray in his own nightmare, he offers a way to understand our world. That's OK, though, because he has left us a legacy that should serve as a warning to any who might harbor illusions about the benignity of totalitarianism.