A Russian prophet

Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008)

So finally he has joined his fellow zeks. Year after year, millions of lives poured into the thirsty Gulag: for a caustic joke, for losing
battles, for being heroic, for thinking counter-revolutionary thoughts, for
failure, for success, for being related to a zek,
for hatching imaginary plots, for nothing at all. How could it be -- such
lies, such injustice, such truckling to the insane whims of the bloated spider
at the heart of the corruption? He escaped to tell the tale, filled with
a flailing fury that evil should grind to powder good, ordinary men in the
frigid wastes of northern Russia.

Aleksandr Isayevich
Solzhenitsyn was educated as a Marxist and served with distinction in the Red
Army in an artillery unit. But towards the end of World War II he made a
terrible blunder. In letters to a friend which were intercepted by the censor he
had made veiled criticisms of Stalin. There wasn’t much evidence, but he
received an eight-year sentence anyway, followed by years of internal exile in
Kazakhstan. Whatever Marxism there was in his heart evaporated as he witnessed what
it was doing to Russia.

He wrote his novels
secretly, hardly daring to show them even to friends, lest he be betrayed and
his manuscripts destroyed. Finally he broke his silence and offered One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich to the editor of the leading Soviet literary journal, Novy Mir. Nikita Khrushchev approved it personally as part of his
campaign to denigrate Stalin. It was published, uncensored, in 1962.

A Day in the Life was a bombshell in the Soviet Union and in the
West as well. It opened the eyes of ordinary Soviet citizens to the barbarity
and injustice of life under Stalin, and it confirmed Western hostility towards
Communism. It is a simple, short book which relates the strategies Ivan uses to
survive oppression, hunger, cold and unending toil. It is impossible to forget,
not because of its historical value, but because of its humanity. For anyone
who cared to read it closely, it had a positive and deeply Christian message:
that the measure of a life well lived is not success or recognition, but a
deepening of one’s humanity. The most sympathetic figure, for instance, is a
pious Baptist, Aloyshka, who tries to persuade Ivan Denisovich that he is freer
in prison because he can pray without distractions. Ivan Denisovich remains
unconvinced, but nods off to sleep “pleased with life”: “The end of an
unclouded day. Almost a happy one. Just one of the three thousand six hundred
and fifty-three days of his sentence, from bell to bell. The extra three were
for leap years.”

Solzhenitsyn’s curse
was that his novels were read in both East and West more as political
statements than works of art. In the Soviet Union under Leonid Brezhnev, who
deposed and succeeded Khruschchev, he became persona non grata. The First Circle and Cancer Ward were both smuggled out of
the USSR and published in the West in 1968 to extravagant praise. In 1970 he
won the Nobel Prize for Literature. By this time the Soviet leadership was fed
up and in 1974 it
stripped him of his citizenship and expelled him. In exile he
continued writing and in 1973 appeared the first of three volumes of his act of
piety to the millions who perished in Stalin’s camps, The Gulag Archipelago.

Although The Gulag Archipelago became his
best-known book and made him the world’s most famous Soviet dissident, many
people found almost unreadable. A history, not a novel, it made bleak reading, full
of endless gloom and unpronounceable names. This had the unfortunate effect of
diverting many readers away from the brilliance and humanity of his other two
novels about the Gulag. The First Circle is a snapshot of a camp where scientist zeks are trying to create a voice recognition machine which can identify an official
who made a single subversive phone call. Cancer
– filled, like most Russian novels, with more characters than the Moscow
phone book – uses a cancer hospital as a metaphor for the bleakness of Soviet life
after Stalin.

Solzhenitsyn’s great
themes are the survival of good in an evil world, human dignity, the redeeming
value of truth, and the importance of a spiritual
dimension to life. But he was astonished to find that when he moved to the
United States in 1976 that these were no more welcome there than in the Soviet
Union. In his eyes, America had become weakened and corrupted by its material
success. He expanded upon this in a blistering address at Harvard in 1978 –
only a little while after it had granted him an honorary doctorate. But Aleksandr
Isayevich was not one to be bribed with the gewgaw of academic honours.
Beginning with an invocation of the Harvard motto, Veritas, truth, he hammered an establishment which had
strayed from the pursuit of truth and had liberated itself from God:

But should someone ask me whether I would
indicate the West such as it is today as a model to my country, frankly I would
have to answer negatively. No, I could not recommend your society in its
present state as an ideal for the transformation of ours. Through intense
suffering our country has now achieved a spiritual development of such
intensity that the Western system in its present state of spiritual exhaustion
does not look attractive...

Six decades for our people and three decades for
the people of Eastern Europe; during that time we have been through a spiritual
training far in advance of Western experience. Life's complexity and mortal
weight have produced stronger, deeper and more interesting characters than
those produced by standardized Western well-being... It is true, no doubt, that
a society cannot remain in an abyss of lawlessness, as is the case in our
country. But it is also demeaning for it to elect such mechanical legalistic
smoothness as you have. After the suffering of decades of violence and
oppression, the human soul longs for things higher, warmer and purer than those
offered by today's mass living habits, introduced by the revolting invasion of
publicity, by TV stupor and by intolerable music.

The resentment which greeted this caustic analysis of
capitalist materialism and Enlightenment thinking may explain why Solzhenitsyn’s
reputation declined quickly thereafter. His later novels, part of a gigantic
historical cycle about the Russian Revolution, were largely ignored. Perhaps
his powers were declining and perhaps his focus on Russia’s destiny was
puzzling for Western readers. But ultimately Solzhenitsyn was sidelined because
his unwavering belief that life was a battle between good and evil, between
transcendent spirituality and degrading materialism, was regarded as too
simplistic, even too threatening, in a society which spurned firm convictions.

Solzhenitsyn regarded himself first and foremost as an artist,
not as an historian or politician. He had faith that his art could liberate men from the most humiliating servitude of all, living in in the sty of their own
lies. “One word of truth shall outweigh the whole world,” he said in his Nobel
Prize acceptance speech. It is a message that is needed today more than ever.

Michael Cook is editor
of MercatorNet.


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