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Solzhenitsyn: A Centennial Tribute

books and culture

Solzhenitsyn: A Centennial Tribute

Reflections on totalitarianism’s greatest critic December 9, 2018
Arts and Culture

December 11, 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Aleksandr Isaievech Solzhenitsyn. A writer of immense talent and spiritual depth, the century’s greatest critic of the totalitarian immolation of liberty and human dignity, a thinker and moral witness who illumined the fate of the human soul hemmed in by barbed wire in the East, and a materialist cornucopia in the West, the mature Solzhenitsyn remained remarkably faithful to the twin imperatives of courage and truth. A modern Saint George, he slew the dragon of ideological despotism with rare eloquence, determination, and grit. For that alone, he deserves to be forever remembered. 

He had two great “missions,” as he called them: to witness to those who suffered and perished in the Soviet prison-camp system (and accompanying manifestations of Communist repression); and to trace the roots of the Soviet tragedy in the great unfolding “red wheel,” especially in the February Revolution of 1917 that preceded the October Revolution later that year and made it all but inevitable. He is the author of two great “literary cathedrals,” as the Solzhenitsyn scholar Georges Nivat put it: The Gulag Archipelago and The Red Wheel, two “experiments in literary investigation” that will require decades to come to terms with in any adequate way. Many silly and even pernicious things have been written about Solzhenitsyn by those who confuse love of truth with dogmatism, and the “active struggle with evil,” as Solzhenitsyn once described it, with moral fanaticism. And among these tendentious critics are those who mock patriotism, repentance, self-limitation, and liberty under God—that is, all of Solzhenitsyn’s enduring themes and commitments. 

Solzhenitsyn’s was a long but ultimately rewarding journey. Since early boyhood, he wished to become a writer. One of the key chapters of August 1914 (the first volume of The Red Wheel), depicting the Battle of Tannenberg and the suicide of General Samsonov, was already written in the fall of 1936, before Solzhenitsyn was 18. He dreaded what kind of writer he might have become without the experience of the Gulag. It was in the prison camp in 1945 and 1946, as he describes it in various interviews and in “The Ascent”—his account in the central section of The Gulag Archipelago of how the scales of ideology fell from his eyes—that he was “completely cleansed of any Marxist belief.” His cellmates helped him see the light of truth and the unparalleled mendacity of the ideological lie, the destructive illusion that evil is not inherent in the human soul, that human beings and societies can be transformed at a revolutionary stroke, and that free will is subordinate to historical necessity. Solzhenitsyn’s life is marked by this great paradox: in the camps, cold and hungry, and subject to limitless repression by camp guards and camp authorities, he recovered an appreciation of the purpose of things.

By the age of 27, Solzhenitsyn had an outlook that he retained until his death on August 3, 2008, a worldview deepened only by his subsequent reaffirmation of faith in the living God near the end of his imprisonment at Ekibastuz in the Kazakh Steppes in the early 1950s. In the introduction (“Inception”) to his autobiographical poem  The Road (7,000 lines memorized in the camps and composed without benefit of pen and paper), Solzhenitsyn had already spoken of his burning desire to convey the experience of the camps to an uncomprehending world. I quote from a translation being prepared by the author’s son, Ignat:

Oh who, oh when will learn about all this

And staunchly write it down

With lucid understanding, not with ire—

The time to write is now, precisely now!

Solzhenitsyn wrote with “lucid understanding,” and with no small dose of scorn, about the “Progressive Doctrine,” the inhuman ideology that justified terror and tyranny as no regime or ideological movement had ever justified the killing and repression of real or imagined “enemies of the People.” He showed that the heart of Bolshevism lay in a monstrous coming together of violence and lies that gave rise not to mere dictatorship but to a totalitarianism that transformed betrayal and lying into “forms of existence.”  This totalitarianism demanded fierce resistance, both for the sake of liberty and for the right of the human soul to breathe freely, with the dignity afforded it by God.

Solzhenitsyn would become the most eloquent critic of ideological revolution, the “vain hope that revolution can improve human nature,” as he said in the Vendée in the fall of 1993. He saw many affinities between the French and Russian revolutions, not least the shared hope that revolution could transform human nature and regenerate the human race. Instead, Solzhenitsyn stood for repentance and self-limitation, and for a conception of self-government (beginning with the arts of local liberty) that emphasized the importance of civic virtue. Here he was indebted to Tocqueville, to the zemstvos or nineteenth century Russian provincial and local councils, and to the experience of local liberty that he witnessed (and admired) during his western exile in Switzerland and New England between 1974 and 1994. He spoke with admiration for such local liberty in his farewell to the people of Cavendish, Vermont, on February 28, 1994. It was a tradition of liberty from the bottom up much needed in contemporary Russia, he observed. 

Solzhenitsyn, denounced by some as a supporter of messianic nationalism (something he always repudiated, even when it manifested itself in a great writer like Dostoevsky), also provided an enduring model of constructive patriotism. He loved Russia profoundly but refused to identify his wounded nation with a Soviet despotism that stood for religious repression, collective farm slavery, and the elimination of political liberty and a tradition of literary reflection that spoke to the health of Russia and the permanent needs of the soul. He wanted Russia to abandon destructive dreams of empire and turn inward, but without forgetting the sorry fate of the 25 million Russians left in the “near abroad” after the break-up of the Soviet Union. In 1998’s Russia in Collapse, he forcefully attacked “radical nationalism…the elevation of one’s nationality above our higher spiritual plank, above our humble stance before heaven.” And he never ceased castigating so-called Russian nationalists, who preferred “a small-minded alliance with [Russia’s] destroyers” (the Communists or Bolsheviks). He loved his country but loved truth and justice more. But as Solzhenitsyn stated with great eloquence in the Nobel Lecture, “nations are the wealth of mankind, its generalized personalities.” He did not support the leveling of nations in the name of cosmopolitanism or of a pagan nationalism that forgot that all nations remain under the judgment of God and the moral law. In this regard, Solzhenitsyn combines patriotism with moderation or self-limitation. One does not learn from Solzhenitsyn to hate other peoples, or to deny each nation’s right to its special path, one that respects common morality and elementary human decency. 

How one evaluates Solzhenitsyn tells us much about how one ultimately understands human liberty: Is it rooted in the gift of free will bestowed by a just, loving, and Providential God? Or is it rooted in an irreligious humanism, which all too often leads to human self-enslavement, as we saw with the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century? Solzhenitsyn’s reasonable choice for “Liberty under God” has nothing to do with mysticism, authoritarianism, or some illiberal theocratic impulse. Those who attribute these positions to Solzhenitsyn cannot provide a single sentence to support such misrepresentations.

Solzhenitsyn spoke in the name of an older Western and Christian civilization, still connected to the “deep reserves of mercy and sacrifice” at the heart of ordered liberty. It is a mark of the erosion of that rich tradition that its voice is so hard to hear in our late modern world, more—and more single-mindedly—devoted to what Solzhenitsyn called “anthropocentricity,” an incoherent and self-destructive atheistic humanism. Solzhenitsyn asks no special privileges for biblical religion (and classical philosophy), just a place at the table and a serious consideration within our souls. 

In a revealing conversation with the Italian Russianist Vittorio Strada on October 20, 2000, Solzhenitsyn was asked what his message was to the young generation of today. He told them to resist “the temptation of consumerism” and to develop a much-needed “interior shut-off mechanism, internal limits.” Once again we hear the voice of the great advocate of voluntary self-restriction. Solzhenitsyn also warned the young against historicist complacency, the view that we are necessarily “entering into a happy century,” after the wars and tyrannies of the twentieth century. Solzhenitsyn always remained sensitive to the great harm caused by utopian illusions. Yet once again, the great Russian writer and moral witness ends on a note of hope. “Life will be hard,” he tells them, “but circumstances will never defeat the human will,” as long as that will “is concentrated and focused on what is true.”

We owe gratitude to this great man and writer for his courage, his fidelity to truth and to freedom (rightly understood), and his timeless reminder that, among the clamor of modern life, we should not lose focus on the underlying purpose of the human adventure, or the freedom granted to us. Beyond totalitarianism, there is the task of building regimes of self-government worthy of all the possibilities—and limits—of the human soul. In that great task, Solzhenitsyn remains as relevant as ever. And his art—and the profound philosophical reflections and insights embedded in his works—remain a gift to us all. 

Photo by Emil Christensen/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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