Contrary to popular belief, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who died last week at 89, told the world nothing that it did not already know, or could not already have known, about the Soviet Union and the Communist system. Information about their true nature was available from the very first, including photographic evidence of massacre and famine. Bertrand Russell, no apologist of conservatism, spotted Lenin’s appalling inhumanity and its consequences for Russia and humanity as early as 1920. The problem was that this information was not believed; or if believed, it was explained away and rendered innocuous by various mental subterfuges, such as false comparison with others’ misdeeds, historical rationalizations, reference to the supposed grandeur of the social ideals behind the apparent horrors, and so forth. Anything other than admission of the obvious.

Solzhenitsyn’s achievement was to render such illusion about the Soviet Union impossible, even for its most die-hard defenders: he made illusion not merely stupid but wicked. With a mixture of literary talent, iron integrity, bravery, and determination of a kind very rarely encountered, he made it impossible to deny the world-historical scale of the Soviet evil. After Solzhenitsyn, not to recognize Soviet Communism for what it was and what it had always been was to join those who denied that the earth was round or who believed in abduction by aliens. Because of his clear-sightedness about Lenin’s true nature, it was no longer permissible for intellectuals who had been pro-Soviet to hide behind the myth that Stalin perverted the noble ideal that Lenin had started to put into practice. Lenin was, if such a thing be possible, more of a monster than Stalin, not so much inhumane as anti-human. Solzhenitsyn was always uncompromising—and, of course, quite right—on this point: no Lenin, no Stalin. Insofar as Solzhenitsyn finally destroyed the possibility in the West of intellectual sympathy for the Soviet Union (which inhibited the prosecution of the Cold War), he helped bring about the demise of the revolutionary, ideological state, and for that he will be remembered as long as history is written.

His place in literary history is less clear. His first book, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, will remain a classic depiction of the Soviet work camps; The First Circle and Cancer Ward will remain classic explorations of the question of accommodation to and complicity with totalitarian regimes, or indeed any regimes that the individual is powerless to resist. The Gulag Archipelago, which gave a word forever to the English language and many other languages (itself no mean achievement), remains indispensable for those interested in the depths to which an ideology can push a society.

The problem for Solzhenitsyn’s literary reputation is that the subjects his books address no longer seem so compelling to younger readers. Astonishing as it may seem to people who lived through the time when Solzhenitsyn appeared as a colossus, many people younger than 30—not only in America and Western Europe but in Russia itself—have never heard of him or do not know what he did. Of course, literary reputations wax and wane; but his disappearance from the consciousness of young people at least raises the question of whether his achievement was more political and moral than literary.

With the demise of the Soviet Union as an ideological state, some doubts also emerged about Solzhenitsyn’s democratic and humanitarian credentials. Exiled in the United States, he expressed deep, and to some hurtful, reservations about American society. Though many of his criticisms were precisely those that any cultural conservative might make and that, in fact, had been made many times before, his Russian nationalism and affinity with nineteenth-century Slavophiles made him an object of suspicion.

Russian Jews, for example, with their antennae rendered sensitive by a long history of pogroms, historical events such as the Doctors’ Plot in the last days of Stalin, and ordinary everyday discrimination, prejudice, and violence, detected anti-Semitism in the pages of Two Hundred Years Together, his account of relations between Russians and Jews. Even his choice of subject, and the importance that he attributed to it, seemed suspect to them (notwithstanding KGB attempts, years earlier, to depict Solzhenitsyn himself as a Jew as a way of belittling him in Russians’ eyes). Solzhenitsyn’s admirers, however, strongly denied any anti-Semitism on his part, and said that his book was precisely a warning against the stupidity and wickedness of anti-Semitism.

And the Russian satirical writer Vladimir Voinovich satirized Solzhenitsyn’s Russian nationalism by depicting someone resembling him having his employees flogged in Vermont. This satirical scene, in fact, made a profound criticism of Solzhenitsyn’s political thought. Voinovich was alluding to the fact that, were it not for the horrors of Bolshevism, the pre-revolutionary Russian political tradition would be regarded as so brutal that no sensitive person of good will could be a Russian nationalist. As it was, the Bolsheviks regularly killed in a few minutes more people than the Romanovs managed in a century, giving pre-revolutionary Russian history the retrospective luster of decency, wisdom, and compassion that it did not in the least deserve. For Voinovich—and the distinguished historian of Russia Richard Pipes—Leninism had its roots in the Russian tradition as well as the Marxist one. This meant that Solzhenitsyn, while absolutely right in his uncompromising attitude to Marxist-Leninism and all its works, belonged in the category of Dostoevsky: a brilliant seer who would nevertheless have made a very bad guide.

Still, a man of Solzhenitsyn’s enormous stature deserves to be remembered for his greatest achievements. His efforts to memorize, and memorialize, what he had experienced in the harshest circumstances are sufficient on their own to render the rest of us humble. No writer of the second half of the twentieth century has had so profound an effect on history, and that effect was overwhelmingly beneficial. And when he reminded us that the line dividing good from evil passes through every human heart, he said something that no human being should ever forget.


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