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Thinker, Artist, Warrior

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Thinker, Artist, Warrior

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s memoir of his years in exile holds vital lessons for a fractured America. August 6, 2021
The Social Order

Between Two Millstones, Book 2: Exile in America, 1978-1994, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, translated by Clare Kitson and Melanie Moore (University of Notre Dame Press, 584 pp., $39)

Once a darling of the media but now despised, the old man continues to heap abuse on the media as the “loony left press,” comparing them constantly to “Soviet era newspapers.” He says American news outlets tend to “trumpet” their narratives “in unison” in order to “bamboozle America’s reading public,” though in his populist fashion he says this maneuver “doesn’t affect average Americans at all.”

Donald Trump from Mar-a-Lago in 2021?

Try Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn from Cavendish, Vermont, in the 1980s. While the language may be more elevated and less Twitterized, the accusations lobbed against the elites (or as Solzhenitsyn calls them: “pseudo-educated elites”) hit almost all the same notes as Trump. It is salutary to remember that the elite tendency to believe in or cynically use media fabrications and manipulations is not new. Though we have more resources for uncovering these deceptions today, they seem much closer to dominating our political and social life. Solzhenitsyn saw it all coming: “No, deny it all you like, but our humanitarian intelligentsia has the same roots, the very same roots as the Bolsheviks.”

As this line suggests, Solzhenitsyn’s early hopefulness about the West, evident in the first volume of this memoir, covering his journey to America until 1978, is absent in Between Two Millstones, Book 2: Sketches of Exile, 1978-1994. Gone are his dreams of a Russian college or university in North America, and mostly gone are the speaking engagements telling American elites what they don’t want to hear about their own country or situation. Of course, he still had plenty of opinions, and he frequently offered them on the topic of his beloved homeland. But in this period of his exile, Solzhenitsyn became highly selective about giving interviews, writing articles, and, especially, speaking on panels.

If Solzhenitsyn could not establish another St. Petersburg in the West, he would instead continue his other work: disseminating the stories of Russians who survived or escaped the Revolution (via his “All-Russian Memoir Library” series); preserving the great literary and linguistic patrimony of Russia (like Samuel Johnson, Solzhenitsyn virtually single-handedly composed a dictionary); publishing translations of his current works in many languages; and using his earnings from The Gulag Archipelago to fund a charity helping Russians still in the Soviet Union. Most of all, he worked happily on his magnum opus, the second of what scholar Gary Saul Morson calls, along with the three-volume Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn’s “twin cathedrals”: his multi-volume novel series (and work of dramatized history) about the end of old Russia and the beginnings of the Soviet Union.

There is an irony in the beginning of the second book of Between Two Millstones. Though the introductory chapter is titled “Russian Pain,” it begins with a cheerful quote from Alexander Pushkin: “In solitude you’re happy—you’re a poet.” Solzhenitsyn’s theme of divine providence guiding him, so clear in earlier autobiographical volumes—especially The Oak and the Calf (1975)—is at the forefront here. His exile was a blessing for him and for his fellow Russians amid the continuing blight of Communist rule in Moscow: “And I never ceased to be surprised and grateful: the Lord had indeed put me into the best situation a writer could dream of, and the best of the dismal fates that could have arisen, given our blighted history and the oppression of our country for the last sixty years.” In the West, despite all its problems, Solzhenitsyn could now get any book he needed from libraries, as well as precious documentary resources in books sent by Russian emigrés and the marvelous collection of Revolutionary-era newspapers kept by the Hoover Institution.

He was also able to keep distraction at bay, having no telephone or television in his working quarters at his home in Cavendish, Vermont. For all his anguish for Russians’ pain abroad and for his exile, in his mid-sixties he was experiencing “the young man’s feeling that I haven’t finished developing yet.” Better still, he was blessed with a wife (Natalia or “Alya”). She was a true intellectual partner in his own work, a manager of the Solzhenitsyn children’s sometimes rocky transition to American life and education, an adviser on issues practical and spiritual (including several legal battles), and an artistic and literary judge and editor. It’s striking to note that, even after all his years in the United States, Aleksandr Isayevich was never truly comfortable speaking English. There is no hint of husbandly flattery when he writes of Alya that “she has doubled the possibilities of my life.”

She even held down the fort for the long periods of time in which Solzhenitsyn traveled to Japan, Taiwan, and then England in 1983. His chapter on this trip is delightful for his uncensored views. Japanese food? Bad. (“Chinese food is far tastier.”) Japanese culture? “[A] sense of beauty! a sense of dignity! There’s ‘beauty will save the world’ for you.” And the Taiwanese had “no enervating daytime television.”

Alya was able to join him on his English trip, during which he delivered one of his most quoted lectures, the Templeton Address. His account is moving for its reflection on what the speech called for: his most explicit commentary on religion up to that point. Readers can also delight in his recollections of various figures, including Harry Willetts (the gentle, scholarly, and precise translator of his own works) and Margaret Thatcher, whose hand he kissed. “Rarely has a woman’s hand been more deserving, and I felt both deep admiration and liking for this stateswoman.” In good Solzhenitsyn fashion, he did not flatter Thatcher but instead argued about the situation regarding then-Soviet premier Yuri Andropov and the West. Though he took a more pessimistic line at the time, he admits that “with Reagan’s help, she turned out to be right.”

The middle portion of this book will interest those who wonder about Solzhenitsyn’s rather inaccurate and often hostile biographer Michael Scammell, his legal troubles in Britain, and the attempts of a number of emigrés, such as Andrei Sinyavsky, to tar him as an “anti-Semite.” (This latter dispute is indicative of the problems at Radio Liberty during the Reagan years.)

The sketches in the third and fourth parts of the book, covering 1982-1994, take on an urgency for the reader, since it is in this period that Solzhenitsyn, who always intended to return to his homeland, now sees the possibility to do so. Fascinating personal aspects abound, including his complicated relationship to the secular dissident Russian scientist Andrei Sakharov and his struggles to get his books published in Russia as the Soviet Union began to open up. Perhaps most important for Americans, however, are his reflections on how to rebuild Russia. He realized that this task would differ from how he imagined it in his prison-days: “the end of Communism as a great commotion and, immediately afterwards, a new heaven and a new earth.” Never believing the hype about Mikhail Gorbachev, he was distraught by what happened under Boris Yeltsin, describing it as “the gigantic, historic Russian Catastrophe” in which “the nation’s life, morality, and social awareness unraveled, unstoppable; in culture and science rational activity ceased; school education and childcare descended into a fatal state of disorder.”

Today, as America seems more fractured than ever before, Solzhenitsyn’s reflections on how to restore Russia to a state of ordered liberty seem especially pertinent. No theocrat, he did believe, as he said in the Templeton Address, that the modern problem was that “Men have forgotten God.” But he also believed that piety was no substitute for hard thought, spiritual substance, and practical action. His reflections on the need for something more than “the Market” for “a nation’s life” are accompanied by an understanding of the kind of plurality of authorities that can ensure that government stays a servant of the people and not the reverse. Summarizing his booklet Rebuilding Russia, he noted that his principled proposals involved: “‘A Combined System of Government,’ consisting of a rigid vertical to run the state from the top down and a creative zemstvo [smaller local authority] vertical, working from the bottom up—various electoral systems (proportionality, plurality, and absolute majority)—and how to avoid the nation becoming exhausted, their lives in turmoil from these elections.”

Most inspiring is the memoir’s ending, as Solzhenitsyn prepares to return to the land he loved. Not content just to dwell in “our luckless and sad Russian land,” as he called it in a 1952 camp poem, he felt “a surge of strength” as he prepared to return at age 75 and attempt to “say something and get something done” to heal and rebuild his country. For Americans wearying of their own battles against the distortions of the elite media, the destructiveness of the modern educational establishment, and the corruption of governmental and administrative power, Solzhenitsyn is an inspiration—as a thinker, an artist, and a warrior who never tired of the battle.

Photo by Steve Liss/Getty Images

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