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Supplements » Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (September 2003)
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn by David Holloway
The forgotten man
Forty years ago on 28 August 1963 Martin Luther King, the US black civil rights leaders, delivered a speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. It has been called his "I have a dream" speech from his hopes that were expressed as a series of dreams. Martin Luther King and this speech are justly famous and rightly remembered today. So the BBC celebrated this fortieth anniversary at the end of August. But another man, probably of even greater stature and significance, and a man with even greater literary skills than King, is little celebrated. Indeed, he is positively rejected. Yet he contributed to the restoration of freedom for millions in the second half of the 20th century. The man is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who was a key player in the dismemberment of the "evil empire" of Stalin and his successors in the USSR.
Why is there such a difference of treatment between King and Solzhenitsyn? One answer is that the secular, liberal agenda of many who shape Western culture has been grafted on to Martin Luther King's call for "civil rights" (see Coloured Supplement August 2003). So it has been important for these secular elites to fête King and claim him a "patron" for their own enterprise of extending (his) legitimate "civil rights" to cover a host of (their) illegitimate rights - from the (so called) "right" to homosexual adoption, to the "right" to have a child at any moral cost, to the "right" to dispose of an unwanted child, and to other "rights" associated with the "culture of death". Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who at first was celebrated as a great Russian liberal, came to be seen as opposed to such an agenda. He, therefore, is forgotten.
The significance of Solzhenitsyn must not be underestimated. This can be seen from a Soviet-era joke that was set in the future and had a school teacher asking the class who was Leonid Brezhnev. A pupil then puts up a hand and replies: "wasn't he some insignificant politician in the age of Solzhenitsyn?"
As a boy, as a university student, then as a soldier in World War II Solzhenitsyn was an avowed Marxist. But in 1945 he was arrested for criticizing Stalin. For this he spent eight years imprisoned in forced labour camps in the Arctic and then three years in enforced exile until 1956. He then settled in central Russia, became a maths teacher and began to write. But he had met in prison Christian believers. This led him to move from Marx to Jesus - the Jesus of his Russian Orthodox forefathers: "God of the Universe!" he wrote, "I believe again! Though I renounced You, You were with me."
Solzhenitsyn received world-wide publicity during a brief Soviet thaw in 1962. This was when he was allowed to publish his short masterpiece One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. The story told of the brutality of Soviet prison life in a typical day in the life of an inmate of one of Stalin's forced-labour camps. But this period of official favour did not last long. So he had to use the literary "underground". He also managed to publish abroad, where by the late 1960's he was acclaimed as the new Tolstoy.
After receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, he published in Paris in 1974 The Gulag Archipelago, his history of Soviet prison camps. Immediately Solzhenitsyn was attacked in the Soviet press. On 12 February 1974 he was arrested and the following day exiled as a traitor.
In the West
Solzhenitsyn started his twenty years of exile in Zurich, where he continued to write and publish. He then moved in 1976 to the US where he generally kept out of the limelight as he tried to finish what he reckoned his greatest work, The Red Wheel, a cycle of books retelling Russian history. "The main cause of the ruinous [Bolshevik] Revolution that swallowed up some sixty million of our people", he wrote, was that "men have forgotten God." He argued that forgetting God was also, "the principal trait of the entire twentieth century." However, in 1978 he agreed to give the commencement address at Harvard University. This proved something of a bombshell. The West's emphasis on secular rights, he told the Harvard students, had produced societies that now stood at the brink of "the abyss of human decadence ... It is time in the West to defend not so much human rights as human obligations." Solzhenistsyn concluded with these words:
"If the world has not approached its end, it has reached a major watershed in history, equal in importance to the turn from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. It will demand from us a spiritual blaze, we shall have to rise to a new height of vision, to a new level of life where our physical nature will not be cursed as in the Middle Ages, but even more importantly, our spiritual being will not be trampled upon as in the Modern Era."
This was not what many of his audience wanted to hear. But these had long been his views. He held that "untouched by the breadth of God, unrestricted by human conscience both capitalism and socialism are repulsive."
At home he had attacked the Soviet leaders for trying to eradicate "Christian religion and morality" and then substituting an ideology with atheism as its "chief inspirational and emotional hub". In the West he was attacking the liberal elites for discarding "the moral heritage of Christian centuries with their great reserves of mercy and sacrifice" and for substituting "the proclaimed and practical autonomy of man from any higher force above him."
So now many Western intellectuals turned against him. The Washington Post said Solzhenitsyn was unbalanced and fit to live only under totalitarian regimes. One commentator called Solzhenitsyn "a freak." Western liberals could no longer consider Solzhenitsyn "one of us". An exception to this rejection was Malcolm Muggeridge:
"What amazing perceptiveness on his part to have realized straight away, as he did, that the true cause of the West's decline and fall was precisely the loss of a sense of the distinction between good and evil, and so of any moral order in the universe, without which no order at all, individual or collective, is attainable ...
Solzhenitsyn sees Western man sleepwalking into the same servitude that in the Soviet Union had been imposed by force. On campuses and the TV screen, in the newspapers and the magazines, often from the pulpits even, the message is being proclaimed: Man is now in charge of his own destiny and capable of creating a kingdom of heaven on earth in accordance with his own specifications, without any need for a God to worship or a Saviour to redeem him or a Holy Spirit to exalt him. How truly extraordinary that the most powerful and prophetic voice exploding this fantasy, Solzhenitsyn's, should come from the very heart of godlessness and materialism after more than sixty years of the most intense and thoroughgoing indoctrination in the opposite direction ever attempted."
In 1988 Mikhail Gorbachev became the president of the USSR. In 1989 the Berlin Wall was dismantled. And in 1994 Solzhenitsyn returned home, but to a Russia very different to the one he had left. Ian Hunter describes it like this:
"In Moscow the statue of Aleksandr Pushkin looked out on McDonald's. There existed a voracious market for Western porn. It was Charles Bronson's Death Wish, not the movie version of Ivan Denisovich, that flew off the video shelves. A British journalist made a search of Moscow's largest bookstore but was unable to find a single copy of any of Solzhenitsyn's novels. For a short time, Solzhenitsyn had a weekly fifteen minute television programme called 'Meetings with Solzhenitsyn.' In a few months it was dropped due to viewer uninterest, replaced by a programme featuring the Italian parliamentarian and porn queen, La Cicciolina. In fact Solzhenitsyn had returned to a new kind of exile, the wasteland of post-modern Russia" (Touchstone July /Aug 2003 - I am also grateful to Hunter for a number of my Solzhenitsyn quotations).
Nearly 85, how does he now see the future and the world? First, he faces death with confidence: "[Death] will be just a peaceful transition. As a Christian, I believe there is life after death." But he has less confidence in modern Russia with its new decadence: "It is as if, just having survived the heaviest case of cholera, immediately upon recuperation [you] get the plague." And with regard to the modern world, he believes that one of its defining marks is "the loss of the ability to answer the principal problem of life and death. People are prepared to stuff their heads with anything, and to talk of any subject, but only to block off the contemplation of this subject."
The elites may have forgotten Solzhenitsyn "the last remaining prophet in the abandoned temple of absolute truth" (as one Russian writer has described him). But whatever faults he may have had, he should not be forgotten. David Remnick, editor of New Yorker, wrote of Solzhenitsyn:
"No writer that I can think of in history, really was able to do so much through courage and literary skill to change the society they came from. And to some extent, you have to credit the literary works of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn with helping to bring down the last empire on earth."