Notes & Comments September 2008
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, 1918-2008
On the death of the great Russian writer.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who died last month at eighty-nine, was one of our greatest chroniclers of Soviet tyranny. Beginning with his short novel A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, published in 1962 during the Khrushchev “thaw,” he unforgettably anatomized the inner workings of that hideous, soul-destroying engine of totalitarianism. A Day in the Life won Solzhenitsyn instant literary fame, but also the unhappy scrutiny of Soviet authorities. His subsequent books—The Cancer Ward (1969), the multi-volume Gulag Archipelago (1973), and other works—remained unpublished in the Soviet Union for decades.
Solzhenitsyn knew the macabre, arbitrary workings of totalitarianism from the inside. In the winter of 1945, when he was fighting with the Soviet army on the Prussian front, he was arrested for being an enemy of the State. The crime? A reference to Stalin in a letter to a friend as “the man with a mustache.” He was shuttled between numerous prison camps before finally being released in 1953 and sent to the desolate village of Kokterek in Kazakhstan, where he remained in forced exile until 1956.
For most of his incarceration, Solzhenitsyn was not permitted writing materials. He saw some Catholic prisoners with rosaries whose beads they had fashioned from chewed bits of bread. He employed a similar device to compose A Day in the Life. Each bead represented a passage that he would repeat until he had it thoroughly memorized. He then moved to the next bead and another passage. He committed 12,000 lines to memory using this laborious process.
Naturally, there was a large outpouring of commentary about Solzhenitsyn following his death. Most of the obituaries rehearsed the familiar milestones of his career: his incarceration and early fame, his struggle with the KGB, the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970, his deportation in 1974 and arrival in the United States two years later.
In 1978 Solzhenitsyn delivered his famous commencement address at Harvard, “A World Split Apart,” in which he castigated the West for its lack of “civil courage” and lamented its “spiritual exhaustion” and loss of “willpower”:
Even if we are spared destruction by war, our lives will have to change if we want to save life from self-destruction. We cannot avoid revising the fundamental definitions of human life and human society. Is it true that man is above everything? Is there no Superior Spirit above him? Is it right that man’s life and society’s activities have to be determined by material expansion in the first place? Is it permissible to promote such expansion to the detriment of our spiritual integrity?
These were not the sort of questions most Harvard graduates, to say nothing of their mentors, were expecting, and Solzhenitsyn’s blistering attack on the West—above all, perhaps, his call for serious religious renewal—caused grave unhappiness.
Solzhenitsyn abided in his Cavendish, Vermont, farm for nearly two decades, from 1976 until 1994, when he finally returned to Russia. During that time, he lived in but largely apart from American society. He entertained almost no visitors. He granted only a handful of interviews. When The New York Times petitioned him for an interview in 1978, he finally agreed—provided that the interviewer was Hilton Kramer, a stipulation that was met with a combination of consternation and panic by many at the Times. Recalling the interview in a later piece on Solzhenitsyn, Kramer noted that the Cavendish farm was a hive of literary and editorial activity: “the whole household is engaged in the laborious tasks of editing and proofreading these lengthy texts.” A visitor, he wrote, “finds himself in a publishing center as well as a writer’s home, and leaves with the eerie feeling that this unlikely setting may very well now be the capital of contemporary Russian literature.”
In all the recent commentary on Solzhenitsyn, however, there is one point that did not receive the attention it deserved: namely that the evil of Communism was (and remains) every bit as murderous, fanatical, and life-blighting as Nazism. A brief but illuminating editorial in The New York Sun observed that “once Solzhenitsyn had written, no one could any longer doubt that the evil of Stalinism was comparable to the evil of Nazism.”
We agree with the New York Sun’s editorialist that no right-thinking person should any longer be able to doubt that Communism and Nazism were but two faces of the same evil coin. But the myth of Communist “idealism” was, and perhaps still is, a hardy perennial. George Steiner, reviewing The Gulag Archipelago in The New Yorker in 1974, typified the attitude of the left-wing Western intellectual: “To infer that the Soviet terror is as hideous as Hitlerism,” Steiner lectured, “is not only a brutal oversimplification but a moral indecency.”
The real moral indecency was Steiner’s, and it is worth noting just how persistent is the temptation to excuse tyranny providing only that it comes from the Left. Consider the adamantine left-wing historian Eric Hobsbawm. In 1994, Hobsbawm discussed the former Soviet Union with a television interviewer. What Hobsbawm’s position comes down to, the interviewer suggested, “is saying that had the radiant tomorrow actually been created, the loss of fifteen, twenty million people might have been justified?” Hobsbawm: “Yes.”
Probably there aren’t many who would express themselves as baldly as Eric Hobsbawm. But the specter of statism—what Friedrich Hayek, hearkening back to Tocqueville, called “the road to serfdom”—is a continuing threat, all the more insinuating today because less obviously brutal. How easy it is to forget, to neglect, to ignore that threat. Solzhenitsyn did an immense amount to bolster our memory, but creeping socialism is like that “sweet oblivious antidote” Macbeth craves for his wife. We need constant reminders—not only about past tyrannies, but the newly minted varieties that our habit of forgetfulness (along with that lack of “civil courage” Solzhenitsyn decried) tempts us to ignore, downplay, or otherwise fail to engage.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 27 Number 1, on page 1
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