Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s reputation has waned in the English-speaking world. The Russian writer still gets credit, at least from sensible quarters, for revealing the Soviet Union’s infernal system of forced labor and institutionalized mendacity in the series of works that includes One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and the three-volume “experiment in literary investigation,” The Gulag Archipelago, the publication of which in the West in 1973 sounded the first death-knell of the Soviet Union and made its author a household name. But Anglophone critics have tended to dismiss Solzhenitsyn’s later output—and that’s when they’ve bothered to acknowledge its existence. Diminished interest in Solzhenitsyn is reflected in the fact that much of his post-Gulag writing—including the bulk of his multi-volume literary and historical narrative about the Russian Revolution, The Red Wheel—remains untranslated into English, six years after his death from heart failure at eighty-nine.
The notion that Solzhenitsyn is of merely historical interest in a post-totalitarian age is one likely reason for this neglect. The other is political. The American left, never fond of Solzhenitsyn, began actively to despise him after his 1978 commencement speech at Harvard, “A World Split Apart,” which denounced the rise of moral relativism in the West, praised the idea of liberty under God, and blasted anti-war activists for forcing the United States to withdraw militarily from South Vietnam, leaving that country prey to the Communists—views that were anathema to elite opinion, then as today. As one journalist then put it, Solzhenitsyn “is not the ‘liberal’ we would like him to be.” Around this time arose a perception of Solzhenitsyn, sold primarily by the left but endorsed by some on the right, that provided an excuse not to read him: he was a tsarist reactionary, an Orthodox Christian ayatollah, a hater of democracy, a Russian ultranationalist. None of this was true. Solzhenitsyn wasn’t just dismissed; he was demonized.
Daniel J. Mahoney, a political scientist at Assumption College, has labored in recent years to reestablish Solzhenitsyn’s rightful place as a novelist, historian, and moral and political thinker of the first order, whose work provides not only an astonishing account of the soul of man under communist totalitarianism but also deep insights into the problems of modern democratic societies. Back in 2001, he published Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The Ascent from Ideology, an exploration of the Russian writer’s key spiritual and philosophical themes. A few years later, Mahoney and fellow Solzhenitsyn scholar Edward Ericson Jr. edited The Solzhenitsyn Reader: New and Essential Writings, 1947–2005, a 600-plus–page collection of the author’s work, including material previously unavailable in English. And now comes The Other Solzhenitsyn: Telling the Truth about a Misunderstood Writer and Thinker, a luminously argued book in which Mahoney directly takes on the main charges against Solzhenitsyn and defends him as a man of faith and reason, moderation, and commitment to freedom and the truth.1
Mahoney’s new book isn’t a biography, but the major moments of Solzhenitsyn’s remarkable life run through his narrative. Brought up in humble circumstances in Rostov-on-Don by his well-educated mother Taisia—his father had died in a hunting accident six months before his birth—Solzhenitsyn was encouraged from an early age to pursue his literary interests. Young Aleksandr was raised as an Orthodox Christian, but by the time he left Rostov University with a math degree, he had accepted the Marxian worldview of his teachers. It was while serving as a Red Army commander during World War II that he first began to doubt that worldview. In 1945, the authorities intercepted private correspondence of Solzhenitsyn that criticized Joseph Stalin. Swiftly arrested, he spent the next eight years in the nightmarish Soviet system labor camps, which he would name “the gulag archipelago.” The searing experience transformed Solzhenitsyn, leading him to reject Marx, rediscover Christ, and embrace his destiny as a witness of evil and suffering. A period of internal exile followed in Kazakhstan, where he taught high schoolers math and physics and won a life-threatening bout with stomach cancer—and where he started to write daily, something he didn’t stop doing until he died.
Solzhenitsyn’s first major work, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, appeared in 1962 during a period of loosened state censorship under Premier Nikita Khrushchev. It heralded the arrival of a new literary sensation. Solzhenitsyn’s largely autobiographical story of a Russian peasant unjustly condemned to a Stalin-era labor camp moved Khrushchev, who believed that its publication would aid his push to “de-Stalinize” the Soviet Union. After Khrushchev’s removal from power in 1964, the censors clamped down, and in 1965 secret police confiscated Solzhenitsyn’s manuscripts and files and began a constant campaign of harassment. The brilliant novels The First Circle and The Cancer Ward appeared in translation in England and Western Europe in the late Sixties but remained officially taboo in his homeland. Based on his available masterworks, Solzhenitsyn was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1970, enraging Soviet leaders, who saw the honor as a hostile act by Western powers.
Solzhenitsyn had been hiding The Gulag Archipelago from the censors and keeping it from publication in the West, where a smuggled draft was in friendly hands. He feared that living people mentioned in the book would face ferocious Communist reprisals if it appeared, even in translation. But when the KGB got hold of a manuscript, Solzhenitsyn said it was time to unveil The Gulag: the first of the book’s three volumes came out in France in late 1973, unleashing a storm of controversy and comment. Briefly jailed in Moscow and charged with treason, Solzhenitsyn again found himself exiled, this time outside of the Soviet Union; his international reputation protected him from worse. He eventually settled in Cavendish, Vermont, where he resided with his family for two decades. The publications flowed in profusion, including The Oak and the Calf and further installments, or “Knots,” as the author termed them, of The Red Wheel, which he regarded as his greatest literary achievement. Yet as Solzhenitsyn’s often critical views about the West and modern society became more widely known, elite opinion—especially in America and England—began its turn against him.
The Soviet Union’s implosion made it possible for Solzhenitsyn to return to Russia in 1994, moving with his wife into a dacha west of Moscow. Some Russians greeted him as a national icon and hero; the left-liberal Muscovite intellectuals were as contemptuous as their Western counterparts. Solzhenitsyn found much to worry about in the new Russia. He laid out his reform ideas in interviews and publications that included two books of political reflection: Rebuilding Russia (1990) and Russia in Collapse (1998). Among his last major projects were a memoir of his time in America and a two-volume history of Jewish–Russian relations. Solzhenitsyn died in August 2008, firm in the belief that “life on earth does not exhaust our destiny,” Mahoney says.
Mahoney spends much time on Solzhenitsyn’s later writing and public statements in his new book, and for good reason: they have been seriously misrepresented. The charge that Solzhenitsyn is an authoritarian has frequently characterized English-language responses to his post–Gulag thought. One American scholar, in a typical aside, derides Solzhenitsyn’s “categorical opposition to democracy.” A 2008 Guardian op-ed portrays him as “hankering after an idealized Tsarist era when, seemingly, everything was rosy.” For the noted historian Richard Pipes, the author was a “false prophet,” brimming with “hate-driven intellectual intolerance” and seeking some kind of hallucinatory “ ‘Holy Russia’ of his imagination.”
Mahoney demolishes this caricature. True, Solzhenitsyn was critical of many aspects of modern democratic societies, above all the Enlightenment-born pretension to make man, and not God, the measure of all things—an ethos, he claimed, that lost sight of the Western tradition’s “rich reserves of mercy and sacrifice” and led to serious abuses of freedom and spiritual desiccation. But he also found much to admire about the West’s democratic experience. In his 1993 address to the International Academy for Philosophy in Liechtenstein, he praised the West’s “historically unique stability of civic life under the rule of law—a hard-won stability which grants independence and space to every citizen.”
Further, Solzhenitsyn made democratic reform the focus of his reflections on Russia’s future after his return from exile. The Western model of democratic capitalism couldn’t be imposed top-down on Russia, he averred, as if the traditions of the people of the country were mere abstractions. He was outraged by the Boris Yeltsin regime’s perversion of reform following the Soviet Union’s collapse, when the centralized introduction of “democracy” and “markets” brought the imposition of political control and theft of public wealth by a new oligarchic elite—an oligarchy that included many former Communists. During the 2000s, Solzhenitsyn offered qualified support for Vladimir Putin as Russia’s prime minister and then as president, hoping that the former low-level KGB man would stand up to the oligarchs on the people’s behalf, put an end to the chaos that was engulfing the country, and establish the rule of law on firmer foundations. Those hopes proved mostly naive, as Solzhenitsyn, were he alive today and faced with Putin’s stubborn hold on power and increasing bellicosity to Russia’s neighbors, would doubtless acknowledge: in his final interview, with Der Spiegel in 2007, he lamented the nation’s lack of a real opposition. What post–Communist Russia most needed, Solzhenitsyn argued repeatedly, was a patient reconstruction, from the bottom up, of the institutions and habits of self-government. Striking a Tocquevillian note, Solzhenitsyn celebrated in Rebuilding Russia the local political liberties of the New England and Swiss towns of his exile. Grassroots self-government of that kind had a precedent within Russian history: the zemstvo, local governing bodies that existed during the last half-century of tsarist rule. A modernized zemstvo system, rooted in Russian traditions, he believed, could help build a freer future for his country.
Solzhenitsyn never idealized tsarist rule. As Mahoney observes, “if one opens almost any page of Solzhenitsyn’s 1994 essay The Russian Question at the End of the Twentieth Century one finds Solzhenitsyn faulting tsarist authorities for their blindness about the need for political liberty in Russia, and for their wasting of the nation’s strength in unnecessary and counterproductive foreign adventures.” The portrait of late-tsarism in The Red Wheel is dominated by the fecklessness and mediocrity of Nicholas II, whose weakness of character contributed to making Communism a dark fate for the Russian people. Had the Tsar boldly backed the liberalizing reforms of Russia’s prime minister Pytor Stolypin—Solzhenitsyn’s embodiment of responsible statesmanship in August 1914, the first installment of The Red Wheel—the revolutionaries would have been defanged, giving Russia time to develop freer and more representative political and constitutional forms. Tragically, an assassin’s bullets felled Stolypin in September 1911. The wheel of history, now unstoppable, would eventually grind up millions of lives.
Solzhenitsyn’s Christian beliefs were more nuanced than his critics have claimed; he was certainly no “Russian ayatollah,” he retorted. Mahoney describes the genesis of Solzhenitsyn’s adult religiosity as a response of a questioning nonbeliever to the incredible suffering and glimmerings of hope he witnessed around him in the gulag; the camps showed him fundamental truths about human nature. “He was groping in the camps, searching for answers,” Mahoney writes, “and he found that Christianity offered many of them.” Yet Solzhenitsyn refused any theocratic temptation. Though he embraced Orthodox Christianity, his arguments about the mystery of transcendence—that a healthy culture must recognize that mystery—were non-sectarian and often philosophical, and not dogmatically religious. Like Pope John Paul II, whom he greatly admired, Solzhenitsyn was a man of faith and reason.
Another falsehood that Mahoney exposes is that Solzhenitsyn was a fevered ultra-nationalist or pan-Slavist, eager to unite the Slavic peoples under Russian rule. Solzhenitsyn was unquestionably a Russian patriot, but this didn’t mean he blinded himself to his country’s weaknesses or mistakes. “Patriotism means unqualified and unswerving love for the nation,” he wrote in The Russian Question, “which implies not uncritical eagerness to serve, not support for unjust claims, but frank assessment of its vices and sins.” Pan-Slavism was a “wretched idea,” he bluntly stated; “the aims of a great empire and the moral health of the people are incompatible.” Indeed, moral health for Russia, and for all nations, required “repentance and self-limitation,” not the aggressive pursuit of power. “Solzhenitsyn the patriot is a critic of a nationalism devoid of a higher perspective, a nationalism that ignores spiritual imperatives,” Mahoney writes. “He is a critic of a nationalism that puts national self-assertion above a humble attitude toward God’s heaven.” Still, Mahoney acknowledges, some of Solzhenitsyn’s rhetoric in defense of his fellow Slavs—comparing NATO’s bombings of Serbia in 1998 to Hitler’s assaults on eastern Europe being the most regrettable example—gave his critics ammunition.
At the deepest level, Solzhenitsyn saw national pluralism as an expression of the richness of the human soul. He put this magnificently in his Nobel lecture. Nations, he observed, “are the wealth of humanity; they are its crystallized personalities; even the smallest among them has its own special coloration, hides within itself a particular facet of God’s design.” Were national differences to disappear—as Marxism prophesied would happen at the end of history—humanity would be impoverished “not less than if all men should become alike, with one personality and one face.”
Mahoney devotes a chapter to defending Solzhenitsyn’s two-volume history of the relations between Russians and Jews, Two Hundred Years Together, from the accusations of anti-Semitism that some have made against it. The main basis of those charges is Solzhenitsyn’s willingness to discuss—and detail—the “disproportionate” presence of Jews in the early Leninist state’s repression machine. Yet the critics “never really challenge the accuracy of the facts to which Solzhenitsyn draws our attention,” Mahoney observes, which the refuznik Natan Sharansky has pointed out as well. And Solzhenitsyn never blames Jews for the Bolshevik takeover: a tiny Jewish minority could never drag the massive Russian nation into the Communist underworld, he recognizes. Moreover, adds Mahoney, Solzhenitsyn’s study acknowledges the uniqueness of the Holocaust and carefully documents the pogroms and abuses Jews suffered in Russia and the Soviet Union across time. Solzhenitsyn’s purpose in Two Hundred Years Together is simply to encourage both Russians and Jews to take responsibility for the actions of their “renegade” predecessors during the twentieth century. In such mutual repentance, he believed, lay forgiveness. “A fair-minded critic can only conclude that there is nothing anti-Semitic or nationalistic” about Solzhenitsyn’s effort, says Mahoney.
The Other Solzhenitsyn proves its subject was a critical friend of democracy and human freedom, a harsh judge of Tsarism, a faithful and tolerant Christian, a Russian patriot who saw the divine in the diversity of human cultures, and no anti-Semite. But Mahoney’s book isn’t just an apologia for Solzhenitsyn. It includes informative chapters on Solzhenitsyn’s defense of force in the struggle against evil; his affinities for the great French political thinker Raymond Aron (whose writings Mahoney and I have worked together to return to print); and his innovative “binary tales,” short stories written in the 1990s and recently published in English as Apricot Jam and Other Stories.
The Russian writer’s greatest achievement, though, remains his profound analysis of Communist totalitarianism, which Mahoney unpacks in a chapter on the “phenomenology of ideological despotism” in The Gulag Archipelago. The Soviet overlords punished everything decent and humane, Solzhenitsyn showed. Constant fear was one aspect of their rule—no minute passed when people weren’t being spied on or arrested. Enemies were dehumanized: they were insects, vermin, not men and women. Secrecy and mistrust metastasized, consuming human relationships. Betrayal became a way of life, corrupting “all that was bright, remarkable, of a higher level,” as Solzhenitsyn would later put it. Yet the evil wouldn’t have reached so deeply into the soul, and killed so many, Solzhenitsyn argued, were it not for Marxist ideology, which justified horrific acts on the altar of historical progress. This was the “lie” that began with Marx and Lenin and ravaged a century.
Is that lie gone for good? Marxist regimes have vanished, of course, save for the impoverished anti-society of North Korea and crumbling Cuba. Yet even as I was reading Mahoney’s study, a new book came across my desk from the prestigious Columbia University Press: Factory of Strategy: Thirty-Three Lessons on Lenin by the Italian political theorist Antonio Negri, an unrepentant Marxist revolutionary and one-time accused terrorist. I would bet that more of Negri’s translated writings—celebratory of violence and mad in their denial of basic economic and political realities—are being taught in American universities these days than are Solzhenitsyn’s. Traveling to Los Angeles recently, I saw one young woman wearing a Che Guevara shirt and another clutching a handbag decorated with Mao’s face. The high-end toy and gizmos store near my office sells an expensive statue of Joseph Stalin; maybe it’s ironic in intent, but still. In other words, Marxism may have gone down to defeat in history, but as an ideal, as a cultural referent, as something regarded as positive and good and hip, it lives on.
Mahoney’s superb book reminds us that Solzhenitsyn, the great Marx-killer, is the antidote to such destructive ignorance and, more broadly, a classic author whose life’s work should not be lost to time. The Kennan Institute’s recently announced initiative to translate the remaining volumes of The Red Wheel and other Solzhenitsyn books into English by the centenary of the author’s birth in 2018 will be an important step in making that a reality.
1 The Other Solzhenitsyn, by Daniel J. Mahoney; St. Augustine’s Press, 242 pages, $30.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 33 Number 6, on page 14
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