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Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s complex legacy

The death Sunday in Russia of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the 1970 Nobel Prize winner, and the reaction it has apparently elicited there so far signals the inevitable response to a figure whose life’s work was to bear close witness to an age that is now long gone.  Rightly revered as a man of letters, Solzhenitsyn seems more forgotten and respected by today’s Russians than loved or judged relevant to the popular semi-authoritarianism of the Putin/Medvedev government.  This ambivalence reflects my own reaction to his life’s work:  while I have profound admiration for his literary gifts and for his personal courage in unmasking the absurd and ugly tyrannies of the Soviet system, I disagree with his simplistic diagnosis of the west and his hostility to the Enlightenment and for the impulses of European humanism that he seemed to see as a kind of blasphemy (he believed that Bolshevism itself was a natural outgrowth of Enlightenment hubris).  By contrast, I see the Enlightenment’s legacy, as complex as it is, as a potential ongoing resource for social uplift and the broader expansion of human freedom.

Part of my conflicted response undoubtedly reflects the use made of Solzhenitsyn by Russian conservatives (Pamiat and other sometimes anti-semitic conservative groups have regularly made appeals resting on Solzhenitsyn’s ethical authority), but it may also reflect the extent to which Solzhenitsyn’s religiosity (and his profound detachment from the wider themes of European humanist thought) produced an eviscerating and in my view largely incorrect diagnosis of the West, which he dismissed as animated by atheism and in need of religious revival.  Solzhenitsyn’s case partly resided in his view that the Enlightenment substituted man as a false idol for God:  “everything beyond physical well-being and the accumulation of material goods, all other human requirements and characteristics of a subtler and higher nature, were left outside the area of attention of state and social systems, as if human life did not have any higher meaning” (qtd. in Confino, pg. 613).  This, in turn, led him toward fundamentally anti-democratic directions, since as he put it in a 1980 Foreign Affairs essay, “the truth cannot be determined by voting, since the majority does not necessarily have any deeper insight into the truth.”  Such views have been easy to convert into an often strident defense of the need for the return of Holy Russia, with all its attendant dangers of dictatorship or theocracy (one critic referred to Solzhenitsyn as “the Russian ayatollah”).

My first encounter with Solzhenitsyn’s thought came not by reading his Gulag Archipelago or One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich but by hearing about the controversial lecture he delivered at the Harvard Class Day exercises in June 1978.  The theme the address lays out, that Western and Russian civilizations pursue largely distinctive but dangerously parallel trajectories, prefigured both Solzhenitsyn’s increasingly evocative defense of strong Russian nationalism and what was described in today’s eulogies by many commentators as a perhaps inadvertent attack on American society – the passage from the Harvard speech where this indictment is specified is brief but as I recall it received almost all the attention from the American press at the time.

Here is what Solzhenitsyn said:

A decline of courage may be the most striking feature which an outside observer notice in the West in our days.  The Western world has lost its civil courage, both as a whole and separately, in each country, each government, each political party and of course in the United Nations.  Such a decline in courage is particularly noticeable among the ruling groups and the intellectual elite, causing an impression of loss of courage by the entire society.  Of course there are many courageous individuals but they have no determining influence on public life.  Political and intellectual bureaucrats show depression, passivity and perplexity in their actions and in their statements and even more so in theoretical reflections to explain how realistic, reasonable as well as intellectually and even morally warranted it is to base state policies on weakness and cowardice.

For the American right, this talk of Western weakness was red meat and they eagerly devoured it, for these were the Carter years and a period of Ronald Reagan’s national political ascendancy where the case against Carter rested on this theme of American decay and weakness from within; indeed, Solzhenitsyn is arguably most valorized by conservative think tanks and advocates of an assertive (one might say masculine) foreign policy.  A short section devoted to Solzhenitsyn in one of John McCain’s books was reprinted as a eulogy in a New York newspaper today; McCain focuses on the personal courage it took for Solzhenitsyn to write and then deliver Gulag to non-Soviet publishers, but it is hard to miss his sympathies for the assertive moralism of Solzhenitsyn’s policy perspective as well.

Although Ronald Reagan seems to have been more influenced by his reading of Whittaker Chambers (he was able to recite lines from memory out of Witness), he also read Solzhenitsyn in the late 1970’s.  Reagan was offended when news leaked that then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had persuaded President Ford not to meet Solzhenitsyn at the White House (Kissinger to Nixon:  “Solzhenitsyn is a notable writer, but his political views are an embarrassment even to his fellow dissidents”).   In Dinesh D’Souza’s hagiography of Reagan, D’Souza argues that Reagan “liked to cite a point that both Chambers and Solzhenitsyn made in different ways: communism is a false religion that seeks to destroy the family, private property, and genuine religious faith in order to achieve a kind of earthly paradise” (75).  These are sentiments which finally made their way into Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech (Edmund Morris:  “Two foreigners with direct experience of totalitarianism had touched on it before, in ways that seem to have gotten Reagan’s attention.  One was Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who told the AFL-CIO in 1975 that the Soviet Union was ‘the concentration of World Evil.’  The other was Alexandre de Maranches, the chief of French intelligence who flew all the way to Los Angeles in December 1980 to warn Reagan against ‘l’empire du mal’”  [472]).

In a July 1978 radio address, Reagan directly relied on Solzhenitsyn at length to make a larger thematic point:

Remembering the anti-Vietnam war sentiment of the late 60s and 70s, some might find a bit of irony in the fact that Alexander Solzhenitsyn was this June’s Harvard University graduation speaker…  For those who think hopefully that Angola might become the Soviet Union’s Vietnam or that Cuba’s adventuring in Africa can be stopped by being polite to Castro, he has an answer.  He describes their failure to understand the Vietnam War as “the most crucial mistake.  Members of the U.S. antiwar movement wound up being involved in the betrayal of fear eastern nations in a genocide and in suffering today imposed on 30 million people.”   …If the West doesn’t have the will to stand firm, Solzhenitsyn says, nothing is left then but concessions and betrayal to gain time…  Then he said that while the next world war would probably not be an atomic one, still it might very well bury western civilization forever…  Solzhenitsyn told the Harvard graduating class that since our bodies are all doomed to die, our task while on earth must be of a more spiritual nature.  [quoted in Dugger, pg. 515]

Today the extent to which Solzhenitsyn was deployed by American conservatives to bolster the case against communism is sometimes downplayed by scholars interested in Solzhenitsyn-the-Russian-dissident; one scholar interviewed today on the Lehrer Newshour said he thought Solzhenitsyn’s comments at Harvard were more about Russia than America, and that the attention accorded his comments about the United States were overly hyped by both the right and the media.  This reaction conveys some of the ongoing ambivalence in the reaction to Solzhenitsyn, which valorizes his nonfictional fiction (it is a common reaction to say that Gulag actually created a wholly new genre that blurred these categories) even while quietly expressing concern about his lapses into jingoism and arguably worse (a long-term dispute over Solzhenitsyn’s writing centers on whether, for example, despite a lack of explicit evidence, Solzhenitsyn himself trafficked in anti-Semitism).

But the reason Solzhenitsyn was so influential for the right also reflects the broader and special credibility of the witness-from-within, the whistleblower who with meticulous care documents the inside corruption and decay, and because he was so compellingly careful he was also persuasive to the people of the Soviet Union, who sometimes hid his outlawed books in empty detergent boxes since reading his indictment of the Soviet system was to risk arrest for treason.

What made Gulag so compelling was its unrelenting detail, particularly the manner by which, quoting the economic historian Steven Rosefielde, a wholesale historical revision was subsequently required of Stalin’s First Five Year Plan:  “In his thoroughness, in the uncompromising way he exposes all the rationalizations and lies used to conceal and mitigate the significance of Soviet forced labor, Solzhenitsyn conveys a sense of authenticity that cannot be gainsaid even by those who find fault with his work on other grounds” (559).  Solzhenitsyn’s systemic cataloguing of Soviet bookkeeping distortions, which showed how production managers hugely exaggerated industrial production, sometimes showed how laughable fictions were passed off as truth (in the second volume of Gulag, he describes how owners of a lumber plant reported 1500 cubic yards of timber had been harvested but then said it had to be destroyed because no transportation was available to move it out of the production facility; later, masses of timber were carried from annual report onto annual report until someone got the bright idea to say that it had “spoiled,” which meant all of it could be written off without subverting absurdly high national production quotas).

After Solzhenitsyn returned to Russia from exile, he concentrated his energies on his gigantic life’s work, his Red Wheel project, and its magnitude yielded significant publication but at the expense of a diminishing involvement with Russian public affairs as he withdrew to get the writing done.  His public speeches were infrequent near the end and his media persona often hectoring (soon after returning to Russia he was invited to address the parliament; he railed on for roughly an hour and received a muted response from those who stayed for the whole thing).  But his prophetic role, which because of its strong embrace of Russian nationalism today drew the endorsement of Putin himself, lingers not only for American conservatives seeking a more muscular and moralistic foreign policy, but also for those who despise the petty tyrannies of authoritarian bureaucracies and will forever look to Solzhenitsyn as proof positive that even near-total mechanisms of state control can be countered when ethical and eloquent writers tell the truth as they see it.

SOURCES:  Michael Confino, “Solzhenitsyn, the West, and the New Russian Nationalism,” Journal of Contemporary History 26 (1991): 611-636;  Sidney Monas, “Solzhenitsyn’s Life,” Russian Review 44 (1985): 397-402; Steven Rosefielde, “The First ‘Great Leap Forward’ Reconsidered: Lessons of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago,” Slavic Review 39.4 (December 1980): 559-587; Ronnie Dugger, On Reagan:  The Man and His Presidency (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1983); Dinesh D’Souza, Ronald Reagan:  How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader (New York:  Simon and Schuster, 1997); Edmund Morris, Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan (New York: Random House, 1999); Alexander Solzhenitsyn, “Address at Harvard Class Day Afternoon Exercises,” 8 June 1978; Harvey Fireside, “Dissident Visions of the USSR:  Medvedev, Sakharov, and Solzhenitsyn,” Polity 22.2 (Winter 1989): 213-229.


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