The privilege of knowing those who forged our age is often the consequence of an accidental crossing of the paths. In my case, undeserved luck allowed me to encounter Alexandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn (AIS). Already then, the event registered in my consciousness as having a greater significance than what could be guessed at that moment.
My contact with AIS came about by accident. During his exile that began in Zürich – a fate he shared with Lenin – the education of his son Dimitri had to be arranged. I remembered how much the monk Accasius had done for me when, as a “class alien” I had no right to go beyond the 8th grade or to be a straight “A”. To repay the monk I volunteered. As I put it, the task was to bridge the gap between local values and the obligations arising from a Russian background. Nataliya Solzjenitsyn wrote back “she does not find the words,” and accepted the offer. Therefore, briefly, Dimiri became our “nomer tri” – we had two children of our own. Through the boy, I was admitted into the cautiously buttoned up household that knew its KGB. By the way, I considered their physical security to be wanting. Therefore, I suggested that they resettle in the USA. Still, it was not my input that had to do with the move to Vermont where the Solzhenitsyns stayed until they could return to Russia. Early on, with the help of a Czech woman, the KGB infiltrated the household. Clever rumors that his children might be kidnapped were circulated. The Swiss did little to protect the writer besides advising him that in anticipation of arson, he should have buckets of water handy. In the end, the Solzhenitsyns flew out under an assumed name. So as not to alert the KGB, their belongings were left behind in the Stampferstrasse.
The physical death of AIS nudges one to pen something as laudatory as our conventions demand. Yet, the truly great deserve more than homilies: by definition, their stature rests on a firm fundament. That pedestal will withstand all aspects of the truth and its contradictions. Solzhenitsyn was a great man. However, as a man, he cannot be expected to have been free of fault. Obituaries prompt those who remember publicly to lie piously. AIS is culturally and politically too significant to require cheap homage. In view of his achievements, he deserves more than a ceremonial laudation painted in colors made more vivid than those of the reality he had shaped do.
This is the juncture where standard remembrances provide the reader with a summary of the departed’s writings. This effort is skipped because a short version of the “Gulag”, Ivan Denisovich, The First Circle, Cancer Ward, his short stories, the letter to “Soviet Leaders” and his series about Russia are superfluous. Either one knows these or it is too late to fill the void now.
However, one aspect of AIS’ work must be elaborated upon here. The more so since this piece is a political and not a literary homage.
An interrelationship can exist between literature and politics. In free societies, these are separate realms. The more tyrannical a system is, the greater the likelihood that whatever could be openly expressed under liberty, will need to divert into areas that are overlooked by the agencies of repression. One of these is that of sports. Clubs have a record to serve as covers for proscribed political associations. Modern totalitarians, intent to atomize society in order to subjugate it, have dissolved traditional teams. Like in the case of Unions, authentic organizations were replaced by Party-controlled entities. As a young Pentathlon-man, the writer remembers whispered instructions to cheer competitors except the unfortunates forced to start for State Security.
The case of literature parallels that of sport. In the free societies of the likely reader, literature is art – and always an art. Some modern dictatorships recognize literature as a surrogate of liberty. While it might appear to be an apolitical area, literature can carry the views of the lurking “enemy.” Therefore, right and left totalitarians gave literature (also film and music) their attention. The Communist had done more than just to silence writers. As “engineers of the soul”, the literati were pressured to write. Those who would not produce the hackwork commanded were more than silenced: they were destroyed.
In Russia – already an exemplary system of oppression before the Bolsheviks – the green grass of liberty under the snow of censorship had a long tradition. The Communist learned from the opposition against the Czars: they were determined not to let their antagonists enjoy the advantages the Romanovs had allotted to their subversives.
Solzhenitsyn fits into the tradition that amalgamates literature and politics. Note that several post-Communist countries had presidents rising to fame in literature and not in politics. Havel (Czech Republic), Göncz (Hungary) have, as Walesa - and not unlike Solzhenitsyn – also served jail sentences. A little incident underlines the point. When, violating the promise of free conduct the Soviets arrested the leaders of Hungary’s 1956 revolution, the captives were asked to “surrender their weapons.” Tellingly, the president of the Writer’s Association placed his fountain pen on the table. AIS’ road to become a man of letters began in earnest when he wrote a note that censorship found to be an insult to the “whiskered” Stalin. The GULAG – the global recognition of the term is his achievement – provided the experience that served as the background of many publications. Furthermore, it was there that Solzhenitsyn’s interest for literature blossomed to maturity. He has brought others, including at least one foreigner who became a writer, into the art form whose clay is the word.
Mainly the machinations of the KGB and the West’s embarrassed Left, made “the divisive” Solzhenitsyn “controversial“. To deal with this, let me relate my encounters with IAS: it gives the reader an impression of the man that transcends his accepted image.
There is a cabal that denigrates anything that runs counter to its worldview that held quite independently of the facts. Anyone who deviates from this norm is a Fascist, a racist and a reactionary “cold-warrior” endangering “world peace.” Today such a person is also said to be unappreciative of intercultural hugs, the Third World and all that. Small wonder that, unmasking the USSR made AIS “public enemy No. 1.” In the initial moment of his exile, a leftist student of mine – the son of a professor who was paid for being red – opined, “Solzhenitsyn can not write.” Given the source, no higher praise is possible: the obituary could end here.
The formal charge against Solzhenitsyn is not identical with what is unsaid. Due to “easy access“, most of the millions murdered by the Soviets are Russians. This made AIS see Communism as a conspiracy that exploited Russia as its tool. Consequently, one of his arguments against Communism that had indeed interrupted Russia’s development was a Russian-national one. Does this – to the writer tenuous view that foreshadows AIS’ later attitude toward Putinism – necessarily equal “Fascism” or chauvinism? Admittedly, his literary skills and commitment to traditional Russian folkways embeds Solzhenitsyn in that community. Therefore, he is legitimately called “national.” Nationalism, however, does not equal chauvinism – which, in turn, must not necessarily imply ethnic cleansing as the preferred tool of problem solving. One can hold high the values of a people without denigrating others. The love of a community does not demand the hatred of others. Therefore, a person can be committed to Russia and remain a decent human being. I also hold that if you cannot qualify as a decent man because you think that your ethnicity demands the denial of the values of humanism, then, well, you fail to be of value to the community you claim to love, too.
I can attest to it that AIS viewed other ethnic cultures not only tolerantly but also appreciatively: for Russia “to live”, others did not need to perish. A case in point is that AIS is being accused of being Slavophil. (Admittedly, in its extreme form this creed connects to the roots of modern totalitarianism.) I have mentioned, in passim, Slavophilism to the Solzhenitsyns. The reaction: the movement has thought provoking points to make. This non-Slav can agree.
Before my first encounter with AIS, I realized that I am to meet the greatest contemporary I will ever encounter. My certitude of living a moment destined to attain documentary significance took hold of me. My mother made me feel this. Her generation hated “Russians” like Rabbis the SS. Yet now she regretted not knowing Russian. AIS, with his beard and long hair looked like a prophet on the ceiling of my village‘s church in Hungary where, fighting boredom as a child, I counted the locks. Even after decades, the analogy does not end with the appearance. AIS wasted no time on bourgeois formalities. There was no “how are you?” only a finger pointing at my face. In a tone that echoed the background noise heard when Moses was given the stone tablets, a “what are you doing to justify your existence” came at me. That convinced me that I, a wretch, am not doing enough. I am unworthy of the second life given to me by Stalin‘s death and Hitler’s defeat. My demerits shrunk me by a foot. I felt inadequate but also deputized, in Reaganesque terms, to combat the “evil” as in “evil empire” and to do more to “tear it down“.
AIS was completely dedicated to his work. He put in hours that would have embarrassed a start-up at Boston Consulting. With the total support of the family, everything was subordinated to the cause. Still, no one felt constrained because individuality can unfurl by submitting to a Cause. Even their living space reflected their priorities. What caught my eye was a large canvas, obviously Russian and somber. Topic: a camp of annihilation. Although they had money, the furniture was ramshackle with a comfort level pegged around a Soviet “kommunalka’s.” (Dwelling shared by several families, each assigned to a room.) No one looked at the ground: their eyes were fixed at the comet of Russia’s resurrection. That was an event that I could soberly not believe in. AIS’ feverish activity disregarded personal needs. That was easily done as he had the certitude of being called upon to serve not him but a cause that towered above men. There was a reason for the haste. AIS assumed that his life might soon end - not necessarily due to natural causes. He was less determined to live for life’s sake than he was resolved to finish his work as a politically committed author. Neither he nor his family seemed to fear death for the usual reasons. Due to cancer and mainly because of the years in the GULAG, his life had been returned to him as a gift. AIS’ schedule reflected a sense of obligation to repay this grant and to serve as their witness the perished millions.
It is a ritual exercise to set up straw-man renditions of Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov as contrasts. While the USSR existed, AIS was cast into the mold of the “wrong right” for opposing Communism while the less visible (because internally exiled), Sakharov held the status of opposing a régime. If one accepts the thesis of the “two cultures”, then the Scientist and the Writer (oddly, in his “first life” AIS was a mathematician) stand for cultural opposites. Additionally, AIS is Russian-national and Orthodox, Sakharov a cosmopolitan and a “Westernizer” in his values. These images entail real and significant contradictions. However, they do not imply an irrepressible conflict. This claim demands that a revealing tidbit be added about these two men who jointly dug the grave of an empire. Personally, Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov were not opponents but clandestine cooperators. It is not only that each family celebrated the Nobel Prize of the other. AIS and Sakharov exchanged messages. For safety’s sake, Dimitri served as the messenger. Dimiti was a decent, street-wise slippery little crook and as such well suited to convey confidentialities.
Let this be ended with a few lines about AIS and the West. His judgment of Stalinism (with or without Stalin) had been part of his ethical backbone. In some ways, comprehending the nature of the West has been AIS’ weakness. Correspondingly, his role regarding it is inferior to the one he played in his own culture. It would be wrong to say that AIS completely misunderstood the West. Solzhenitsyn had an accurate, well expressed, and therefore resented assessment of the West’s weaknesses. His famous, devastating and therefore unloved 1978 commencement address at Harvard testifies to that. What he could not quite fathom were the strengths and virtues of Western civilization. In 1994, upon his return to Russia after the collapse of the USSR, initially AIS did not find popular success at home as the host of a TV program. Perhaps reflecting the confusion of many of his compatriots by the modern world, he also seems to have positioned himself against the new and the only future any developing society can have. This he did in a way that can said to be tainted by the (wrong) colors taken from the pallet of nativism.
During the concluding years of his career, AIS drifted toward a national position. In doing so, he is not alone among the talented. Take the case of the recently deceased (June 10, 2008) Kirghiz Genghis Aitmatov. He began as a Party favored author. Prizes were given. Then came the critique of the declining USSR. An ambassadorship followed the collapse of the SU. His career ended in his discovery or conversion to some Euro-Asian ideology. It was to create under Russian leadership a way that was to be distant from Western liberalism and capitalism and also removed from the East’s systems. In wishing for a comparable role, Solzhenitsyn, who wanted Russia to be strong, wrote against the oligarchs and the confusion-fed Communist nostalgia. His position reflects a community’s search for an anchor for a disoriented society that ails from missed development and directionally false advancement. Additionally, Russia also suffers from a bewilderment caused by the exposure to a baffling world that progressed quantitatively and qualitatively to a state with which Russia, after 74 years of isolation, was out of touch. In part Solzhenitsyn is – regardless of his principled and courageous opposition to it- a product of Soviet rule. He had to spend his years in the West in isolation in order to remain a Russian writer and to avoid the KGB’s revenge. As already noted, his circumstances afforded only limited personal access to modern societies.
His latest pamphlet, reflecting thoughts formulated in the ninth decade of his life, comments the 90th anniversary of the “February Revolution“ of 1917. “Revolution” is a misnomer as it pinnacled in the meek resignation of the Czar. Thus, power was chucked to the progressive monarchists and mainly to the multi-faceted democratic-republican opposition. This turnover came about as a reaction to Russia’s defeat in WWI and the crisis caused by her failure to run a backward system involved in a modern war. The “October Revolution”, actually a local coup d’état by Lenin, did not remove the Romanovs: it overthrew the democrats. This gave the world a preview of the Weimar Republic’s replacement by the Nazis. There, too, democrats operated in the context of defeat and were hamstrung by their democratic prejudices. In the context of the unripe society they had inherited from history, the democrats were unable to consolidate their power and defend budding liberty from its totalitarian challengers of the Right and the Left.
Surprisingly, the pamphlet makes the Provisional Government responsible for Communism and the millions it murdered. It is a bad omen for Russia’s democratic future that AIS condemns Nicholas for being weak and Kerensky for his hesitation. No credit is given for the modernization in one gulp, such as the rights of minorities and women, religious freedom, the eight-hour-day, the release of political prisoners, the independence of the Balts, Fins, Poles and Ukrainians. Kerensky and his crew are depicted as God’s punishment for the headway the secular spirit made before the war. The implied message is that Russia needs and deserves a strong leader. With this, the past mutes smoothly into the present. The man who had spent eight years in the Gulag run by the KGB detects in Putin, who is still proud of his outfit, the needed strong leader. Accordingly, Putin is the protector who shields the land from “Western encroachment”, one who assumes the burden of keeping Russia powerful in the world and in order at home. Appropriately, in 2007, celebrating the Day of Russia, the Putin-system formally expressed its gratitude for the endorsement to Solzhenitsyn by awarding him the highest civilian decoration Russia has.
For Putin’s Russia, the honor makes sense even if Solzhenitsyn undermined the foundations that the current leadership had willingly served in its formative years. What made a man of AIS’ merits change his tune so as to make him, not only acceptable but also commendable, to a system such as the one that is now enthroned?
Solzhenitsyn’s war against the USSR was largely – but not singularly – caused by that component of applied Marxism that made it an alien force in Russia. Therefore, Solzhenitsyn was not primarily a foe of the Empire but rather an opponent of a usurping gang. Although Putin called the collapse of the Soviet Union the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century, the Writer and the current system found common ground in a shared love of the nation. Solzhenitsyn himself explains his turn against the West as a response to the “brutal Nato-bombardment of Serbia“. Right or wrong – mostly wrong, but in the name of “Slavic Solidarity” that is rejected by many Slavs – Russia committed to Serbia. (She went to war in 1914 to protect Serbia. That country was involved in an act of terrorism involving regicide that the Czar – murdered in 1918 – would not have welcome on his own turf.) In his old age, Solzhenitsyn seems to have come to share Einstein’s political acumen. Therefore, he became disturbed by the re-absorption of the disintegrating USSR’s western spheres into their traditional occidental milieu. This ingratitude of western Slavs and the eastward expansion of NATO – perceived as an anti-Russian measure – hurt the national pride of the patriot just as much as it provoked Putin‘s imperial instincts. Additionally, as the Writer put it when returning to Russia, Communism had created a moral void there. Development must be integrally connected to the cultural roots of a community. These roots were weakened by the Communists. Therefore, the worst and most decadent products of the West could flow into Russia unfiltered. The dictate of self-preservation speaks for a halt to the process.
Signaling potential problems, many Russians fail to have an appreciation for the cause of their image abroad. Special incomprehension exists concerning their victims’ point of view. This makes the motives misunderstood of those who transferred in Estonia a monument that celebrates to Russia her glory but to the natives their occupation, to a normal cemetery. The Russian leader who is enlightened, self-assured and great enough to be able to duplicate Chancellor Brandt’s knee fall in Warsaw, has yet to appear. This is detrimental to Russia because it continues to pursue old mirages. This is also a burden for her neighbors who are made to feel that they must fight off a rising ghost from the past. Providing for a new beginning in this area could have been Solzhenitsyn’s crowning deed. Not having risen to the occasion that was within his reach is not only a missed opportunity but also his greatest failure.
Under examination, most of us show contradictions that resist their entirely rational explanation. In AIS’ case, it must be admitted that aptitude and much merit earned in a great role do no exclude great errors. Even so, in the ultimate analysis, Solzhenitsyn is a great man of talent with admirable courage matching a strong moral commitment. AIS had used his abilities to serve consistently what he thought to be right and he did so undaunted by the peril involved. This he did to further the right cause as long as the enemy was clear. It is to his credit that the same claim cannot be made about most intellectuals of the free world. What AIS did he did with effect, courage and at the price of much sacrifice for something, he rightly believed in. Many contemporaries who also had talent proved to be daunted by what was initially unpopular and so they have done too little when the times called upon them to serve by leading. Due to the writings of AIS that unmasked the Crimson Empire, we were made more fortunate than we might have deserved. Therefore the world should miss him, because, whether conscious of this or not, it is left behind poorer. Let us hope that the void will be filled because our civilization is newly in danger. Sorely needed are those who can asses the threat and who possess the talent, the vision and especially the will to be unpopular as they rise to the challenge.