Solzhenitsyn’s Troubled Prophetic Mission
Published: August 8, 2008 (Issue # 1397)
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, viewed as a political figure, was very much in the Russian conservative tradition — a modern version of Dostoevsky. Like the great 19th-century writer, Solzhenitsyn despised socialism and yet had no use for Western culture with its stress on secularism, freedom and legality.
I recall very well the commencement address that he delivered 30 years ago at Harvard University. The audience of students and their families, aware of Solzhenitsyn’s anti-communism, expected a warm tribute to the West — and especially to the United States, which had granted him asylum. Instead, they were treated to a typical Russian conservative critique of Western civilization for being too legalistic and too committed to freedom, which resulted in the “weakening of human beings in the West while in the East they are becoming firmer and stronger.” At the bottom of this censure lay a wholesale rejection of the course of Western history since the Renaissance.
Solzhenitsyn blamed the evils of Soviet communism on the West. He rightly stressed the European origins of Marxism, but he never asked himself why Marxism in other European countries led not to the gulag but to the welfare state. He reacted with white fury to any suggestion that the roots of Leninism and Stalinism could be found in Russia’s past. His knowledge of Russian history was very superficial and laced with a romantic sentimentalism. While accusing the West of imperialism, he seemed quite unaware of the extraordinary expansion of his own country into regions inhabited by non-Russians. He also denied that Imperial Russia practiced censorship or condemned political prisoners to hard labor, which, of course, was absurd.
In some of his historical writings, there are strong hints of anti-Semitism, a common vice of writers of the conservative-nationalist persuasion in Russia. In his 1976 book, “Lenin in Zurich,” Solzhenitsyn depicts Helphand-Parvus as a slimy character who tries to persuade Lenin to return to Russia to start a revolution. In “August 1914,” published in its expanded form in 1984, he explains the assassination of Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin by Dmitry Bogrov, a thoroughly assimilated Jew, on the alleged grounds that Stolypin’s plans for a better Russia promised nothing good for the Jews. Fortunately, in his last book published in 2003, “Two Hundred Years Together,” an ambitious history of Jews in Russia, Solzhenitsyn unequivocally exonerated the Jewish people of responsibility for the Russian Revolution.
It is difficult to envisage what kind of a Russia Solzhenitsyn wanted. He was not unhappy about Russia’s loss of its imperial possessions, yet he did not favor a state based on law and democracy. He disliked what he saw after his return to Russia in 1994, during Boris Yeltsin’s rule, but, strangely enough, he came to terms with then-President Vladimir Putin and his restrictions on both democracy and the free market. Although Solzhenitsyn vehemently rejected communism, in many ways he retained a Soviet mind-set. Anyone who disagreed with him was not merely wrong but evil. He was constitutionally incapable of tolerating dissent.
His comments on current events were sometimes bizarre. In 1999, he condemned the NATO bombing of Serbia in defense of Albanian Kosovo, action which he described as following the “law of the jungle: He who is mighty is completely right.” He went so far as to assert that there was “no difference in the behavior of NATO and of Hitler.” Yet he did not ask himself whether the Albanians, persecuted by the more mighty Serbs, did not have the right on their side. Nor did he compare NATO’s actions in Kosovo to those of Putin in Chechnya, where the Russian military not only bombed a population that sought independence, but destroyed the region’s capital, Grozny — a city that was part of the Russian Federation.
Solzhenitsyn’s assumption that he would become a prophet upon his return to Russia did not play well with the public. My impression is that he was widely considered a relic of the past. For this reason, his television program, “A Meeting with Solzhenitsyn,” attracted so small of an audience that it had to be canceled. His October 1994 speech to the State Duma was tepidly received, as was his ambitious historical novel, “The Red Wheel.”
When all is said and done, Solzhenitsyn will be remembered primarily for his remarkably courageous resistance to and criticism of the Soviet Union. Although many commentators claim that he was the first to alert the world to the horrors of the gulag, this is not true; there were quite a few books on this subject before the publication of his “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” and “The Gulag Archipelago.” Nonetheless, it is correct to say that Solzhenitsyn’s works were the first to be issued from the Soviet Union and, in the case of “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” the first to be published in the Soviet Union. The effect of these works was immense both in the Soviet Union and abroad, helping to discredit morally the communist regime among those who still entertained illusions about it. In this manner, Solzhenitsyn contributed to the Soviet Union’s ultimate collapse.
No one can deprive Solzhenitsyn of this honor. But when it comes to the recommendations he made to his compatriots, many doubts remain. Russians obviously have little in common with the Oriental nations; by race, religion and high culture, they belong to the West. Therefore, when Solzhenitsyn rejects Western values as inapplicable to his country, he leaves it in a cultural limbo — it belongs nowhere and only to itself. This is a recipe for isolation, and isolation breeds aggressiveness.
Richard Pipes is professor of history, emeritus at Harvard University and author, most recently, of “Russian Conservatism and Its Critics,” which has just been published in Russian translation.