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Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn at 100

 

Arrested three months before the defeat of Hitler’s Germany, his first reaction was like that of the millions he would later write about: “Me? What for?” A decorated captain of an artillery battery that had fought its way deep into East Prussia, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was at the time a committed Marxist-Leninist. He even fantasized he was being whisked to a meeting with Stalin. In fact, military censors had read his letter exchanges with a boyhood friend, also in the army, in which they criticized Stalin (“the mustachioed one”) for having deviated from the path laid down by Lenin.

It was more than enough to earn Solzhenitsyn a sentence of eight years imprisonment in the labor camps, to be followed by “perpetual exile.” He served all eight years in various camps, plus three years exiled to distant Kazakhstan, where he worked as a teacher of high school mathematics before his sentence was annulled in 1956 in the wake of Khrushchev’s “de-Stalinization.”

Born 100 years ago today, Solzhenitsyn was educated in the sciences, but his lifelong love was literature and writing. In the camps, where writing was prohibited, Solzhenitsyn used matchsticks and rosary beads as mnemonic devices to preserve 12,000 lines of his verse that he would later publish. What brought him to his country’s and the world’s attention, however, was the publication in 1962 of his One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a fictional but semi-autobiographical account of a day in the life of a Soviet political prisoner (zek) in Stalin’s time.

The publication of Ivan Denisovich was a sensation, not least because it occurred at all. Its account of arbitrary arrests and violent, inhumane existence in the labor camps was thought to serve the Kremlin’s cause of discrediting the Stalin era, and it seemed to signal a new openness in Soviet society. The moment was fleeting, however, as Khrushchev’s ouster in 1964 presaged a renewed hardening among the authorities, and Solzhenitsyn found he could not get permission to publish his next two novels, The First Circle and Cancer Ward.

The leadership had not reckoned, however, with the power they had unleashed with the arrival of Solzhenitsyn as a public figure. No longer a “Soviet man,” Solzhenitsyn’s camp experiences, especially the rich relationships he formed with fellow zeks (many appear as characters in his works), had gradually and irrevocably turned him into an implacable foe not just of Stalinism, but of the whole totalitarian edifice of Soviet ideology. For Solzhenitsyn, it was all built on violence and lies, and he was determined to expose the truth of it to the world.

That he did. For ten years Solzhenitsyn labored secretly on The Gulag Archipelago, a three-volume account of the Soviet prison system, which he thoroughly documented began with Lenin in 1918. Parts history, memoir, and philosophy, the work also relies on the accounts of 227 zeks who reported their experiences to Solzhenitsyn. He later wrote that he produced this monumental work out of a duty to communicate “the dying whisper of millions, the unspoken testament of those who had perished.”

When the KGB discovered a copy of The Gulag Archipelago in 1973, Solzhenitsyn signaled to supporters in the West that they should publish the first volume, which years earlier had been smuggled abroad and translated into French and English. In February 1974, the Politburo ordered him arrested for treason, stripped of his citizenship, and expelled from the country on a plane to West Germany. Later joined by his wife and children, they eventually settled near a small town in Vermont.

Admired as he was in the West while a Soviet citizen and dissident, in exile Solzhenitsyn’s relations with public figures of both left and right were often uneasy. President Gerald Ford refused him an invitation to the White House to avoid disturbing the policy of “détente” with the Soviet Union. Harsher and more numerous were his critics on the left, many of whom seemed offended that Solzhenitsyn’s humanism was not of a secular kind but derived instead from the Christian beliefs of his early youth to which he had returned. Criticism intensified particularly after Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard University commencement address in 1978, in which he assailed with his usual vigor aspects of mediocrity and decadence in Western culture.

What his critics never understood is that for Solzhenitsyn, politics was never the main thing. Over the course of a lifetime, as he explained to his biographer, he had moved “ever so slowly towards a position … of supporting the primacy of the spiritual over the material,” a philosophy to which all his works are a testament.

As with his literary forebears, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn’s writings are rooted in Russian history and culture, but the themes are universal. Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, his speech addressed literature and its relationship to culture and the human spirit: “Art inflames even a frozen, darkened soul to a high spiritual experience.” A self-described optimist, Solzhenitsyn was convinced that “[i]n the struggle with falsehood art always did win and it always does win! … One word of truth shall outweigh the whole world.”

Historians generally agree that the moral force of Solzhenitsyn’s writings, particularly The Gulag Archipelago, contributed significantly to the fall of the Soviet Union, the collapse of the non-Russian Soviet empire in Eastern Europe, and in the West an end to the idolization by many of Soviet communism. When it occurred, and all his writings were allowed to be published there, Solzhenitsyn returned with his wife to Russia in 1994, where he died in 2008.

Solzhenitsyn’s singular legacy is like that of a true-life character he wrote about and memorialized in one of his stories. He was that “righteous one without whom, according to the proverb, no village can stand…. Nor any city. Nor our whole land.”

Published in History
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There are 19 comments.

  1. Member

    I find this tidbit truly incredible. 

    “In the camps, where writing was prohibited, Solzhenitsyn used matchsticks and rosary beads as mnemonic devices to preserve 12,000 lines of his verse that he would later publish.”

    Thank you for sharing this reflection on an incredible life many of my generation know little or nothing about.

     

    • #1
    • December 11, 2018 at 4:56 am
    • 11 likes
  2. Inactive
    ST

    Josh Farnsworth (View Comment):

    I find this tidbit truly incredible.

    “In the camps, where writing was prohibited, Solzhenitsyn used matchsticks and rosary beads as mnemonic devices to preserve 12,000 lines of his verse that he would later publish.”

    Thank you for sharing this reflection on an incredible life many of my generation know little or nothing about.

    Because it is what – ancient history?

     

    • #2
    • December 11, 2018 at 6:44 am
    • 4 likes
  3. Thatcher

    ST (View Comment):

    Josh Farnsworth (View Comment):

    I find this tidbit truly incredible.

    “In the camps, where writing was prohibited, Solzhenitsyn used matchsticks and rosary beads as mnemonic devices to preserve 12,000 lines of his verse that he would later publish.”

    Thank you for sharing this reflection on an incredible life many of my generation know little or nothing about.

    Because it is what – ancient history?

    Maybe because most people don’t want to slug through 3 volumes of The Gulag ArchipelagoBut you can read and/or see the movie One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, both of which I highly recommend.

    • #3
    • December 11, 2018 at 7:38 am
    • 4 likes
  4. Inactive
    ST

    Vectorman (View Comment):

    ST (View Comment):

    Josh Farnsworth (View Comment):

    I find this tidbit truly incredible.

    “In the camps, where writing was prohibited, Solzhenitsyn used matchsticks and rosary beads as mnemonic devices to preserve 12,000 lines of his verse that he would later publish.”

    Thank you for sharing this reflection on an incredible life many of my generation know little or nothing about.

    Because it is what – ancient history?

    Maybe because most people don’t want to slug through 3 volumes of The Gulag Archipelago. But you can read and/or see the movie One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which I highly recommend.

     

    • #4
    • December 11, 2018 at 7:44 am
    • 1 like
  5. Coolidge
    TBA

    ST (View Comment):

    Josh Farnsworth (View Comment):

    I find this tidbit truly incredible.

    “In the camps, where writing was prohibited, Solzhenitsyn used matchsticks and rosary beads as mnemonic devices to preserve 12,000 lines of his verse that he would later publish.”

    Thank you for sharing this reflection on an incredible life many of my generation know little or nothing about.

    Because it is what – ancient history?

    As far as public schools are concerned it is unhelpful history. 

    • #5
    • December 11, 2018 at 7:56 am
    • 7 likes
  6. Thatcher

    The Gulag Archipelago was my beach book when it came out in paperback. Burgeoning leftist that I may have been, I was anti-Communist from that point on.

    • #6
    • December 11, 2018 at 8:13 am
    • 8 likes
  7. Thatcher

    In an illustration of how politics have changed in America, George Meany, President of the AFL-CIO, invited him to speak at the union’s annual 1975 dinner in Washington DC. While there, Meany tried to arrange for Solzhenitsyn to meet President Ford but, on the advice of Henry Kissinger, the President declined the meeting, fearing it would endanger detente with the Soviet Union.

    • #7
    • December 11, 2018 at 8:18 am
    • 9 likes
  8. Coolidge
    TBA

    Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Demo… (View Comment):

    In an illustration of how politics have changed in America, George Meany, President of the AFL-CIO, invited him to speak at the union’s annual 1975 dinner in Washington DC. While there, Meany tried to arrange for Solzhenitsyn to meet President Ford but, on the advice of Henry Kissinger, the President declined the meeting, fearing it would endanger detente with the Soviet Union.

    That would have been an interesting time to have a President Trump. 

    • #8
    • December 11, 2018 at 9:38 am
    • 1 like
  9. Member

    I see that Powerline has picked up this post. Congratulations!

    • #9
    • December 11, 2018 at 1:47 pm
    • 7 likes
  10. Thatcher

    I would never be mistaken as an “intellectual” (as most who know me can attest) but these books are some of my proudest possessions. 

    ?
    • #10
    • December 11, 2018 at 2:04 pm
    • 12 likes
  11. Coolidge

    The worst decision the Soviet Union ever made was to send Solzhenitsyn to the Gulag.

    Solzhenitsyn: What a mensch! His life shows what one man with a fire in his belly and a mission can accomplish.

     I remember reading “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” when I was a young man. It changed my view of the Soviet Union. When I finally had the opportunity, I taught it to my college classes. 

     

    • #11
    • December 11, 2018 at 2:16 pm
    • 10 likes
  12. Member

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    The worst decision the Soviet Union ever made was to send Solzhenitsyn to the Gulag.

    Solzhenitsyn: What a mensch! His life shows what one man with a fire in his belly and a mission can accomplish.

    I remember reading “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” when I was a young man. It changed my view of the Soviet Union. When I finally had the opportunity, I taught it to my college classes.

     

    I remember having “One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich” as assigned reading in High School. In WINTERTIME . I think I went through three loaves of bread in the first forty pages.

    • #12
    • December 11, 2018 at 3:55 pm
    • 7 likes
  13. Thatcher

    Josh Farnsworth (View Comment):
    rosary beads as mnemonic devices

    They serve this purpose in more ways than one…Every day.

    • #13
    • December 11, 2018 at 3:57 pm
    • 2 likes
  14. Member

    Josh Farnsworth (View Comment):

    I find this tidbit truly incredible.

    “In the camps, where writing was prohibited, Solzhenitsyn used matchsticks and rosary beads as mnemonic devices to preserve 12,000 lines of his verse that he would later publish.”

    Thank you for sharing this reflection on an incredible life many of my generation know little or nothing about.

    You might enjoy The Oak and the Calf.

     

    • #14
    • December 11, 2018 at 6:29 pm
    • 2 likes
  15. Member

    On this occasion I will pass along a favorite passage from The GULAG Archipelago Volume 1…one that I abuse liberally for my own purposes quite often:

    There was a rumor…that the Petrograd Cheka…did not shoot all those condemned to death but fed some of them alive to the animals in the city zoos. I do not know whether this is truth or calumny, or, if there were any such cases, how many there were. But I wouldn’t set out to look for proof, either. Following the practice of the bluecaps, I would propose that they prove to us that this was impossible. How else could they get food for the zoos in those famine years? – Page 174 [emphasis added]

    Finding uses for that emphasized middle section today really isn’t all that hard.

    • #15
    • December 11, 2018 at 6:50 pm
    • 4 likes
  16. Thatcher

    KentForrester (View Comment):
     I remember reading “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” when I was a young man. It changed my view of the Soviet Union. When I finally had the opportunity, I taught it to my college classes. 

    This is so great….

    • #16
    • December 12, 2018 at 6:41 pm
    • 4 likes
  17. Thatcher

    This post brought me back to The Gulag and this phrase stuck out about the arrests:

    “”Resistance! Why didn’t you resist?” Today those who have continued to live in comfort scold those who suffered. Yes, resistance should have begun right there, at the moment of the arrest itself.

    But it did not begin”

    • #17
    • December 13, 2018 at 1:02 pm
    • 4 likes
  18. Thatcher
    PJS

    Russ Roberts, host of the EconTalk podcast, did a book club style reading of “In the First Circle” last fall. You can find the podcasts here and here.

    Good stuff, as always.

     

    • #18
    • December 13, 2018 at 5:31 pm
    • 1 like
  19. Inactive
    ST

    Concretevol (View Comment):
    Why didn’t you resist?”

    Or as one of my great Gunnies might have said, “Nothing is impossible for the guy who ain’t got to do it.”

    • #19
    • December 14, 2018 at 1:57 am
    • 3 likes