Editor’s note: This piece by Daniel J. Mahoney appeared in the Dec. 19, 2005, issue of National Review. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn died this weekend at the age of 89.
Solzhenitsyn’s massive Gulag Archipelago was published in English in three volumes between 1974 and 1978. It is one the indispensable books of the last fifty years not least because it undermined the moral and political legitimacy of the entire Communist enterprise. This unique experiment in literary investigation” brilliantly wove together Solzhenitsyn’s personal experience and the testimony of 256 former prisoners with historical research and spiritual reflection. It allowed readers on both sides of the Iron Curtain to encounter totalitarian oppression as though for the first time, “to hear and see what it was all like: search, arrest, interrogation, prison, deportation, transit camp, prison camp … hunger, beatings, labor, corpses,” to cite the words of the Russian writer Lydia Chukovskaya. Moreover, Solzhenitsyn’s multifaceted, often sardonic authorial voice served as powerful instrument for indicting Communism and all its works.
At their root was mankind’s and Solzhenitsyn’s nemesis: ideology. Unlike the conventional analyses of academic historians and political scientists, Solzhenitsyn’s understanding never treated the Soviet Union as merely one tyranny among others. Rather, it was an ideological regime built upon the twin pillars of violence and lies. It was “thanks to ideology” that the 20th century experienced “evildoing on a scale calculated in the millions.” Ideology allowed tyrants and intellectuals alike to justify the unjustifiable and to amplify violence to nearly unimaginable levels.
This central focus of Solzhenitsyn’s work made it much more difficult to blame the Soviet tragedy on Stalin’s “cult of personality” or on local conditions that were somehow peculiar to an “authoritarian” Russia. As the late Martin Malia argued in an analysis profoundly indebted to Solzhenitsyn, every Communist regime has manifested a nearly identical “genetic code.” Despite important cultural differences between Russian, Asian, and Caribbean Communism, every Communist experiment has been marked by a single-party regime based on a mendacious ideology that demonizes real or imagined enemies of socialism. Solzhenitsyn’s insight was to highlight the insidious nature of ideology, and to make its absurdities fully visible to the Western imagination.
Gulag takes aim at the Manicheanism inherent in every project for the revolutionary transformation of man and society. The ideologist denies the permanence of the imperfection inherent in the human condition. Using the full force of his artistry Solzhenitsyn defends the timeless distinction between good and evil against its pernicious replacement by the ideological dichotomy between Progress and Reaction. The bitter experience of the Soviet camps led Solzhenitsyn to recover the age-old insight that “the line between good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either–but right through every human heart.” More broadly, Solzhenitsyn returned to the wisdom of philosophical Christianity through reflection on his personal experience of human nature in extremis.