“Perhaps I shall die forgotten in Siberia,” says one of the characters in that astonishing novel The First Circle, “But if you die knowing that you are not a swine, that’s something, isn’t it?” The Soviet authorities did their best to make sure that Alexander Solzhenitsyn died forgotten in Siberia along with the millions of the lost. They failed. The Germans had also failed to kill him as a wartime artillery officer. Unexpectedly, he even survived cancer, to die rightly celebrated in Moscow in the fullness of age.
Solzhenitsyn is far and away the most influential writer to have emerged in my lifetime. You have to search history very thoroughly to think of any one man who changed the intellectual climate as dramatically as he did. By and large, people really believed the propaganda that the Soviet Union represented peace, and Communism was progress. A.J.P. Taylor, my Oxford tutor, to give a personal example, had the widest reputation as a historian, but he insisted that the Soviet Union did not have concentration camps and Gulag was a fiction put about by White Russian exiles in Riga. I doubt he knew that he was in danger of dying as a swine, and pretty well the entire academic and journalistic and social elite were equally perverse. To give the Soviet Union approval, or at least the benefit of doubt, was far, far more acceptable than to criticize it. The few who were openly anti-communist, why, my dear chap, we can’t possibly invite them even to a drink, we don’t want to know them.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich broke through to the truth. One who had had first-hand experience of the Soviet secret police state was conveying the horror of it. But of course, it was The Gulag Archipelago that really rocked the world. Here was the evidence of hundreds and maybe thousands of fates, their stories painstakingly collected, the material marvelously organized, the author’s moral judgment clear without the least shadow. Dostoevsky’s masterpiece, The House of the Dead, had recorded Czarist injustice, but the scale of Soviet inhumanity, and the wantonness of it, gave Solzhenitsyn the opening to document something new and worse than anything a Czar had ever done: Communism was state-controlled murder machinery, and its progressive image a lie from top to bottom.
To give another personal example, at the time when Gulag Archipelago was rocking the world’s conscience, I was taken to a smart literary party in Paris. And there I heard Agnès Varda, a filmmaker with a fashionable reputation, declare, “No, I don’t read Solzhenitsyn, he’s a writer on the Right.” Ah, and didn’t Solzhenitsyn become a Russian Orthodox believer, and wasn’t he also a Russian nationalist, and didn’t he accuse the West of becoming a feckless moral slum? Swarms of like-minded idiots tried to write him off in this style. It doesn’t work. The pen really has proved mightier than the sword. Solzhenitsyn’s writings will inform posterity’s view of the twentieth century.