A Life and an Example

Solzhenitsyn in Vermont, 1994 (Jim Bourg / Reuters)
On Solzhenitsyn

Last Tuesday, December 11, marked the centennial of Alexander Solzhenitsyn — that is, his birth. He was born on December 11, 1918. Who was he?

A great man. And a great writer, many say. (I am not making literary judgments here, and people mean different things by “great.” I can tell you that One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Oak and the Calf are two of the greatest reading experiences of my life. I can also tell you that Cancer Ward is many people’s favorite book, and that The First Circle is, too.)

A great man? As much as any individual, he broke the back of the Soviet Union, exposing its evils, puncturing its myths. He did so at great risk and cost to himself. Solzhenitsyn spoke not only for the sake of Russians and others in the USSR, but for men and women everywhere, wishing to live freely.

Time magazine names a Man of the Year, as you know. (They now say “Person of the Year.”) At the end of 1999, they would also name a Man of the Century. People throughout America, and elsewhere, surely, batted this question around. Whom should it be? Many argued for Churchill. Many argued for Solzhenitsyn. In the end, Time named Einstein.

There were arguments for all three of them, and more.

So great a man was Solzhenitsyn — so heroic was he, morally — that you can sort of forget that he was also a writer. I say something similar of Andrei Sakharov. So great a man was he, as dissident and human-rights hero, that you can forget that, on the side, so to speak, he was one of the outstanding scientists of his age: one of the greatest physicists in the whole, vast Soviet Union, and indeed the world.

I intend to jot some notes about Solzhenitsyn, using bullet points. I do not intend a complete survey, or examination. There are simply some things I want to communicate, and you may find some of them of interest.

• He wrote prolifically. He wrote near constantly — as often as he could — from boyhood to the day he died in 2008 (at age 89).

• He wrote things of many, many types. In a piece, I once made a list: “historical novels, ‘regular’ novels, novellas, short stories, ‘two-part stories,’ poems, prose poems, plays, autobiographical memoirs, literary memoirs, political essays, philosophical essays, speeches, and that unique, world-shattering book called ‘The Gulag Archipelago,’ which the author described as ‘an experiment in literary investigation.’”

I should also mention that he wrote countless letters. Some of his best writing was done in them. (That is true of many people, famed and not.)

• His wife, Natalia, made an interesting point some years ago. “Alexander Solzhenitsyn is perhaps one of the last writers to leave a manuscript archive. All his works, beginning with childhood creations in school notebooks and ending with notes he made the day he died, were written by hand.”

There were just a few exceptions to this, she said — for instance, “correspondence to people who were not acquaintances.” To his friends, “he always wrote longhand.”

• Some books, he did not want to write — including The Gulag Archipelago. Including The Red Wheel. Yes. Yes. He felt obligated to write such books (and essays and speeches and so on). He felt obligated to write works of political and historical significance. He would have preferred that someone else write them, but if such a person did not come forward, he himself would have to do the job.

He would have preferred to spend all his time with his fiction: his stories, his poems. He was a literary person. But he did what he considered his duty.

• A literary person, yes — but very scientific. A whiz at math, physics, astronomy (subjects that he taught).

• When he was ten, Alexander Solzhenitsyn started a magazine, all by himself. He called it “Twentieth Century.” He wrote all the articles, for every section, under a variety of names. The sections included “News and Events,” science fiction, and games and puzzles. The boy was editor, subscription manager — everything.

He would even report on circulation (which rose, of course)!

• He fought in the war. Lieutenant Solzhenitsyn was twice decorated. He was also sent to the Gulag.

• There he wrote a poem — a long poem, 12,000 lines. He had nothing to write it with. Write it down with. He composed it in his head and memorized it. Later, when he was free, he wrote it down.

• The poem is called “The Trail.” His son Ignat spoke about it at an event in New York last month. Alexander and Natalia Solzhenitsyn had three sons, of whom Ignat is in the middle. The oldest brother is Yermolai and the youngest is Stephan. Ignat is a pianist and conductor. In New York, he also spoke of his father’s attachment to music — particularly Beethoven. He also played some of this music (thoughtfully and nobly).

Alexander Solzhenitsyn also loved a work by Tchaikovsky: the Piano Trio in A minor. I am listening to it right now, in his honor (in the recording by Gilels, Kogan, and Solzhenitsyn’s friend Rostropovich).

• The Gulag Archipelago has sold something like 30 million copies around the world. I cannot locate an exact figure. But I can tell you this: Solzhenitsyn had the proceeds from this book — all of them — go into a fund to help political prisoners and their families.

(There are political prisoners in today’s Russia too. Like Sakharov — and Solzhenitsyn as well, I believe — I hate talking about them in the abstract, so I will name some of them: Oleg Sentsov, Alexei Pichugin, Oyub Titiev, Stanislav Zimovets, Yuri Dmitriev, Oleg Navalny, Alexander Shpakov.)

• Solzhenitsyn did not want exile. He was forced into it. He considered his exile — and that of his family — a great tragedy. For a long time, this was hard for me to understand. “Isn’t it great to get out from a police state, so that you can speak and campaign freely? Can’t you do more good from the outside than within?” I understood things better when I interviewed a Cuban exile in 2002. Her name was Maritza Lugo, and she had just arrived in the United States. She had been a dissident and political prisoner back home. And, here in America, she was in agony. For one thing, she felt terribly guilty about being away from her fellow dissidents and friends, no longer sharing their hardships, there on the ground, daily. Part of her felt like a deserter.

In an interview with me six years ago, Natalia Solzhenitsyn said, “It seems to me now that for the first two or three years in the West, my mother, my husband, and I unlearned how to smile. It seems we never smiled. We did not feel ourselves.”

• The commencement address that Solzhenitsyn gave at Harvard in 1978 is famous or infamous. In any case, it is magnificent, as I see it. I could linger over every line. I will confine myself to one — a line I had occasion to quote just the other day: “One almost never sees voluntary self-restraint. Everybody operates at the extreme limit of the legal frames.”

• Okay, another line — one of the best-known of the speech: “The human soul longs for things higher, warmer, and purer than those offered by today’s mass living habits, exemplified by the revolting invasion of publicity, by TV stupor, and by intolerable music.”

You remember Allan Bloom’s best-selling book The Closing of the American Mind. He told Bill Buckley that he wanted to call it “Souls without Longing.”

• I once wrote this: “How must this speech have fallen on the ears of its hearers that day! Those 10,000 souls — souls without longing? — sitting in the rain. We were in the Me Decade, remember. And here Solzhenitsyn was talking about self-restraint, sacrifice, God, and all that stuff. As Harold J. Berman, a law professor [at Harvard], put it, ‘Solzhenitsyn seemed like a man from Mars.’”

• In his life, Solzhenitsyn had legions of critics, as most consequential men do. Some of those critics were ridiculous; some of them had points. Anyway, they were numerous. Solzhenitsyn never paid any attention to them. As Ignat Solzhenitsyn once put it to me, “He could have written The Red Wheel [the multi-volume project that consumed the author’s exile] or he could have dealt with his critics. He did not have time to do both.” He chose The Red Wheel.

There was an exception, however: Once, in 1983, he sat down and read his critics in one fell swoop. Then he answered them in a Paris-based Russian journal.

• You may agree with Solzhenitsyn or disagree with him, on this point or that. You may love him wholeheartedly or have reservations. But I love something that Bill Buckley once wrote about him: “Such is the debt of free spirits to Solzhenitsyn that we owe it to him at least to consider anything he asks us to consider.”

The debt of free spirits to Solzhenitsyn — I love that phrase in particular.

• Idealism is not in favor these days, at least where I spend most of my time. It is equated with dopiness. But earlier this year, in Oslo City Hall, Vladimir Kara-Murza, the Russian democracy leader, cited Solzhenitsyn on idealism.

Solzhenitsyn went to Norway days after his exile — his expulsion — in February 1974. “I have great affection for Norway,” he said. “Norwegians still preserve that measure of idealism that is becoming more and more rare in the modern world and that alone gives us true hope for the future.”

For his part, Kara-Murza said, “Idealism is sometimes dismissed as something negative or naïve, but it is idealists — not cynics, collaborators, and yes-men — who move the world forward.” Every dissident has some measure of idealism, he said. Otherwise, it’s hard to summon the courage to stand up to brutal regimes.

• In 2001, I interviewed a woman named Youqin Wang, a lecturer in Chinese at the University of Chicago. She had a life project: to memorialize the victims of the Cultural Revolution.

She had been inspired by two writers: Anne Frank and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. When she was a girl in Beijing, she read Anne’s diary and started to keep one of her own. She even addressed it “Dear Kitty,” as Anne had.

It was illegal to keep a diary. You could be killed if caught with one. This was in the middle of the Cultural Revolution. But Youqin kept a diary — destroying each page, shortly after she wrote it.

At Beijing University, she found a copy of Cancer Ward. She thought she was reading about her own experience. How could this Russian understand her so well? Youqin was so excited, she couldn’t sleep. Later, she read The Gulag Archipelago, and her life was set: She knew she had to commemorate the murdered, just as Solzhenitsyn had. They should not be forgotten.

Little Anne Frank was arguably the foremost witness to Nazism. Solzhenitsyn was arguably the foremost witness to Communism. Those are the twin evils of the 20th century (and lingering, of course). Think of Youqin Wang, with those two people, Anne and Solzhenitsyn, at her back.

• Here is Solzhenitsyn on truth:

“Truth seldom is pleasant; it is almost invariably bitter.”

“You can resolve to live your life with integrity. Let your credo be this: Let the lie come into the world, let it even triumph. But not through me.”

“One word of truth shall outweigh the whole world.”

• No writer has ever written under more pressure. He could have been snatched or murdered at any moment. And millions of his countrymen were counting on him — to tell the truth about the Soviet Union, about their lives, to the whole world. They would write him to say, “Please look after your health, Aleksandr Isayevich. We are all counting on you.”

• Allow a personal note, please. At my side is a copy of August 1914 (the first installment of The Red Wheel), inscribed “To Jay Nordlinger, with warm regards. A. Solzh.”

• Malcolm Muggeridge called him “the noblest human being alive.” What a great life, what a great example. Thank you.

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