Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn ended up bothering almost everyone. Liberals once welcomed him to our shores in the 1970s as a kindred voice of free expression and resistance to authority — only to see him work at the Hoover Institution and then lecture them at Harvard in 1978 on the moral consequences of left-wing appeasement of the Soviet Union. And when he condemned protesters that had opposed the Vietnam War, Daniel Ellsberg, and American popular culture, the estrangement from the American Left was complete. Who in the post-1960s wished to be reminded that a surrender to the appetites, material gratification, atheism, and an absence of pride in one’s own nation were the classical ingredients of civilizational decadence and decline?
Yet many Reaganite supporters of democracy grew to become worried that he sounded ever more the ultra-Russian nationalist — with all the baggage that it entails, from religious fundamentalism to anti-Semitism. Conservatives sometimes got the impression that he didn’t like the West or the United States all that much, as he saw the proper antidote to both totalitarianism, and Western-style free-market capitalism and individualism, in a proud Czarist Orthodox, all-powerful state-something akin to what is fossilizing in Putin’s Russia today.
No matter. Solzhenitsyn’s life was a roadmap of the horrific 20th century — the grainy picture of an enfeebled Solzhenitsyn with his Gulag-issue will forever haunt millions of his readers. It is hard to imagine how anyone other than Solzhenitsyn could have survived the Great Terror, World War II on the Eastern Front, the Gulag, cancer in the Soviet medical system, exile, the best efforts of Pravda, the KGB, and the Kremlin to destroy him, and scorn and abuse from those liberals who once proclaimed him a genius — or have written about it all any more brilliantly in fiction, narrative history, and poetry for over 60 years.
In the end, his epitaph is that no one in the 20th-century did more than he to bring down a horrific and bloodthirsty system that sought at any price to destroy the free mind and all that it entails.