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The Conscience of a Zek

by Lee Edwards

The Other Solzhenitsyn: Telling the Truth about a Misunderstood Writer and Thinker, by Daniel J. Mahoney (St. Augustine’s Press, 242 pp., $30)

There should be little argument that the Russian novelist and historian Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn changed history more than any other writer of the 20th century. With his mesmerizing One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, he exposed for the first time the Soviet system of slave-labor camps that was occupied by as many as 60 million prisoners in the decades of Lenin and Stalin. The disintegration of the Soviet empire can be dated from the publication of the monumental The Gulag Archipelago in 1973. Diplomat George Kennan called it “the greatest and most powerful single indictment of a political regime ever to be leveled in modern times.” William F. Buckley Jr. described Solzhenitsyn as a man of such “moral splendor” that he should be considered “the outstanding figure of the century.”

Solzhenitsyn was showered with Western awards and honors, including the 1970 Nobel Prize in Literature, which inspired the New York Times’ Harrison E. Salisbury to write that “a worthy successor to Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Chekhov, Bunin, and Pasternak ha[s] appeared.” When Solzhenitsyn was silenced by Soviet authorities and denounced as a traitor, the left-leaning intellectuals who sprang to his defense included Jean-Paul Sartre, W. H. Auden, Günter Grass, Carlos Fuentes, and Arthur Miller.

Exiled from his homeland, Solzhenitsyn was warmly welcomed in America, where for the next 18 years he took up residence with his wife and three children in a remote Vermont town. He was lionized by our trade unions, and I was fortunate to attend the 1975 AFL-CIO dinner at which he delivered his only formal address in Washington, D.C. I sat ten feet from him and was enthralled by his blazing eyes, Old Testament beard, and passionate delivery — although I did not understand a word. He was a living symbol of man’s unconquerable desire to be free.

Solzhenitsyn’s fall from grace on the left began with his 1978 commencement address at Harvard, in which he talked bluntly about “the decline of courage in the West” and the consequences of left-wing appeasement of the Soviet Union. Solzhenitsyn accused the U.S. anti-war movement of complicity in the genocides that followed our withdrawal from Vietnam, most tragically in the killing fields of Cambodia. He further alienated the Left by defending liberty under God and criticizing “the tilt of freedom toward evil” in the contemporary culture. Our task on earth, he insisted, must be of a more spiritual nature. He challenged Harvard’s graduates to make “one’s life journey . . . an experiment of moral growth” so that “one may leave life a better human being than when one started it.”

Hailed as a hero by the Russian people upon his return to Russia in 1994, Solzhenitsyn was appalled by what he saw — the widespread crime and corruption, and the weak political leadership. At first approving of Boris Yeltsin, he soon accused him of heading not a democracy but “an oligarchy.” He was initially skeptical about Vladimir Putin — how else would a former Gulag zek react to a former KGB colonel? But Solzhenitsyn praised Putin for starting “to do what was possible — a slow and gradual restoration” of Russia. His apparent endorsement of Putin’s nationalistic authoritarianism disappointed many on the American right.

How then to sum up the place in history of this brilliant but controversial writer? Was he a great Russian novelist equal to Tolstoy, or a didactic writer whose epic The Red Wheel fails in comparison with War and Peace? Should he be remembered as the fearless writer who brought down the Soviet Union, or as a Russian nationalist and religious zealot? Enter Daniel J. Mahoney, a professor of politics at Assumption College and a leading authority on Solzhenitsyn. Mahoney promises in The Other Solzhenitsyn to dispel a widespread caricature that has transformed “a passionate but measured and self-critical patriot into a ferocious nationalist, a thoughtful partisan of grass-roots democracy into a quasi-authoritarian, a man of faith and reason into a religious zealot.”

This is no easy task, but Professor Mahoney, an expert on anti-totalitarian thought, accomplishes it convincingly in some 200 pages of text. A bonus of the book is an illuminating essay by Natalia Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr’s widow, who writes that The Gulag Archipelago is without precedent in either Russian or Western literature. It is, she explains, an amalgam of a historical inquest, personal reminiscences, a political treatise, and a philosophical treatise. For those who question the book’s literary quality while conceding its historical accuracy, she quotes the Russian poet and Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky: “If the Soviet regime did not have its Homer, it received him in the person of Solzhenitsyn.”

In his persuasive apologia, Mahoney focuses on Solzhenitsyn’s two masterworks, The Gulag Archipelago and The Red Wheel, as well as what has been called his “European novel,” In the First Circle. Appreciation of Solzhenitsyn as an artist and thinker of the first rank, Mahoney predicts, will grow as people read the full version of In the First Circle. (For over 40 years, only a truncated translation of this book was available in English.) The principal character, Nerzhin (a stand-in for Solzhenitsyn), mocks the Marxist idea that justice is nothing but a “class-conditioned idea.” In a ringing cri de coeur, he proclaims: “Justice is the cornerstone, the foundation of the universe! We are born with a sense of justice in our souls; we can’t and don’t want to live without it!” Here, writes Mahoney, we see the continuity of Solzhenitsyn’s thinking with classical and Christian thought, a deep-rooted philosophy that sustained Solzhenitsyn all through the Gulag, cancer, arrest by the KGB, exile, and his return home.

Mahoney argues that not only the novels but remarkable short stories such as “Ego” and “Apricot Jam” will be read for many years to come. His prediction, he says, “is a bet against the insularity of the English-speaking world and a vote of confidence in the capacity of genius and what [Edmund] Burke called ‘moral imagination’ to take care of themselves by winning a hearing in the public square.”

The British historian and poet Robert Conquest, author of the widely acclaimed The Great Terror, thinks that Mahoney has already won his bet. “For most of us,” Conquest writes, “Russian literature is like a triangle around Pushkin, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov — Tolstoy is in his own class. Solzhenitsyn, on the strength of August 1914 alone, competes in the Tolstoy lane.” Most readers, he adds, would agree that Solzhenitsyn’s status as “a world-class writer and sage” depends on The Gulag Archipelago and In the First Circle, both of them, in Conquest’s word, “masterpieces.”

In the final chapter of The Other Solzhenitsyn, Mahoney presents a vivid picture of the Russian writer at 88, physically frail but in possession of all his considerable mental powers, ready and able in an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel to sum up his work. Looking back on his life, Solzhenitsyn said that he always remained “optimistic” regardless of whether he was in prison or facing death or racing to finish a book, always obedient to his conscience. He called on Russians to repent for “the millions of victims of the Gulag and Communist terror,” saying that without repentance there can be no road forward for them. Asked to explain his endorsement of Putin, he noted that when Putin said the way that the Soviet Union broke up was a profound “geopolitical disaster,” he also said that the Soviet Union was a totalitarian regime that deserved to die.

Solzhenitsyn argued that Russia needed a strong presidency and a strong central government, but also self-government that could be developed only from the bottom up. He lamented the absence of a meaningful opposition in Russia. Looking ahead, he said that the West would need Russian support in the 21st century, a veiled reference to the continuing rise and influence of China.

By the end of The Other Solzhenitsyn, Mahoney has erased the caricature of Solzhenitsyn as an extremist in his politics and religion and in his writing. He uses Solzhenitsyn’s own words rather than what he is alleged to have said. Far from being a wild-eyed nationalist, for example,  Solzhenitsyn said that Russia must “renounce all mad fantasies of foreign conquest and begin the peaceful long, long, long period of recuperation.” He admitted that he was a patriot with “unswerving love” for the nation. But that did not imply, he wrote, “uncritical eagerness to serve” or support for “unjust claims,” but rather “frank assessment of its vices and sins.”

In the same manner, Mahoney provides intriguing excerpts from some of Solzhenitsyn’s last fiction — especially the collection of “binary tales” Apricot Jam and Other Stories — now available to American readers. Any judgment of Solzhenitsyn the writer must include these stories, which, as with all his writing, are based on what he called a “healthy conservatism” — by which he meant a conservatism “equally sensitive to the old and the new, to venerable and worthy traditions, and to the freedom to explore, without which no future can ever be born.”

Asked for his views on religion, Solzhenitsyn replied, “For me, faith is the foundation and support of one’s life.” Providence, he said, plays “a special role in the individual life of human beings, but also in the collective life of nations and peoples.” Did he fear death? “No, I am not afraid of death anymore. When I was young . . . I was afraid to die before all my literary plans came true.” But between the ages of 30 and 40, his attitude to death became calm and balanced. “I feel it is a natural but by no means the final milestone of one’s existence.”

A year later, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn died, and the wave of words that had poured forth from him for nearly five decades stopped. He left a body of work unequaled by any writer of the last century for its literary quality and political impact. While Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and John Paul II all played their critical part in the fall of the Soviet empire — equal in historical importance to the fall of the Roman empire — it was Solzhenitsyn who first exposed the multitudinous horrors of the Gulag and set in motion forces that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the implosion of an empire that once seemed impregnable. Every lover of freedom is deeply indebted to Professor Mahoney for writing The Other Solzhenitsyn.

– Mr. Edwards is a distinguished fellow in conservative thought at the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics at the Heritage Foundation.

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