Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008)

Source: Acton Power Blog

By John Couretas

Solzhenitsyn“During all the years until 1961, not only was I convinced that I should never see a single line of mine in print in my lifetime, but, also, I scarcely dared allow any of my close acquaintances to read anything I had written because I feared that this would become known. Finally, at the age of 42, this secret authorship began to wear me down. The most difficult thing of all to bear was that I could not get my works judged by people with literary training. In 1961, after the 22nd Congress of the U.S.S.R. Communist Party and Tvardovsky’s speech at this, I decided to emerge and to offer One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.”

Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s momentous decision to publish his slim volume on Gulag life (he feared not only the destruction of his manuscript but “my own life”) ended his period of “secret authorship” and put him on the path of a literary career that earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970. But his work meant so much more than that. Solzhenitsyn, who died yesterday in Moscow at the age of 89, did more than any other single figure to expose the horrors of Soviet communism and lay bare the lies that propped it up. His life was dedicated to chronicling and explaining the Bolshevik Revolution and the tragic effects it wrought for Russia during the 20th Century. His was a first-person account.

In “Solzhenitsyn & the Modern World,” an essay on Solzhenitsyn published by the Acton Institute in 1994, Edward E. Ericson Jr. predicted that Solzhenitsyn’s influence would continue to expand. With his passing, there is good reason to hope, with Ericson, that Solzhenitsyn’s “world-historical importance” will be appreciated on a deeper level. “His most direct contribution lies in his delegitimizing of Communist power, and especially in the eyes of his surreptitious Soviet readers,” Ericson wrote.

At the publication of the Gulag Archipelago, Leonid Brezhnev complained: “By law, we have every basis for putting him in jail. He has tried to undermine all we hold sacred: Lenin, the Soviet system, Soviet power – everything dear to us. … This hooligan Solzhenitsyn is out of control.” A week later, the newspaper Pravda called him a “traitor.” On Feb. 12, 1974, he was arrested and charged with treason. The next day, he was stripped of his citizenship and put on a plane to West Germany. He would spend the next 20 years in exile.

When summoned for deportation in 1974, he made a damning written statement to the authorities: “Given the widespread and unrestrained lawlessness that has reigned in our country for many years, and an eight-year campaign of slander and persecution against me, I refuse to recognize the legality of your summons.

“Before asking that citizens obey the law, learn how to observe it yourselves,” Solzhenitsyn wrote. “Free the innocent, and punish those guilty of mass murder.”

The Gulag Archipelago was described by George F. Kennan, a former ambassador to the Soviet Union and the chief architect of postwar U.S. foreign policy, as “the greatest and most powerful single indictment of a political regime ever to be leveled in modern times.”

In my review of the “Solzhenitsyn Reader,” edited by Ericson and Daniel J. Mahoney, in the Spring 2007 issue of Religion & Liberty, I wrote that the Solzhenitsyn “could only understand what happened to Russia in terms of good and evil. Those who engineered and imposed the Bolshevik and Soviet nightmare were not merely ideologues, they were evildoers.” A former communist, the writer returned to his Russian Orthodox Christian roots after his experience of the Soviet prison camps. In the review, I said:

Ericson and Mahoney state simply that, “Solzhenitsyn was the most eloquent scourge of ideology in the twentieth century.” The editors are right to remind us of that. And any news account, biography or political history of the twentieth Century that talks about who “won” the Cold War—a complicated historical reality for sure—and does not include Solzhenitsyn with Reagan, Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II is not only incomplete but wrong. Solzhenitsyn was the inside man.

In an editorial published today, the editors of National Review Online said this of Solzhenitsyn: “There was no greater or more effective foe of Communism, or of totalitarianism in general.”

French President Nicolas Sarkozy called Solzhenitsyn “one of the greatest consciences of 20th century Russia” and an heir to Dostoevsky. Mr Sarkozy added: “He belongs to the pantheon of world history.”

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin wrote in a telegram to Solzhenitsyn’s family that the Soviet-era dissident, whose books exposed the horrors of the Communist Gulag, had been “a strong, courageous person with enormous dignity.”

“We are proud that Alexandr Solzhenitsyn was our compatriot and contemporary,” said Putin, who served in the same KGB that persecuted the author for “anti-Soviet” activities.

Mikhail Gorbachev told Interfax: “Until the end of his days he fought for Russia not only to move away from its totalitarian past but also to have a worthy future, to become a truly free and democratic country. We owe him a lot.”

Indeed, we all do.

Cross posted from the Acton PowerBlog


  1. Michael Bauman :

    If we leave him in the box of a foe of the Soviets only, we do a grave disservice to him and to ourselves. His critique of ideology in particular will always ring true. Ideology of any type always leads to totalitariansim. We are just as susceptible to totaliltarianism now as we were during the Soviet era. Just because the Soviet state is no longer evident does not mean that the demonic ideal in attempted to embody is gone. Far from it.

    Our politics have become saturated with ideology to the exclusion of genuine thought. Christian traditions of all varieties, who should serve as a bulwark against ideology in all its forms, have largely succumbed as well, at least on the offical level. Ideologies degrade humanity. Unfortunately, human beings have an almost infinite capacity for creating and latching on to ideologies instead of allowing ourselves to be human. Possibly due to spiritual sloth and hubris.

    Solzhenitsyn’s vision and leadership should not be forgotten, indeed we should be inspired to think more deeply about the meaning of his vision in our current day and for ourselves. We should resist the temptation to consign him to a dead period of history so we don’t have to be any longer troubled by his wisdom.

  2. John Couretas :


    You’re absolutely right. Solzhenitsyn’s life was dedicated to fighting a particularly evil ideology, but he never was an ideologue himself. His critique was based on an authentic Christian anthropology, not a political platform.

    His Harvard Address is well worth reading. Excerpt:

    Political and intellectual bureaucrats show depression, passivity and perplexity in their actions and in their statements and even more so in theoretical reflections to explain how realistic, reasonable as well as intellectually and even morally warranted it is to base state policies on weakness and cowardice. And decline in courage is ironically emphasized by occasional explosions of anger and inflexibility on the part of the same bureaucrats when dealing with weak governments and weak countries, not supported by anyone, or with currents which cannot offer any resistance. But they get tongue-tied and paralyzed when they deal with powerful governments and threatening forces, with aggressors and international terrorists.

    Should one point out that from ancient times decline in courage has been considered the beginning of the end?

  3. Fr. Hans Jacobse :

    Solzhenitsyn believed in enduring and transformative power of truth. He proved it too, when at great odds he courageously wrote the Gulags, which decimated the Marxist establishment.

    So much of what he wrote is worth rereading because, like all things true, it’s true forever. One essay in particular is Live Not by Lies (originally published as Samizdat) where he chastened and exhorted fellow Russians during the great Soviet oppression:

    So in our timidity, let each of us make a choice: Whether consciously, to remain a servant of falsehood–of course, it is not out of inclination, but to feed one’s family, that one raises his children in the spirit of lies–or to shrug off the lies and become an honest man worthy of respect both by one’s children and contemporaries.

    And from that day onward he:

    • Will not henceforth write, sign, or print in any way a single phrase which in his opinion distorts the truth.
    • Will utter such a phrase neither in private conversation not in the presence of many people, neither on his own behalf not at the prompting of someone else, either in the role of agitator, teacher, educator, not in a theatrical role.
    • Will not depict, foster or broadcast a single idea which he can only see is false or a distortion of the truth whether it be in painting, sculpture, photography, technical science, or music.
    • Will not cite out of context, either orally or written, a single quotation so as to please someone, to feather his own nest, to achieve success in his work, if he does not share completely the idea which is quoted, or if it does not accurately reflect the matter at issue.
    • Will not allow himself to be compelled to attend demonstrations or meetings if they are contrary to his desire or will, will neither take into hand not raise into the air a poster or slogan which he does not completely accept.
    • Will not raise his hand to vote for a proposal with which he does not sincerely sympathize, will vote neither openly nor secretly for a person whom he considers unworthy or of doubtful abilities.
    • Will not allow himself to be dragged to a meeting where there can be expected a forced or distorted discussion of a question. Will immediately talk out of a meeting, session, lecture, performance or film showing if he hears a speaker tell lies, or purvey ideological nonsense or shameless propaganda.
    • Will not subscribe to or buy a newspaper or magazine in which information is distorted and primary facts are concealed. Of course we have not listed all of the possible and necessary deviations from falsehood. But a person who purifies himself will easily distinguish other instances with his purified outlook.

    No, it will not be the same for everybody at first. Some, at first, will lose their jobs. For young people who want to live with truth, this will, in the beginning, complicate their young lives very much, because the required recitations are stuffed with lies, and it is necessary to make a choice.

    But there are no loopholes for anybody who wants to be honest. On any given day any one of us will be confronted with at least one of the above-mentioned choices even in the most secure of the technical sciences. Either truth or falsehood: Toward spiritual independence or toward spiritual servitude.

    Spiritual independence or spiritual servitude. What greater call to freedom is there?

    On a personal note, I owe Solzhenitsyn a lot. When I was younger and first becoming aware of the larger world, “One Day in Life of Ivan Denisovich” had just been published in the West. I can’t say I understood what all the fuss was about, but I did understand that I needed to understand it. And so I started watching this man named Solzhenitsyn. A few years later the very first performance of the play was scheduled at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. I remember cajoling my dad for the car and I went and saw it. I must have been sixteen at the time and went alone. I still remember it.

    I remember too when the Harvard Address (A World Split Apart) was first published. I still have the original newspaper reprint of the speech. Again, it was like the play — I knew something here needed to be understood and in due course I might understand it.

    A few years later I stumbled across the speech again at college. By that time I had figured a few things out and was astonished at the spiritual depth of Solzhenitsyn’s critique of the West — something I did not comprehend when I was younger. It led me to Orthodox Christianity.

    I will always admire Alexander Solzhenitsyn for his moral courage. He stared brutal tyranny in the face and through the power of a word spoken in truth ultimately defeated it. It was not without cost. He was exiled for twenty years as punishment. Truth always exacts a price — Christians call it bearing your cross. But because Solzhenitsyn bore his, millions were freed.

    May his memory be eternal.

  4. I remember reading all of his Gulag volumes, not once but several times. They struck a moral cord within me that I thoroughly admire. Here is a man who knows right and wrong, holds to what is right and resists the wrong. I also noticed that he clearly favoured the Christian, courageously suffering for conscience sake as opposed to the self-justifying ideologues who thought that they were the only “innocent” ones in prison….”and maybe you, too.”

    I was not surprised when he lashed out at western liberals for their moral decadence. They reacted as if he owed them something! I would like to see more men and women stand up for what is right and against that which is wrong.

    Many worldly folk would say, “Who is to say what is right or wrong or who are you to impose your view of what is right on me?”

    God Almighty has already determined what is right and wrong. A human being can only choose to do what is right or what is wrong.

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