The Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008) is the author of modern classics such as The Gulag Archipelago, In The First Circle, and Cancer Ward. Born and raised in wake of the Bolshevik Revoution, he served as an artillery officer in the Red Army during World War II. In 1945, he was arrested by Russian counterintelligence while on active duty in East Prussia. He had committed the crime of criticising Stalin in private letters to a childhood friend. He served eight years in various prisons, two in exile, and almost died from an undiagnosed cancer. During those ten years, he came to understand Communism’s inherently dehumanizing nature, found much of the materials around which he would build his future novels, and regained his faith as a Russian Orthodox Christian. In 1962, he was allowed to publish his first novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. However, after Khrushchev’s deposition in 1964, the Soviet authorities put a stop to the publication of his other writings and, in February 1974, expelled him after The Gulag Archipelago was published in Russian in Paris on December 28, 1973. Once in the West, he could finally receive the Nobel Prize for Literature he had been awarded four years earlier. Initially, lionised in the West, he soon fell out of favour in some quarters. It became apparent that his opposition to communism and the Soviet Regime did not make him, as many had wrongly supposed, a secular liberal and progressive. While he appreciated the valid aspects of Western political culture, such as the rule of law and local self-government, he criticised the rise of secular humanism. In 1994, he returned to Russia, where he died in 2008.
In this interview, Daniel J. Mahoney will explain the significance of Solzhenitsyn by taking us through his pick of five of the author’s books.
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What should be added to the preceding biographical sketch of Solzhenitsyn? Well, your sketch was quite good. I would add just a few things.
Solzhenitsyn, as you noted, was born in 1918, which means he lived his entire life under the shadow of Bolshevism and the Bolshevik revolution. But he was raised by his mother, who was a widow, and his Aunt Irena. His father had died in a hunting accident while his mother was pregnant with him. He was raised in a Christian family, an Orthodox family, and he was shaped by that milieu right up until his teenage years.
Then the pressure of Soviet education, that is of massive ideological propaganda, became overwhelming. Looking back, he writes about his shame for having torn a crucifix from his neck when he was in high school. In “The Bluecaps,” a chapter from the first volume of The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn discusses how recruiters from the NKVD came to his high school. At the time, he was a convinced Marxist and an enthusiast for the revolution. But something held him back and filled him with revulsion about the very thought of joining the secret police. He says, at once simply and eloquently, that these were the products of “the small change in copper that was left from the golden coins our great-grandfathers had expended, at a time when morality was not considered relative and when the distinction between good and evil was very simply perceived by the heart.” So, his break with communism, when the scales of ideology fell from his eyes in prison and the camps, did not come out of nowhere. There was something in his soul and background, a moral sense reinforced by religious faith, that prepared him for this definitive spiritual break and subsequent “ascent,” as he called it, from communism.
"In his non-fiction but also apparent in his fiction, is an appeal to repentance and self-limitation as central to individual and collective life well lived."
Let me add a bit about the latter point of his biography. It is often misstated that Solzhenitsyn equally rejected Western democracy and Soviet communism. Nothing of the sort. As you pointed out, he criticised soulless legalism for being dehumanising. At the same time, he always believed that the rule of law is an indispensable pillar and foundation of a free and decent society. Secondly, during the last twenty or thirty years of his life he wrote quite eloquently, in many writings, about the importance of building democracy from the bottom-up. He was impressed by the forms of local self-government that he had seen at work in Switzerland and New England during his Western exile. He thought rightly that, after seventy years of communism, you cannot just introduce plebiscitary democracy or parliamentary elections. You need to form habits of citizenship and self-government. Solzhenitsyn did his best to encourage Russians to move in that direction, without immediate or obvious success. Nonetheless, his words on that subject remain very important for both Russians and for those of us in the West.
I would add two other key points. One, central to Solzhenitsyn’s message, in his non-fiction but also apparent in his fiction, is an appeal to repentance and self-limitation as central to individual and collective life well lived. When people criticise Solzhenitsyn for being anti-western or anti-democratic, they forget that he was appealing to voluntary self-limitation: a conception of liberty that freely acknowledges salutary limits. This is a freedom that rejects “anthropocentric humanism,” as he called it: the denial of a higher sphere, a Supreme Authority, beyond and above the human will. So, Solzhenitsyn was in no way an advocate of theocracy or coercion. Rather, he thought there could be no freedom and human dignity without voluntary self-limitation and repentance, without a deep sense of moral and civic responsibility. All of this is in accord with a deeper Western wisdom.
Repentance, of course, is a preeminent Christian theme. For Solzhenitsyn, it had political import too, because after seventy years of Bolshevism, there needed to be deep soul-searching. He thought that it was a grave mistake for people to see themselves merely as victims and not to see themselves as, in important respects, participants in the ideological lie. As a human being and Christian, he rejected, as he put it in From Under the Rubble, the Marxist notion that freedom meant succumbing to the yoke of necessity or a predetermined Historical Process. He also rejected the Enlightenment view—or at least one powerful strand of the Enlightenment—that freedom was simply the right to follow one's self-interest, to do as one wills. Solzhenitsyn wanted to reconnect freedom to its deeper spiritual roots, which included a recognition of liberty under God or the law, but also the cultivation of penitential souls who uses their freedom in a spirit of responsibility. These are hardly uniquely Russian themes.
Second, there is a recurring emphasis in his thought and writing on conscience. In InThe First Circle, there is an important character, Innokenty Volodin, who used to think, “You have only one life.” This is an Epicurean view, but he comes to realise instead that most significantly “You have only one conscience.” Authentically understood, conscience is not a synonym for subjectivism or for doing what you feel is pleasurable, or even right. Solzhenitsyn thought that fidelity to conscience, in the deep and abiding sense, is the hallmark of the human being, and the precondition of true spiritual growth.
Did you ever meet Solzhenitsyn? No. I had some correspondence with Solzhenitsyn and he kindly wrote an endorsement for TheSolzhenitsyn Reader, of which I was co-editor.
On several occasions, I have met Natalia Solzhenitsyna, his second wife. She was very much his intellectual, literary, and spiritual partner and editor. She is a wonderful woman and continues his work, especially the thirty volumes of the collected works in Russian. She and two of Solzhenitsyn’s three sons, Ignat, the musician, and Stephan, who now lives in Russia, are close friends. We have collaborated on many projects. Mrs. Solzhenitsyn asked me to write the introductions to the two volumes of his memoirs about his years in the West. In addition, the Solzhenitsyns gave Edward Ericson and myself immense and enthusiastic support as we worked on collecting and collating the pieces in The Solzhenitsyn Reader.
I have been to Cavendish, Vermont several times, where, from 1976 to 1994, Solzhenitsyn lived and wrote. It is wonderful to see with one’s own eyes because you have a much better sense of his surroundings during his eighteen years in American exile. Rather than this armed camp you would read about in the press, it is lovely home in a very natural setting in a gracious small town in Vermont. There Solzhenitsyn and his family got along very well with their neighbours. And Solzhenitsyn even attended two town meetings, at the beginning and end of his Vermont years and was warmly welcomed by the townspeople. There was a lot of nonsense written in the press, but that tends to happen to people who challenge the ideological illusions of the age.
What drew you to study Solzhenitsyn? Well, I am sixty-three. I was born in 1960. When I was a young, I was intellectually precocious: I read a lot of serious fiction and non-fiction as a teenager. At my Catholic school, we had to pick a major writer for our eighth-grade report, and I did mine on Solzhenitsyn. So, I read to the best of my ability works like The Gulag Archipelago and, when it came out, From Under the Rubble, a broadly Christian anti-totalitarian manifesto for a post-Communist Russia that Solzhenitsyn edited and published in 1974. Though I always had a serious interest in things Russian, I am a political scientist by training, not a Russianist in the narrow or specific sense of the term. However, I was appalled by the nonsense that was written about Solzhenitsyn; the lack of care in approaching his work, the clichés, the same old half-truths and distortions that were endlessly recycled. Consequently, I decided to write a book on Solzhenitsyn. That became The Ascent from Ideology (2001). The reception of the book from people who genuinely knew and appreciated Solzhenitsyn's work was both positive and gratifying. That made possible the subsequent collaboration with the Solzhenitsyns.
In 1989, Solzhenitsyn did an interview with David Aikman, a very talented journalist who covered Russia and China for Time Magazine, many years ago when it was still a serious magazine. Regarding all the misleading or mendaciious things that were said about him, Solzhenitsyn said quite rightly, “They never give any quotations.”
Engaging Solzhenitsyn’s work has been a major part of my own intellectual itinerary. It began simply enough because there was a need for it. The Ascent of Ideology has been published in France by Fayard, the publisher of the French editions of Solzhenitsyn’s works. Both of my Solzhenitsyn books have been translated into Romanian and some other languages and have been well received. There was a crying need for a genuinely thoughtful and sympathetic engagement with Solzhenitsyn: for an effort to understand him as he understood himself.
The post-moderns and others like them do not believe in that principle. One Danish scholar, Elisa Kriza, has complained in a 2014 book that we need to bring Solzhenitsyn in from “critical exile.” What she meant by that was that we need bring queer theory, gender theory, postmodernism, deconstruction, and all of that, to bear on the Russian writer’s thought and writing. In other words, we should mutilate Solzhenitsyn in the name of the regnant ideological categories and clichés. While there are many silly things written about Solzhenitsyn, thankfully, he has not yet been subject to that kind of monstrously tendentious scholarship. Why anyone would waste their time trying to understand Solzhenitsyn in light of those concerns, I do not know. My work has filled an important void, and, over the years, I have deepened my understanding and appreciation of Solzhenitsyn the writer, thinker, and moral witness.
You mentioned some of the criticisms levelled against Solzhenitsyn. Some question his reliability as a historian. What is your assessment of his non-fiction writings on history? The Red Wheel is a magisterial multi-volume work of literature and dramatised history. It begins with August 1914 but has flashbacks to the Stolypin era. It is an effort to explain in a very non-Marxist way, how Bolshevism came to Russia and was not necessitated historically. Luckily, the entirety of this ten-volume work is now appearing in English translation from the University of Notre Dame Press.
In the years up to and including 1917, many mistakes were made in Russia. Many opportunities were lost. Russia's greatest statesman Pyotr Stolypin was a tough-minded reformer and constitutionalist. He was hated both by the revolutionary left and the reactionary time-servers at the Tsar’s court. In 1911, he was assassinated by a double agent of the revolutionaries and the secret police. That wrecked the chances for a genuine statesman, which Stolypin most certainly was, to lead Tsarist Russia forward. Stolypin might have been able to avoid World War One, conserving while reforming, in the eloquent and memorable words of Edmund Burke.
"The Gulag Archipelago is not a work of history in the narrow sense of the term, but it is a historically accurate work."
Solzhenitsyn did impeccable research on the February Revolution. Many of those who do not like The Red Wheel have unfortunately not truly engaged with it. To begin with, it is marvellously written. In the street scenes of March 1917, Solzhenitsyn brilliantly captures the behaviour and impulses of a revolutionary mob. He shows the giddiness of even middle and upper-middle class Saint Petersburgers for revolution, without thinking about the consequences. Many of these same people would perish in the course of the revolution. The historical research that undergirds The Red Wheel is most careful and impressive.
Some do not like the book on account of its message: that it was the February Revolution, the so-called Democratic Revolution, that destroyed authority, weakened the armed forces in time of war, and made the Bolshevik Revolution (more or less) inevitable. The Bolsheviks had 40,000 members in their party at the beginning of 1917. They were a tiny, unrepresentative movement. However, they were able to take advantage of the increasing failure of the war and, above all, the power vacuum created by the February Revolution. The provisional government lacked legitimate authority from the get-go. Solzhenitsyn says sardonically in a 1979 interview that it governed for a total of “minus two days.” In other words, democracy needs authority and anarchy paves the way for either civil war or tyranny. Tragically, the February Revolution paved the way for both.
The Gulag Archipelago is not a work of history in the narrow sense of the term, but it is a historically accurate work. It is based on Solzhenitsyn’s own experience in the camps. It also refers official Soviet documentation that was accessible at the time. Solzhenitsyn drew on the testimony of 257 people who experienced the wrath of the ideological state. If you look at the appendix of the most recent (2018) British edition of the 1984 authorised abridgement, edited by Ed Ericson with Solzhenitsyn (there is also Natalia Solzhenitsyn’s 500-page abridgement for Russians), you have a list of the people with whom Solzhenitsyn spoke, whose memoirs he read, or who wrote letters to him. In her introduction to the 2007 edition of the abridgement, still available from Harper, Anne Applebaum says that the essentials are correct: the depiction of the whole gulag experience, the larger analysis, and the critique of the ideology.
Then there is the issue of how many people were imprisoned and killed by the Bolshevik regime. That is a contested question. Solzhenitsyn gives high numbers, but he is including not just the people who died in the gulag or in prison. He is including the victims of famine, those who were shot, and those who died in the Civil War. Of course, we always hear that twenty-seven million Soviets died during World War Two. Yes, but so many died because Stalin saw no value in human life. He just threw poor Ivan after poor Ivan onto the front. And millions of people perished at the hands of the Bolshevik regime itself. Precisely how many? That would be the only contested question. Solzhenitsyn never claimed to be authoritative on that. Was the Soviet regime under, Lenin and Stalin, responsible for the death of twenty million people, thirty-five million, or forty million? That remains a disputed question. Recently, Anthony Beevor and others have argued that up to eighteen million people perished during the Revolution and Civil War. Many people died of famine because of the work conditions under communism and the diseases that accompanied them, beginning in 1918. None of this would have happened without the Bolshevik Revolution.
Solzhenitsyn was not a professional or academic historian, but he approached the historical dimensions of his work with the greatest concern for verisimilitude. He spent much time in the archives of the Hoover Institution, for example, and had access to material very few people did.
"Solzhenitsyn is one of the great men of the twentieth century."
Why should Catholics read Solzhenitsyn? Well, because Solzhenitsyn is one of the great men of the twentieth century. He embodied that quality of soul that the classics called megalopsuchia or greatness of soul. He embodied it but always with a Christian emphasis on repentance, self-limitation, and deference to God the creator. Today the sectarian differences mean far less. The real divisions between the churches are between those, on the one hand, who remain faithful to the Apostolic inheritance, the moral law, a substantial and non-relativistic understanding of conscience, and the drama of good and evil in the human soul, and those, on the other hand, who believe that everything is determined historically and culturally, that the faith changes, and that the Holy Spirit is coextensive with the zeitgeist, sexual or otherwise.
Yes, Solzhenitsyn returned to the faith of his fathers and was a serious Russian Orthodox. But he was not at all sectarian. He was not like Dostoyevsky, who hated the Poles and Catholics, despite his literary genius and his deep philosophical insight. Dostoyevsky was a great thinker and there is nothing more important to read in the present moment than The Possessed (The Demons), the greatest critique of revolutionary nihilism ever written. But he had a lot of pet peeves. If you read “The Grand Inquisitor” in The Brothers Karamzov,you can see his many prejudices against the Catholic Church. Solzhenitsyn did not share these. In an interview with Janis Sapiets in February 1979, he said, “And of course, we must consider the new Pope a banner of the time. It's…words fail me…it’s a gift from God”.
He met John Paul II during the fifteenth anniversary celebrations of his pontificate, on 15 October 1993. He had a three-hour private meeting with him. That is quite significant. Solzhenitsyn was travelling through Western Europe to say his goodbyes before returning to post-Communist Russia in May 1994. That his travels in Western Europe included a meeting with John Paul II was quite significant. In his memoirs, Between Two Millstones, he speaks with respect, even admiration, for John Paul II.
So, Solzhenitsyn not only diagnoses the tragedies and woes that flow from rejecting God’s sovereignty and the moral law. He also recovers, in a work like TheGulag Archipelago, the enduring drama of good and evil in the human soul. As an anthropologist of the soul, he is a critic of the terrible mendacity and Manicheanism that informs totalitarian ideology. He is unsurpassed in his recovery of the soul and its possibilities of ascent once human beings reject “survival at any price”: its need to turn away from a merely hedonic and materialist calculus and to live in light of conscience and truth. Catholics have every reason to read, admire, and learn from Solzhenitsyn. One of the most accessible and accurate biographies of Solzhenitsyn is written by the Catholic writer Joseph Pearce. That is “no accident,” as the Marxists used to say.
Your first recommended book is the comprehensive anthology that you edited with Edward E. Ericson Jr, The Solzhenitsyn Reader. Do you recommend any chapters in particular? This book is a commented anthology. It provides a substantial portrait of Solzhenitsyn’s life and thought. It also contains introductions to each of the selections. Some, as in the case of The Gulag Archipelago and The Red Wheel, are on the longer side. Others, for shorter pieces, are a page or so. All of this should be very helpful to the reader.
This is the most comprehensive collection in any language of Solzhenitsyn's writings. Stephan Solzhenitsyn told me that, according to his calculation, 80% of Solzhenitsyn’s writings are here, in one form or another. Early on, for example, there is an excerpt from The Trail. This is an autobiographical poem that Solzhenitsyn wrote in the camps, without pen or paper, and using only a rosary that some Lithuanian friends had given him as a mnemonic device. The entire poem is 7000 words long. It provides an account of his own intellectual and spiritual odyssey from Marxism through the war. It is truly indispensable for understanding how Solzhenitsyn became Solzhenitsyn. The only other part of it that had appeared in English was a very dramatic section called “Prussian Nights”.
There are three poems from the prison camp and his exile, including a better translation of Acathistus, the song of praise that appears in the central section of The Gulag, “The Soul and Barbed Wire.” It is the great song of praise in which Solzhenitsyn explains, quite dramatically and movingly, his loss and recovery of faith.
“Oh great God! I believe now anew! Though denied, You were always with me…”
This is a very beautiful, moving, and important statement. It is also a striking work of literature.
The short stories include “Matryona's Home,” which is probably Solzhenitsyn’s best story. It is the story of a Russian peasant woman, who was very dedicated to others. Matryona—and the story itself—are very un-Soviet. She echoed and embodied the best of Old Russia: a bit superstitious, but Christian, too; the one person without whom the land or the village cannot stand, as Solzhenitsyn says at the end of the piece. The Reader also includes an excerpt from his memoir “The Oak and the Calf” about his beginnings as an “underground writer.”
There are substantial excerpts from In The First Circle, Cancer Ward, and The Gulag Archipelago, as well as important, representative chapters from The Red Wheel: August 1914, November 1916, March 1917, April 1917. Those who really want to discover Solzhenitsyn’s other great work should read The Red Wheel, as each volume comes out from University of Notre Dame Press. For the busy reader who wants a representative sample of the best written and most revealing chapters, the Reader is the place to go. Some of the excerpts address Christian themes. For example, there is the dialogue between Sanya Lazhenitsyn and Father Severyan about pacifism and Tolstoy: can you fight for your country if you are Christian? Is war the greatest evil?
The most important section for many readers is perhaps “Essays and Speeches”. The “Nobel Lecture” is a beautiful text. There Solzhenitsyn argues that there are two kinds of writers: There is the writer who thinks of himself as self-expressive: inventing and creating his own autonomous universe. Then there is the “humble apprentice under God's heaven,” who tries to realistically convey the nature of reality and the drama of the human soul. Solzhenitsyn unequivocally counts himself among this second group. There is also “Repentance and Self-Limitation in the Life of Nations,” a deeply thought-provoking essay from From Under the Rubble, and the great text “Live Not by Lies!”, which is quite relevant for our current situation, when militant ideologies are again on the rise. This section also includes the “Harvard Address” and the 1983 “Templeton Lecture”, where Solzhenitsyn lays out his religious convictions with clarity and finesse.
The final section is called “Miniatures”: “1958-1963” and “1996-1999”. These are beautiful meditative reflections: Krokhotki in Russian; “tinies” or miniatures. Sometimes in English they are called prose poems. They incluse reflections on nature, death, and the human soul, with an occasional political backdrop. Solzhenitsyn wrote some in Russia; others when he returned home after 1994. They also include two of his prayers. One is the prayer that he wrote upon becoming a famous writer, with the worldwide publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. The other is “A Prayer for Russia”, written in 1997, when the country was emerging out from the rubble of communism in a very troubling way. Solzhenitsyn was deeply worried that the country and culture were in collapse. So, he wrote this beautiful prayer, which he said every night. These prayers illustrate a personal dimension of Solzhenitsyn’s faith. His faith is certainly implicit in everything he did, but these prayers are moving while being genuine works of literature. They give admirers of Solzhenitsyn a glimpse into his soul and how he reaches out to the goodness and grace of God even amidst the worst adversities and disappointments. So, that in a nutshell is The Solzhenitsyn Reader.
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