A Tribute from the USA
Nobel laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who died on August 3, 2008, would have turned 90 on December 11. The following is written in his memory by W. George Krasnow.
No one did as much to promote liberty in Russia as Alexander Solzhenitsyn. And few did more than he to strengthen the West, intellectually and morally, in its resistance against Soviet expansion.
One of the most "Russian" among writers, not only did he win the Nobel Prize and world-wide recognition for his works, but he also found a place of refuge for research and writing in Cavendish, Vermont. His face-off with the Soviet regime pretty much reflected the Free World's face-off with Communism. When in 1994 he returned to Russia, he did so on the wings of liberty we so cherish.
In spite of his alleged anti-Westernism, Solzhenitsyn substantively helped the West prevail in the Cold War. It was the weakness of the West in standing up against Communism that he criticized most. After the US debacle in Vietnam, the West was in no mood to rock the boat. All that Western politicians wanted was to obtain from Soviet leaders more equitable terms for dÃ©tente. At the most, they were hoping to contain Communism, that is, not let it expand into OUR sphere of influence. They had no hope, nor design, ever to see Russia free of Communism.
Not so Solzhenitsyn, for, he was not a politician, but a visionary. Shortly after being expelled from the USSR in 1973, he predicted that he would return to a free Russia. Prominent Western Sovietologists thought he was crazy.
I watched the phenomenon of Solzhenitsyn since late 1962 when I first read his One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich shortly after my own defection to Sweden. The read was fascinating. For an attentive reader, it was clear that the fabric of Soviet society held together by Ivan the Everyman was never strong, and was then beginning to disintegrate.
Solzhenitsyn's next two novels, Cancer Ward and The First Circle, became bestsellers around the world. Forbidden to be published in the USSR, they were nevertheless widely read there, thanks to the dissident samizdat phenomenon (Literally, self-publishing, but in fact just clandestine distribution of carbon-made copies of dissident writing). Thus, they became the time bombs that helped undermine the walls of Communism.
The fateful 1973 publication of The Gulag Archipelago added more fire power to Solzhenitsyn's fight for the hearts and minds of Soviet readers. Clandestine reading of his works inside the USSR foreshadowed the greater openness of Soviet society that came with President Mikhail Gorbachev's program of glasnost'.
Yet, Solzhenitsyn's greatest impact on the world was in that his novels elevated Western understanding of the secretive Soviet system, helping western intellectual elites shed their illusions about the nature of Communism. He was not the first to reveal the brutality of the Soviets against their own people. The lies of Soviet propaganda and the inner working of the Party apparatus had been exposed by numerous Soviet defectors. However, none had been able to capture the minds of Western readers as Solzhenitsyn did.
This was due to the quality of his art. His polyphonic novels, in which numerous protagonists debate in Socratic dialogue profound issues confronting humanity, made Westerner readers realize that Solzhenitsyn was one in the company of historical greats such as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. It made them empathize with the plight of ordinary Soviet people. The readers trusted him. He received thousands of letters from his American and Western admirers. Having read his novels, even pro-Soviet sympathizers often shed their rosy illusions about the Soviet experiment. In France, where Marxist influence in the intellectual establishment was especially strong, a school of leftist philosophers fell under his spell and came to be called les fils de Soljenicyn.
The growing public perception of the Soviet Union as a GULAG was boosted when Solzhenitsyn was booted out of his country. At this time, even people who had advocated negotiations with the USSR became wary of Soviet propaganda of "peaceful co-existence." If you cannot co-exist with your own writers, they reasoned, why should we believe you'd co-exist with us?
Solzhenitsyn was not the only one to be kicked out. Other dissidents followed. The less fortunate were hauled to the "strict regimen" camp Perm-36 in the Ural Mountains. It became clear that the GULAG was not just a matter of the past.
However, Soviet suppression of Alexander Dubcek's reforms in Czechoslovakia, the rising Solidarity workers movement in Poland, and a constant stream of dissident literature coming from inside the USSR made it clear that the totalitarian Soviet state was a colossus on clay feet. One of the American readers of Russian samizdat was Ronald Reagan. In fact, before he was elected President, he had written newspaper columns praising the work of Russian Ã©migrÃ©s in the United States who translated and re-printed Russian samizdat material for the benefit of American readers.
When he became President, Ronald Reagan defied the elitist intellectual establishment in the USA by declaring that Soviet Communism would be consigned to the dust bin of history. Many Sovietologists though it was undiplomatic. However, with the advent of perestroika, even Solzhenitsyn's Western detractors came to realize that, perhaps, he was right when he said that he would return to a free Russia.
Upon his return to Russia in 1994, Solzhenitsyn found there freedom, but not much else. President Boris Yeltsin made efforts to coop the writer by granting him a handsome house outside of Moscow and giving him a special TV show. Solzhenitsyn would not badge. He never gave his approval for Yeltsin's ostensibly pro-Western reforms which resulted, however, neither in a free-market nor democracy, but an oligarchic rule. He knew that his suggestions for reforms, Rebuilding Russia (1990) and Russia in Collapse (1998) were being ignored by the reformers. In a gesture of defiance, he refused to accept the highest medal award Yeltsin bestowed on him.
Only with the arrival on the political scene, first, of Yevgeny Primakov, as prime minister in 1999, then Vladimir Putin, he began to feel there was a hope for steering Russia in the direction consistent with the Russian tradition and national interests.
At the memorial service on August 5 in the building of Russian Academy of Science, both Primakov and Putin bowed their heads, as well as Mikhail Gorbachev. President Dmitry Medvedev interrupted his trip to attend the requiem service the following day. Solzhenitsyn was buried as a Russian national hero in the Donskoy Monastery cemetery in Moscow, next to the great Russian 19th century historian Vasily Klyuchevsky.
In the person of Solzhenitsyn, Russian literature has triumphed, even if only symbolically, over both the politicians and theoreticians, West and East.
P.S. I'm writing from my native city of Perm which gave the name to the infamous Camp Perm-36. It was with Solzhenitsyn's blessing that in 1996 the whole camp was turned into the Museum of the History of Political Repression, the only such museum in the former USSR.
Dr. W. George Krasnow is President of Russia & America Good Will Association (RAGA) in Washington. Formerly a professor at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California, he is the author (under the name Vladislav Krasnov) of Solzhenitsyn and Dostoevsky: A Study in the Polyphonic Novel and Russia Beyond Communism: A Chronicle of National Rebirth.