Alexander Solzhenitsyn, RIP

Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn died at his Moscow home yesterday, at the age of 89. From a Reuters account:

Long banned from publication, Solzhenitsyn owed his initial fame to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who allowed the publication in 1962 of his "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich", which described the horrifying routine of labor camp life.

He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970 for his work, including "Gulag Archipelago", a chronicle of his own and thousands of other prison camp experiences.

Four years later, he was stripped of his citizenship and put on a plane to West Germany for refusing to keep silent about his country's past. He became an icon of resistance to the totalitarian system from his American home in Vermont.

More here.

Solzhenitsyn eventually moved back to Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. He became a controversial character for various reasons, not the least of which were charges of anti-Semitism. After taking the measure of Solzhenitsyn's diatribes against Western-style democracy and materialism and his attitudes toward Russian Jews, reason contributor Cathy Young concluded in 2004:

While the writer's role in Soviet-era history undoubtedly deserves respect, that does not require blindness to his flaws.

Solzhenitsyn's anti-communism, it is increasingly clear, was never a defense of individual freedom. It was a defense of a different kind of collectivism: ethnic, religious, and traditionalist. This is far from the only time that such a mind-set—anti-secular, anti-modern, anti-individualist—has been linked to prejudice against those who don't fit into the collective.

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  • VM||

    Some of his comments in the Beeb in 2006.

    And, from above:

    Solzhenitsyn's anti-communism, it is increasingly clear, was never a defense of individual freedom. It was a defense of a different kind of collectivism: ethnic, religious, and traditionalist



    good words - people forgot this when they praised the pope after he died. Anticommunism doesn't automatically mean pro liberty. Often, it can be in direct opposition to liberty!

  • ||

    Ayn Rand made these same points at the time Solzhenitsyn was being lauded by nearly everyone from both the left and the right.

  • Episiarch||

    Anticommunism doesn't automatically mean pro liberty. Often, it can be in direct opposition to liberty!

    Hitler wan an anti-communist! Godwin, baby!

  • VM||

    oooh! beats the hell out of kawfee!!!!

    [country club lockjaw] I'd like a medium double caf half caf soy latte with a side of godwin [/ccl]

  • BakedPenguin||

    Hedrick Smith talked about the monarchistic, autocratic side of Solzhenitsyn in The Russians. Ironically, the book also chronicled the period where Solzhenitsyn started to come under intense pressure from the KGB.

    Still, the man was a great writer with no shortage of courage. RIP, Alexander Isayevich.

  • Episiarch||

    Yes, I'd like a gin Godwin with a twist of lime. Shaken, not stirred, of course. Thank you, Adolf.

  • TheExpatriate||

    True, Solzenitzyn was a man of incredible courage. I doubt I would have had the balls to do what he did. Nevertheless, he seems to have thought that liberty was only a good thing if applied to people and things he liked.

  • TheExpatriate||

    Oops, I meant Solzhenitsyn.

  • ||

    Nevertheless, he seems to have thought that liberty was only a good thing if applied to people and things he liked.

    There are far too many who see liberty just that way. Good for me and mine but not for thee and thine seems to be the default position for humans viv a vis liberty.

  • ||

    I think it is a mistake view Solzhenitsyn with ambivalence instead of the respect and deference his image has traditionally garnered, especially on the day of his passing.

    Reason is not incorrect in in pointing out that Solzhenitsyn wasn't perfect by highlighting the more troubling elements of Solzhenitsyn's personal philosophy. But let's not forget that George Orwell was a Socialist. Furthermore, John Stuart Mill, one of history's most brilliant and eloquent champions of liberty is on record as saying:

    "Hitherto it is questionable if all the mechanical inventions yet made have lightened the day's toil of any human being. They have enabled a greater population to live the same life of drudgery and imprisonment, and an increased number of manufacturers and others to make fortunes. They have increased the comforts of the middle classes. But they have not yet begun to effect those great changes in human destiny, which it is in their nature and in their futurity to accomplish."

    Yet despite these disturbing revelations, Orwell will go down in history, and properly so, as one of the greatest opponents of totalitarianism. Same for Mill. And same for Solzhenitsyn. The first will be remembered for Animal Farm and 1984, the second for On Liberty, and the third for the literary masterpiece that is the Gulag Archipelago.

    At the very least we should, at least for today, proverbially "not speak ill of the dead".

  • ||


    Scott | August 4, 2008, 10:17am | #

    I think it is a mistake view Solzhenitsyn with ambivalence instead of the respect and deference his image has traditionally garnered, especially on the day of his passing.

    .
    .
    ,

    At the very least we should, at least for today, proverbially "not speak ill of the dead".



    Respect for his courage is certainly in order, but forgetting a person's flaws is a fundamental error.

    Reading The Gulag Archipelago closely, it is clear that Solzhenitsyn looks back to the Tsarist era through the lens of the hell that was Soviet Era Russia.

    Solzhenitsyn opposed Communism not because it was authoritarian, but because he thought it degraded the 'Russian Character', which he took to be centered on religion.

  • ||

    I think it is a mistake view Solzhenitsyn with ambivalence instead of the respect and deference his image has traditionally garnered, especially on the day of his passing.

    That's great, Scott. But If Solzhenitsyn was any kind of writer, he wouldn't want us glossing over his negative qualities just because he gave up on breathing.

    Further, I'm not sure what your point is about Mill. There are plenty of libertarian-minded people who are ambivalent about technology. Mill's political position was solidly within the classical liberal range.

    Also, since Solzhenitsyn died yesterday, your point about respect on the day of his death is moot anyway.

  • Colin||

    He was a giant.

    The Cancer Ward, in my opinion, encompasses all that's great about literature.

    And what an incredible life he lived -- surviving the front lines of WWII, the gulag, cancer, internal exile, and external exile. It seems as if almost all great Russian writers lived lives every bit as wondrous as the characters and events they created.

  • ||

    The Gulag Archipelago is a difficult read, but only because of the horrors recounted on virtually every page.

    My personal favorite of his novels was The First Circle.

    His short story "For the Good of the Cause" is a gem showing how stultifying and stupid bureaucracy can be.

  • ed||

    Don't forget the classic "War: What Is It Good For?"

  • thoreau||

    The world is full of flawed people with all sorts of objectionable ideas. What sets Solzhenitsyn apart from so many others is that despite being a flawed person with objectionable ideas he bravely documented horrors that needed to be documented.

    None of that excuses anything else that he might have done or advocated for, but I can see him as a flawed individual who was still more important than so many of the rest of us.

  • ||

    It is easy to forget that the horrors of communism were not always so universally accepted. I can remember getting into long arguments with high school teachers over the moral equivilance of the Soviet Union and Stalin and the U.S. and this was in the 1980s. To this day you can still find the odd nut who says that Solzhenitsyn exagerated the crimes of Stalin. If Solzhenitsyn had never lived or died in the Gulag, would the crimes of communism be so understood today? I don't know but I think there is a chance they might not have been. Further, had his works never been written and passed around covertly in Soviet Russia, how many Russians would have lived in denial and continued to beleive in the regime? A lot I think. He was a giant.

    Did he have a perfect political philosophy? No. Did he gloss over the crimes of the Tsars? Yes. But when you way his good influence against his bad influence, the good wins by a wide margin.

    Lastly, he was just an incredible writer. The First Circle, Cancer Ward and the Gulag Archipelago are three of the ten best novels ever, although I am not sure you can call The Gulag Archipelago a novel. It is kind of its own unique creation. There has never been anything quite like it.

  • Mad Ivan||

    English translations of his works must be really good then, because in original Russian, Solzhenitsin is almost impossible to read... Granted, "One Day in Life..." was pretty good, but after that his writing bear only a passing resemblance of the Russian language...

  • LarryA||

    Four years later, he was stripped of his citizenship and put on a plane to West Germany for refusing to keep silent about his country's past. He became an icon of resistance to the totalitarian system from his American home in Vermont.

    Nomination (in a crowded field) for stupidest decision of the cold war communist party.

  • ||

    but I can see him as a flawed individual who was still more important than so many of the rest of us.

    Important to whom?

  • ||

    Hugh Akston

    Important in the sense that, after Solzhenitsyn produced One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago, it was no longer possible to ignore the monstrosity of the Soviet Union.

    Robert Conquest's The Great Terror probably documented it better, but it did not have the visceral impact of Gulag. Also, Conquest could be dismissed as a hostile foreigner by the apologists of the regime.*

    *Not that the apologists - like John's teachers, above - didn't try it, it was that they just could not do so credibly any more.

  • TheExpatriate||

    In terms of documenting the Gulag, don't forget Ann Applebaum's Gulag, which won the Pulitzer if I am not mistaken. It's a great read, in spite of its length and the depressing subject.

  • Colin||

    Funny, Ivan -- I thought Cancer Ward was a far easier read than A Day in the Life. In English, of course. Translations can change things greatly, though.

    I know many Russians who share your opinion of him.

  • ed||

    after One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago, it was no longer possible to ignore the monstrosity of the Soviet Union

    "We The Living" was published decades earlier. It was never justifiable to ignore the criminality of Soviet communism, but the West found a way, thanks in no small part to its fellow travellers in the press and cinema, who must bear their share of the blame.

  • Colin||

    People found it a lot easier to ignore Rand and Cummings (who wrote an anti-Soviet book at about the same time she did) than it was to ignore Solzhenitsyn.

  • ed||

    Evidently.

  • ed||

    And easier to be apologists for Stalin as well.

  • Mad Ivan||

    Colin,

    Cancer Ward was significantly longer though...

    Speaking of Cancer, it is interesting that he got there in the first place... Transferring people from exile into a (reasonably decent) treatment facility was not something that happened to "enemies of the people" all that often. Oh, wait... Solzhenitsin was quite friendly with his local Gulag administration, informing on his fellow Z/K...

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