Remembering the "Hairy Polemicist"

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Hearing of the death of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, I recalled my first interaction with his writing, when I was assigned his classic book One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, to be read alongside Yevgeny Zamyatin's dystopian classic We (In a course taught by the terrifically smart and engaging Audrey Altstadt). Unlike much of his later work, Denisovich is a slim, punchy account of the Soviet gulag system, an autobiographical story told through the surrogate character of Ivan Denisovich Shukhov. Many years later, I was struck when reading D.M. Thomas's Solzhenitsyn biography by the story of Henry Kissinger and Gerald Ford's successful campaign to keep Solzhenitsyn from visiting the White House, and thus avoid offending the Soviets and risk undermining the policy of détente. For Kissinger, it was a legacy issue. Ford, on the other hand, seemed to completely and consistently misunderstand the Soviet menace. There was, of course, that famous 1976 presidential debate during which he told New York Times reporter Max Frankel that, contrary to received wisdom, Eastern Europe was not under Soviet domination. Lest he be pilloried for what was clearly a slip of the tongue, Frankel asked Ford to clarify that he did indeed view Eastern Europe as a one large, contiguous colony of the Soviet Union. Absolutely not, Ford replied, for the people of Romania, Poland, and Yugoslavia are the masters of their own destinies.

Attacked by Soviet surrogates in the West and newspapers stubbornly sympathetic to the Soviet experiment (L'Humanite in France, The Guardian in Britain, for example), the Nobel Prize-winning author couldn't even wrangle an audience with America's accidental Republican president. D.M. Thomas recounts the details, reminding readers of Simon Winchester's time as The Guardian's Washington correspondent:

When he finally reached Washington, D.C., in June 1975, to deliver a speech to union members, the White House remained silent. Ford did not invite him round because, as aide said, the Russian was here "promoting his books," and the president felt he ought not to support a commercial venture. (This, a week or so after Ford had posed with a beauty queen and Pele, the Brazilian soccer star.) Later the reason was changed to Ford's not wanting a meeting "without substance." Ford's intellect presumably could find nothing of substance to talk about with the author of The Gulag Archipelago.

[…]  

Simon Winchester, the English Guardian's Washington correspondent, praised Ford for his "reality and integrity" in denying a hearing to the "shaggy author," the "hairy polemicist" who had become the "darling of the redneck population" after talking for an hour and a half to thousands of "sagging beer bellies."

The Economist and Christopher Hitchens eulogize Solzhenitsyn.

NEXT: "No" Means "No More Human Race"

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  1. When it comes to politicians, just fill in the reasoning “why” part yourself.

  2. Personally, I feel it was because Ford was dsylexic and was to afraid of being outed to the Russians. See? It fits.

  3. A pity.

    I’m going to have to get a new favorite president now.

    William Henry Harrison, why can’t I quit you?

  4. Absolutely not, Ford replied, for the people of Romania, Poland, and Yugoslavia are the masters of their own destinies.

    Well, that was true in the case of Yugoslavia, since it stopped being aligned with the USSR in the 1940s. As for Romania, it was something of a thorn in the side of the Soviets from the mid-1960s onward.

  5. Chevy Chase could never properly evoke the stupidity that was Gerald Ford.

    I mean, we joke about the gaffes of McCain, Obama, and others — but nothing compares — nothing with what he said at that debate.

  6. One Day in Life of Ivan Denisovich

    Read that on on my own in 8th grade. Really enjoyed it and the descriptions of masonry in chilling cold have stayed with me to this day.

  7. You’re right, Seward — but he said the people of these countries.

  8. Colin,

    The sentenced I qouted earlier is prefaced by these two sentences:

    There was, of course, that famous 1976 presidential debate during which he told New York Times reporter Max Frankel that, contrary to received wisdom, Eastern Europe was not under Soviet domination. Lest he be pilloried for what was clearly a slip of the tongue, Frankel asked Ford to clarify that he did indeed view Eastern Europe as a one large, contiguous colony of the Soviet Union.

  9. From this distance in time and with admittedly casual study Kissinger strikes me as sort of a behind the scenes version of Bush II. It’s like he had some kind of magic realpolitik wand that turned everything he touched into shit.

    Anybody have better info or a more nuanced view?

  10. Poor Solzhenitsyn. If he had really valued freedom he certainly would have chosen to live in New Hampshire rather than Vermont.

  11. Poor Solzhenitsyn. If he had really valued freedom he certainly would have chosen to live in New Hampshire rather than Vermont.

    Har har. He was actually pretty close to Leo Strauss in political alignment; he thought that the West was as morally corrupt as the East was politically repressive.

    Loving freedom means different things to different people. Including meaning being free to be tightass.

  12. Anybody have better info or a more nuanced view?

    Did a short paper about two years ago on how Kissinger’s “magical realpolitick wand” prevented the wholesale corruption of US foreign policy by ultra-Wilsonian neoCons for a very long time.

    So yeah, he was a douchebag and a war criminal, but he kept US’ foreign policy decently sane for far longer than I would have thought possible.

  13. Thanks, Elemenope. That’s food for thought. I guess an asshole is far better than the wrong kind of idealist (yeah, yeah, I know they’re not mutually exclusive). The tougher question seems to be whether there’s a right kind of idealist.

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