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Alexander Solzhenitsyn -- an appreciation

By JOHN C.K. DALY, UPI International Correspondent   |   Aug. 4, 2008 at 5:51 PM   |   Comments

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WASHINGTON, Aug. 4 (UPI) -- With the death of Alexander Isayevich Solzhenitsyn, the world has lost one of its most remarkable writers, a literary colossus whose extraordinary body of work, while deeply rooted in the Russian literary tradition, nonetheless reverberated with humanistic themes of global importance.

Solzhenitsyn's extraordinary literary legacy is all the more remarkable given that he survived two of the most catastrophic events a human being can endure -- eight years in the maw of Stalin's concentration death camps, followed by a bout with cancer.

While the fulsome accolades to Solzhenitsyn largely revolve around his magisterial work "The Gulag Archipelago," on which he labored for a decade, the author himself saw it as merely one facet of his endeavors. He spent 17 years of his life on his epochal "Krasnoe Koleso" ("The Red Wheel"), a historical cycle of novels delving into Russia's descent into World War I and the end of the 300-year-old Romanov monarchy in March 1917, which was followed eight months later by Lenin's overthrow of the Provisional government. "The Red Wheel" was Solzhenitsyn's attempt to explain to his fellow countrymen and the world the events that bled Russia white early in the 20th century and set the stage for the most brutal system of social engineering ever attempted.

It is a measure of the West's declining interest in Solzhenitsyn that while the first three volumes of the work -- "August 1914," "November 1916" and "March 1917" -- were translated into English, his "April 1917," appearing in 1991, the final year of the Soviet Union, has yet to be translated into English. Ironically, Solzhenitsyn's star in the West began to dim shortly after he was exiled, when Western Cold Warriors realized that he was hardly a team player, a view crystallized in his 1978 Harvard Commencement Address, in which he castigated the West for losing its "civil courage."

Solzhenitsyn was not an easy read: His language was sprinkled with the slang of the camps, and his tone occasionally harsh, grating and judgmental, a complete contrast to the pellucid prose of Russia's greatest author, Alexander Pushkin, or Vladimir Nabokov, beloved for his artistic use of the nuances of the Russian language. Nevertheless, at his best, Solzhenitsyn was never less than compelling, as he meticulously chronicled the savage brutality inflicted on the Soviet population by their masters in the name of progress, an effort that won him in 1970 the Nobel Prize for literature even as it infuriated the Soviet government, which exiled him four years later. Solzhenitsyn returned to Russia only in 1994.

Solzhenitsyn's "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," published in 1962, required the personal approval of Nikita Khrushchev to appear in print. Khrushchev saw it as a valuable weapon in his de-Stalinization campaign, but the work reverberated far beyond Khrushchev's expectations, breaching the Soviet Union's dam of silence about the horrendous human cost incurred by the Soviet population being forced to "construct socialism" by the omnipotent Communist Party. The work discreetly injected into the Soviet psyche the fundamental question of whether such a brutal system was capable of reform that would justify its accomplishments achieved with such suffering, producing unresolved tensions that would persist through Mikhail Gorbachev's cynical and naive attempts at reform until the entire edifice imploded in 1991.

What Western commentators missed in focusing on their simplistic image of Solzhenitsyn as a fellow Cold Warrior was that he, in fact, was deeply rooted in the Russian literary tradition of speaking truth to autocratic power. In this, Solzhenitsyn followed in the steps first trod by Alexander Nikolayevich Radishchev, whose 1790 "Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow," an unvarnished portrayal of the wretched socio-economic conditions of the Russian peasantry, incurred the wrath of Catherine the Great, who initially condemned him to death, but eventually commuted the sentence to seven years' exile in Siberia.

Solzhenitsyn's eight years in the Gulag and subsequent internal exile paralleled the experience of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, whose participation in the liberal Petrashevsky discussion circle earned him a death sentence, subsequently commuted by Czar Nikolai I to four years of exile at hard labor in Siberia, graphically chronicled in his harrowing novel "The House of the Dead." Czar Nikolai's anger even extended to Russia's greatest poet, Alexander Pushkin, whose sympathies with the Decembrists, who had attempted a coup against the czar on the first day of his reign, were well known. Summoned into the czar's presence, who asked him where he would have been on that frosty morning, Pushkin stated that he would have been on Senate Square with his friends. Pushkin's honesty earned him exile to his family's estates and a greater torment: Nikolai took it upon himself personally to censor Pushkin's literary efforts.

To be a writer of conscience in either Imperial Russia or the Soviet Union was to invite a level of scrutiny and potential persecution from the authorities simply unknown in the West; during the Soviet era many writers wrote their best works "for the drawer," knowing they would never be published in their lifetime. Solzhenitsyn, however, keenly felt his responsibility to chronicle his countrymen's sufferings and determined to press on, whatever the personal cost, commenting, "Literature becomes the living memory of a nation."

Like Lev Tolstoy, who encapsulated the entire sweep of Russian society in "War and Peace," Solzhenitsyn in "The Gulag Archipelago" wrote a comprehensive history of Josef Stalin's penal system with an insider's knowledge as a memorial to the nameless millions who died in service to Stalin's savage megalomania, while "The Red Wheel" portrayed Russian society entering the apocalypse of World War I much as Tolstoy's novel had done a century earlier.

Like his predecessors, Solzhenitsyn never shied away from controversial subjects. His last major published work, a study of the troubled course of Jewish-Russian relations since 1772, the two-volume "Dvesti Let Vmeste" ("Two Hundred Years Together") (2001-2), another work yet to be published in English, elicited charges of anti-Semitism, and his espousal of Russian Orthodoxy and nationalism as Russia's best course for healing communism's ravages bothered many in the West and were dismissed as obscurantist ranting by many in the post-Soviet Russian Federation.

The gulag is gone, the Cold War peacefully ended, and Russia has embraced capitalism with a vengeance. Many might wonder whether Solzhenitsyn remains relevant. In a world where Beijing's Red Mandarins control the destiny of a quarter of the world's population, Radovan Karadzic sits in the International Court of Justice, in a world with "extraordinary rendition" flights and hundreds of prisoners sit incarcerated in Guantanamo for years without trial, it would seem that Solzhenitsyn's penetrating observations about the untrammeled abuse of absolute power, even when deployed for "the good of the people" in constructing secure utopias, remain as trenchant as when they first appeared. Rejecting the Western conceit that communism's horrors were somehow unique to Russia, Solzhenitsyn wrote, "The battle-line between good and evil runs through the heart of every man."

Perhaps the last word on Solzhenitsyn's legacy is best expressed by a Soviet joke, that bitter repository of humor of the Russian people under the enlightened Soviet regime, circulating in the early 1970s: A century from now, a child asks his father, "Daddy, who was Brezhnev?" The reply: "Oh, he was a minor politician in the time of Solzhenitsyn."

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