Reviewed by Robert P. Kraynak

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Russian writer and former Soviet dissident, is not yet dead, but he is in danger of fading into oblivion in the West and of being dismissed as a crank in his own country. This is a terrible shame. For Solzhenitsyn is one of the giants of the twentieth century”a heroic witness to truth who resisted Communist tyranny and exposed the horrors of Soviet forced“labor camps in The Gulag Archipelago . He is also a powerful novelist whose works of historical fiction” The First Circle, August 1914, Cancer Ward, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich ”depict the enduring struggles between good and evil in the human heart.


If these achievements are not enough to save Solzhenitsyn from premature death, then one can read Daniel Mahoney’s inspiring new book Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The Ascent from Ideology to appreciate the philosophical and spiritual reasons for keeping him alive. The most important reason, Mahoney tells us, is Solzhenitsyn’s understanding of “the permanent propensities of the modern mind””namely, the fatal attraction to utopian ideologies and the totalitarian temptation to radically alter human nature. Solzhenitsyn not only dissects these propensities; he also provides a way out”an “ascent from ideology,” in Mahoney’s words, that aims at healing the human soul by recovering the God“given natural order of things as well as the spiritual basis of political freedom.


In presenting a reasoned defense of Solzhenitsyn, Mahoney joins a distinguished group of scholars, including Edward Ericson and Alexis Klimoff, whose mission is to rehabilitate Solzhenitsyn in Western eyes. Their task is formidable, because most Westerners have accepted the demonized caricature of Solzhenitsyn as a Russian “ayatollah,” a Tsarist reactionary, a nationalistic extremist, and, to boot, an anti“Semite.


These scholars must also contend with the bias of modern intellectuals against any attempt to portray Solzhenitsyn as a spokesman for responsible political freedom. As Mahoney points out, “Contemporary intellectuals and journalists will not tolerate any serious challenge to the enlightenment or progressivist assumptions underlying modern liberty.” What he means is that Western intellectuals are intolerant because they are hardly aware of decent alternatives to the secular theories of freedom and rights flowing from the Enlightenment. Hence, it is almost inconceivable to them that Solzhenitsyn could hold traditional beliefs about God, Orthodox Christianity, the mystical basis of the Russian nation, and the soul’s eternal destiny while also being a spokesman for responsible political freedom (meaning constitutional limits on power, moderate nationalism, private property, and local self“government). And yet this is the real Solzhenitsyn, according to Mahoney, not the demon of Western journalism.


The distinctiveness of Mahoney’s book is the careful rhetorical strategy that he has devised, both to win over skeptical or hostile readers and to make a plausible case for Solzhenitsyn as a political moderate who is neither a Tsarist reactionary nor an Enlightenment liberal. In an introductory note, Mahoney issues a simple appeal to “take Solzhenitsyn seriously” now that we know more about the inner workings of communism. He reminds us that everything that we have learned since the fall of the Berlin Wall vindicates Solzhenitsyn. In particular, The Black Book of Communism (published in France in 1997) documents the crimes, mass murders, and repressions of Communist regimes in Russia, Asia, Central Europe, and the Third World, demonstrating that over 100 million people were systematically killed. From here, Mahoney moves to a careful analysis of Solzhenitsyn’s writings that provides a comprehensive interpretation of his thought.


Mahoney begins by arguing that the most reliable statement of Solzhenitsyn’s political views is not the sensational Harvard Address of 1978 but rather the largely ignored Liechtenstein Address of 1993. This is a bold and original way to interpret Solzhenitsyn. The Harvard Address created a huge stir because it criticized Western liberal democracies for their loss of courage during the Vietnam War and for their adherence to legalistic rights without moral restraints. The Harvard Address was strident (though also powerful and inspiring, in my view) and seemed to offer no third way between the spiritual exhaustion of Western democracy and the tyranny of Soviet communism.


The later Liechtenstein Address continues the criticism of modern Western life, challenging its notion of progress for diminishing the human soul by glorifying materialism and trivializing death. Yet the address also sounds a new theme by praising the moral strengths of Western democracy”especially Ronald Reagan’s inspiring political leadership that enabled the West to win the Cold War, as well as the constitutional restraints on power that protect personal liberty. The mature Sol zhenitsyn, Mahoney demonstrates, is a man capable of prudent political judgment who clearly recognizes that political freedom is indispensable for survival as well as for spiritual renewal.


Mahoney locates a crucial element of Solzhenitsyn’s political teaching in his analysis of Peter Stolypin, the Prime Minister of Russia from 1906“11. Solzhenitsyn’s appreciation of Stolypin has been largely unknown because it appears in the second edition of August 1914: The Red Wheel I (1989), which few have read. What Solzhenitsyn claims in the Stolypin chapters is that a moderate alternative to Tsarist autocracy existed in Russia in the early twentieth century”namely, a peaceful evolution toward a European“style constitutional monarchy under the enlightened statesmanship of Prime Minister Stolypin.


The main features of Stolypin’s plan were the preservation of the Romanov dynasty and Orthodox Church, combined with economic and political reforms”reforms that would have given land to peasants and established local self“governing councils. Tragically, Stolypin was assassinated by terrorists who feared the success of his plan (which Solzhenitsyn estimates could have created an independent peasantry in twenty years and prevented Communist revolution). Mahoney’s analysis shows Solzhenitsyn to be a Burkean“style admirer of constitutional mon archy that gradually evolves toward ordered liberty while preserving his nation’s distinctive traditions.


Solzhenitsyn’s views of Russian political history have often led critics to suppose that he is a virulent nationalist. But on this matter, too, Mahoney demonstrates that Sol zhenitsyn is a moderate. While he admits that Solzhenitsyn has a romantic“conservative view of nations, holding that their allure lies in their “mystical nature,” Mahoney cites considerable evidence indicating that Solzhenitsyn views nations as spiritual and cultural entities rather than racial organisms, as Fascist ideology does. More importantly, Solzhenitsyn ties Rus sian nationalism to ethical demands for repentance and self“limitation”in cluding apologies for national crimes and the renunciation of territorial expansion. In addition, as Mahoney points out, anyone who reads The Russian Question at the End of the Twentieth Century can see that Solzhenitsyn repeatedly criticizes Russian tsars for favoring imperialism over internal development. Not surprisingly, Sol zhenitsyn is today an outspoken critic of Rus sian ultra“nationalists who “fulminate about the nefarious deeds of Masons and Jews [and] applaud aggressive chauvinism.”


In Mahoney’s view, Solzhenitsyn is best understood as a Tocquevillean deeply committed to local self“government. To defend this somewhat surprising claim, Mahoney looks to Solzhenitsyn’s personal observations of Switzerland’s Appenzell region, whose citizens impressed him with their old“fashioned character and devotion to local liberty. Further support comes from Re building Russia , in which Solzhenitsyn asserts that “the future Russian Union . . . will need democracy very much.”


His proposal is for a corporatist democracy “built from the bottom up” through a system of tiers that begins locally in Russian villages and culminates in the selection of a powerful president at the national level. Despite his tempered endorsement of democracy, Solzhenitsyn emphasizes that he embraces it (as Tocqueville does) primarily because he sees it as inevitable in the modern age and hopes it can be ennobled by the proper kinds of controls.


Solzhenitsyn, however, is more critical of democracy than Tocqueville and quite willing to express his admiration for the constitutional monarchy of the Stolypin period. The implication is that Solzhenitsyn uses prudence rather than abstract ideology to choose the best regime for the circumstances, with the main requirements of good government being constitutional limits on power to prevent crushing tyranny and the promotion of a cultural climate that encourages citizens to develop their souls.


In his last chapter, Mahoney argues that Solzhenitsyn’s political moderation is rooted in the Christian belief that the highest goods (salvation, love, beauty) transcend the temporal realm of politics. Citing Solzhenitsyn’s prose poems, Mahoney shows that Solzhenitsyn’s loftiest theme is the soul’s encounter with eternity in experiencing the grandeur of Nature (a reflection of Solzhenitsyn’s “green” side) and in listening to the haunting beauty of church bells ringing in the countryside, reminding mortal men of their heavenly home. Without explicitly professing his Christian faith, Solzhenitsyn leads the reader to see that the truth about man is the Christian understanding of man as a fallen but redeemable creature with an eternal destiny.


By incorporating these points into a coherent moral vision, Mahoney provides the most fair“minded and attractive account of Solzhenitsyn’s political thought to date. The great Russian writer comes alive as a original thinker who combines ancient spiritual wisdom with modern political freedom”a much“needed alternative that grounds liberty in the anti“utopian Christian view of fallen man and the inherently limited nature of politics rather than En lightenment“progressivist theories of individual rights and human perfectibility.


My only criticism is that Mahoney does not identify the Christian thinker who ultimately lies behind Solzhenitsyn’s vision: St. Augustine. While Mahoney compares Solzhenitsyn to Burke, to Tocqueville, and even to Aristotle, he never alludes to the Augustinian premises of his whole vision. Yet Solzhenitsyn himself refers to St. Augustine in From Under the Rubble (1974) and cites the distinction between the two cities”the realms of God and Caesar”as his justification for opposing tyranny and defending freedom. The label “political Augustinian” would thus seem to be the most accurate one for Solzhenitsyn. It would underscore the point that viewing the imperfections of the City of Man in the light of the City of God is the surest foundation for constitutional government and responsible political freedom in the age of ideology.



Robert P. Kraynak is Professor of Political Science at Colgate University and the author of Christian Faith and Modern Democracy (University of Notre Dame Press).