In May 1982, the Russian Nobel laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn took time off from his work on The Red Wheel , his magisterial literary-historical account of the origins of the Bolshevik Revolution, to respond to his detractors in the Russian émigré community. He had some able and eloquent defenders among the émigrés. But after his exile to the West in February of 1974, the critiques multiplied in journals such as Andrei Synyavski’s Syntaxis in Paris.
With rare exceptions, it was not a question of reasonable disagreements with Solzhenitsyn’s understanding of Russian history or the future of a Russia freed from totalitarian tyranny. Instead, the author of The Gulag Archipelago was pilloried as a "Russian Ayatollah," "a reactionary utopian," "A Grand Inquisitor," the advocate of "clerical totalitarianism." One critic went so far as to call him¯against all truth and decency¯"the ideological founder of a new Gulag."
So, in the resulting 1982 Our Pluralists , Solzhenitsyn provided a devastating response to those left-liberals who identified every manifestation of Christian faith and national sentiment with a new authoritarianism or who blamed the crimes of Communism on the Russian "national tradition" rather than a blood-soaked ideology dedicated to the extirpation of religion, patriotism, tradition, as well as fundamental personal and political freedoms. More fundamentally, Solzhenitsyn challenged the idea that "pluralism" was an "autonomous principle," an end in itself, rather than an essential means for pursuing a truth that imperfect human beings perceive all too often through a glass darkly.
Solzhenitsyn reiterated a claim that was central to his controversial commencement address at Harvard University in 1978: "if there are neither true or false judgments, man is no longer held [accountable] for anything. Without universal foundations, morality is not possible." For this, as much as for his defense of a humane and self-limiting Russian patriotism, the author of The Gulag Archipelago , the most powerful and sustained critique of totalitarianism ever written, was denounced as an enemy of liberty and the spiritual architect of a new authoritarianism.
As I argued in a 2004 article in First Things , "Traducing Solzhenitsyn," these tendentious assaults helped shape a "new consensus" about Solzhenitsyn. Moreover, this consensus has been remarkably resistant to correction on the basis of a balanced critical analysis of what Solzhenitsyn actually says in his writings. The situation was made worse by the fact that many of Solzhenitsyn’s most important writings have not been available in English, despite their ready availability in French, German, Romanian, Italian, and of course the author’s native Russian.
To rectify this situation, Edward E. Ericson Jr. and I prepared The Solzhenitsyn Reader: New and Essential Writings, 1947-2005 , released by ISI Books in November 2006. Fully 30 percent of the volume is new in English, thanks to superb new translations by Ignat and Stephan Solzhenitsyn, Alexis Klimoff, Harry Willetts, and Michael Nicholson, among others. From this collection, "Miniatures, 1996-1999" and the poem "A Prayer for Russia" appeared in First Things .
The Reader allowed English readers access for the first time to the full range of Solzhenitsyn’s writings. The beautiful early poem "Prisoner’s Right" (1951), for example, where Solzhenitsyn first expresses his enduring core insight that interior spiritual development is "the loftiest gem of all earthly gemstones" and the prisoner’s one fundamental "right." Or excerpts from the original unexpurgated ninety-six chapter version of First Circle , and the dramatic street scenes about the revolutionary violence and chaos in St. Petersburg from March 1917 , and moving reflections about the effects of Communism on the Russian soul and the importance of local self-government to freedom and human dignity from Russia in Collapse .
Included are the core chapters of Solzhenitsyn’s great historical work on Russian-Jewish relations, Two Hundred Years Together ¯chapters that put the lie to cheap charges of anti-Semitism that emanate from some of Russian author’s critics. Included, as well, are the beautifully evocative "Miniatures," prose poems that Solzhenitsyn wrote from 1958 to 1963 and 1996 to 1999. Reading the latter works, one immediately appreciates the limits of overly politicized readings of Solzhenitsyn.
Reading such work from Solzhenitsyn, we can see the failure of every effort to read him primarily as a dissident or commentator on the news, rather than as a belletrist, poet, historian, and chronicler of the human spirit. The Solzhenitsyn Reader thus provides an opportunity to confront Solzhenitsyn directly without the distorting lenses introduced by thirty-five years of polemics emanating from his cultured despisers.
Which makes it all the stranger that the review of the book in the March 9 issue of the Times Literary Supplement could have appeared in Syntaxis thirty years ago.
Written by the émigré novelist Zinovy Zinik, the review recycles all the same tired charges of "stale traditionalism" in literature and politics, authoritarianism, and neo-Stalinist rhetoric¯as if the old fights have to be re-fought one more bloody time. But this time they are presented without deep conviction and with plenty of internal evidence that contradicts the author’s claims.
Thus Zinik readily concedes that Solzhenitsyn a literary innovator, but somehow a "stale traditionalist" anyway. It would be "preposterous," he says, to call Solzhenitsyn an anti-Semite, though he goes on to insinuate it anyway. Solzhenitsyn has given support to the most "reactionary" elements in Russian politics and literature, Zinik insists¯despite Solzhenitsyn’s continuing denunciations of the "maladies of Russian nationalism" and his unflagging opposition to the Red-Brown coalition of unrepentant communists and racialist nationalists.
In his only reference to the actual contents of the Reader , Zinik concedes the accuracy of the portrait of Solzhenitsyn’s views found in our "comprehensive preface" and "informative introductions to each part" of the volume. He admits that the Solzhenitsyn who emerges from the book is a "moderate conservative, a religious but tolerant old-fashioned thinker."
But it turns out that none of this is of any importance. Instead of analyzing Solzhenitsyn as a writer, historian, and moral philosopher, Zinik issues a thunderous, if a rather passé, attack on a man whose views are disqualified by his moralizing, "theocratic" character.
Zinik can assert all this only by saying nothing, absolutely nothing, about the actual contents of the seven-hundred-page book. If he had to refer to real texts he would have to concede that Solzhenitsyn is a critic of "stale traditionalism" in both politics and literature. As Solzhenitsyn wrote in his 1993 "Playing Upon the Strings of Emptiness," the task of a "healthy conservatism" is to remain "equally sensitive to the old and to the new, to venerable and worthy traditions, and to the freedom to explore, without which no future can ever be born." Zinik sees no need to consult texts since he believes Solzhenitsyn has been excommunicated from civil discussion by his unwillingness to confuse human freedom¯an inestimable good¯with the tenants of relativistic ideology.
Zinik ends his review by insinuating that Solzhenitsyn is a prisoner in an authoritarian Russia of his own making (although once again he concedes¯quite rightly¯ that Solzhenitsyn’s "most cherished" political idea is that of "saving Russia by strengthening the independence of local government, Swiss-style").
In truth, Solzhenitsyn remains¯as he has been for decades now¯a thoughtful and passionate advocate of "repentance and self-limitation," a critic of the "lie" in all its forms, an advocate of what he calls a "clean, loving, constructive Patriotism" as opposed to a radically nationalist bent" that "elevates one’s nationality above a humble stance toward heaven." In contrast to the consensus that increasingly dominates in both liberal and conservative circles in the West, Solzhenitsyn saw Russia in the 1990s¯with its criminal corruption, unholy alliance of oligarchs and unrepentant communists, its betrayal of the rule of law and a genuine market economy in the name of a misguided "market ideology"¯as a new "Time of Troubles" for his beloved homeland. He has a balanced view of Russia today in no small part because he does not identify the 1990s as a period of true democratic reforms as so many people mistakenly do in the West.
But if Solzhenitsyn does not see Russia as imperiled by a new totalitarianism, he has repeatedly made clear that Russia still "has no democracy." As Solzhenitsyn put it in his farewell remarks to the people of Cavendish, Vermont, on February 28, 1994, "Here in Cavendish, and in the surrounding towns, I have observed the sensible and pure process of grassroots democracy, in which the local population solves most of its problems, not waiting for the decision of higher authorities. Unfortunately, we do not have this in Russia, and that is till our greatest shortcoming." Nothing has happened over the past thirteen years that would induce Solzhenitsyn to modify that judgment.
Solzhenitsyn’s writings and moral witness are worthy of our deep respect and our thoughtful and serious consideration. This great man’s writings certainly deserve something much more than embittered dismissals and rants masquerading as reviews.
Daniel J. Mahoney is professor of political science at Assumption College and co-editor of The Solzhenitsyn Reader: New and Essential Writings, 1947-2005 .