A great man died last week, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and we need to think about how to honor and remember him. Otherwise, he will fade into history as a great figure of the twentieth century who played a major role¯along with Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II¯in defeating totalitarian communism in Russia and Eastern Europe; but he will have no living legacy in the post-communist age, when radical Islam has replaced the totalitarian threat and new problems have arisen in the Putin era of Russia.
Of course, we will always have Solzhenitsyns writings; and it may happen that future generations will read the Gulag Archipelago as the most gripping account of the horrors of the Soviet forced labor camps. His other great works, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch , August 1914 , Cancer Ward , and First Circle may also be read for their historical insights about Russian history and suffering under communism. But, if Solzhenitsyn is going to be truly valued by future generations, his life and art will have to be studied for the enduring lessons they teach about the moral and spiritual dimension of politics, which Solzhenitsyn always saw as a battleground for the dignity and perfection of the human soul.
This perspective is alien and frightening to contemporary people in the West, because they think about politics primarily in terms of human rights¯about whether a government protects the rights and liberties of its citizens or represses them. But Solzhenitsyn never thought that the categories of Western liberalism about human rights were a sufficient guide to politics, and he upset his Western friends and admirers by stating that human rights were not the full measure of a just or healthy society. In his famous Harvard Address of 1978, he attacked communist regimes for destroying freedom, but then he criticized Western democracies for their emphasis on legalistic rights without moral self-restraint and religious foundations. He joined forces with his fellow Soviet dissident, Andrei Sakharov, in resisting Soviet leaders, but then he harshly criticized Sakharovs human rights activism for its naïve liberalism. Solzhenitsyn also said jarring things such as, Human rights are a fine thing, but how can we be sure that our rights do not expand at the expense of the rights of others . . . . Human freedom includes voluntary self-limitation for the sake of others.
Statements like these led many in the West to view Solzhenitsyn as an enemy of political freedom and democracy who sympathized with such reactionary causes as Tsarism, theocracy, and authoritarian nationalism. These portraits are unfair, however, because Solzhenitsyn had a deep appreciation for political freedom and democracy, even though he insisted that political institutions must serve the highest good of developing the human soul in all of its moral, artistic, and spiritual dimensions. To remember Solzhenitsyn properly, we have to appreciate his insistence on restoring the human soul to the center of politics while viewing political freedom as the necessary and indispensable means¯but only a means¯to the development of the soul.
It is striking to read the many references to the human soul in Solzhenitsyns writings. He says, Beyond upholding rights , mankind must defend its soul , freeing it for reflection and feeling; and the greatness of a people is to be sought not in the blare of trumpets . . . but in the level of its inner development, in its breadth of soul . . . in healing its soul. He also warned modern people that, because of their belief in progress, we had forgotten the human soul; and the destruction of our souls over three-quarters of a century is the most terrifying thing of all. In a powerful passage, he denounces communist totalitarianism for corrupting the soul: Our present system is unique because, over and above its physical and economic constraints, it demands total surrender of our souls . . . to the conscious lie. To this putrefaction of the soul, this spiritual enslavement, human beings who wish to be human cannot consent. When Caesar, having exacted what is Caesars, demands still more insistently that we render to him what is Gods¯that is a sacrifice we dare not make!
If we listen carefully to these statements, they are based on the Gospels distinction between Gods realm and Caesars realm and the insistence that each realm has its proper role. Surprisingly, Solzhenitsyn uses the distinction of two realms in order to lower peoples expectations about the role of the state (Caesars realm) in peoples lives and to allow the higher, spiritual realm of God and the soul to flourish in conditions of political freedom. Under conditions of limited state power and responsible freedom, a vibrant Christian culture can develop¯promoting faith, family, art, private property, and love of nature—without being destroyed by secular political ideologies. Thus, Solzhenitsyn opposes both totalitarianism and theocracy because they undermine responsible political freedom allied with a vibrant Christian culture. In The Mortal Danger , he clearly states: I have been repeatedly charged with being an advocate of a theocratic state . . . this is a flagrant misrepresentation . . . . The day-to-day activity of governing in no sense belongs in the sphere of religion. What I do believe is that the state should not persecute religion and that religion should make an appropriate contribution to the spiritual life of the nation. In Rebuilding Russia , he makes it equally clear that in post-communist Russia, the Church will be helpful to our social recovery only when it frees itself completely from the yoke of the state and restores a living bond with the people. Solzhenitsyn also says, The future Russian Union will need democracy very much and democracy must be built from the bottom up with institutions of local self-government modeled on the old Russian councils or zemstvoi.
What Solzhenitsyn learned from the history of Russia and the West is that totalitarianism, theocracy, and secular liberalism have distorted the human soul in various ways. With utmost sobriety, he shows how difficult it is to achieve the right balance between Gods realm and Caesars realm because their demands seem contradictory: Freedom of action and prosperity are necessary if man is to stand up to his full height on this earth; but spiritual greatness dwells in eternal subordination, in awareness of oneself as an insignificant particle. In other words, political freedom is absolutely necessary as a means to higher ends because it gives human beings the pride and dignity to stand up on their own two feet and to take responsibility for their lives; but attaining the highest ends requires subordination of the self to a permanent hierarchy of being in which one is merely an insignificant particle.
Obviously, the demands of freedom and higher obligation are paradoxical. They seem as different as pride and humility, and there is no political solution in the real world which can reconcile them. They can be reconciled only in a world where freedom is used solely for self-limitation in service to the highest good¯a condition that Solzhenitsyn sometimes compares wishfully to a new historical stage that would be as different from today as the change that occurred from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance and Enlightenment. Meanwhile, in the imperfect world of late modernity, political freedom must be granted with strict conditions that give people genuine political responsibility while surrounding them with cultural controls that encourage the moral and spiritual development of their souls. Whether we can achieve those higher ends in the imperfect democracies of the West, or in the more imperfect oligarchy of present-day Russia, is the question we must ponder if we wish to honor properly the memory of Solzhenitsyn and continue his battle for the dignity and perfection of the human soul.
Robert P. Kraynak is Professor of Political Science at Colgate University and author of Christian Faith and Modern Democracy (2001) and, most recently co-editor with Arthur M. Melzer of Reason, Faith, and Politics: Essays in Honor of Werner J. Dannhauser (2008).