Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is one of the great souls of the age. He is also among its most maligned and misunderstood figures. It is hard to think of another prominent writer whose thought and character have been subjected to as many willful distortions and vilifications over the past thirty years.
Things were not always so. Until the early 1970s Solzhenitsyn was widely admired in the West as a dissident and as a critic of Communist totalitarianism. On the left he was appreciated as a defender of human rights against an undeniably illiberal and autocratic regime. But with the publication of works such as August 1914 (1972), Letter to the Soviet Leaders, and the cultural-spiritual anthology From Under the Rubble (both published in the West in 1974), it became impossible to claim Solzhenitsyn as a champion of left-liberal secularism. He continued to be, of course, a ferocious critic of the ideological “lie” and a tenacious defender of fundamental human liberties. But this antitotalitarian writer clearly did not believe that a free Russia should become a slavish imitator of the secular, postmodern West. It became increasingly clear that he was both an old-fashioned patriot and a committed Christian—but here also he was perplexing to some, because he adamantly rejected “blood and soil” nationalism, expressed no desire to return to the Tsarist past, and asked for no special privileges for Christianity in a post-totalitarian Russia.
Some of his critics soon reasoned that if Solzhenitsyn was not a conventional liberal, then he must be an enemy of liberty. The legend grew that he was, at best, a “Slavophile” and a romantic critic of decadent Western political institutions, and that he was, at worst, an authoritarian and even, perhaps, an anti-Semite and a theocrat. Even those Western critics who admired Solzhenitsyn’s courage in confronting the Communist behemoth and who drew upon his dissections of ideological tyranny tended to slight his contribution to the renewal of the spiritual foundations of human liberty in a post-totalitarian world. In a memorable article published in Commentary in 1985 (“The Terrible Question of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn”), Norman Podhoretz praised Solzhenitsyn as an anti-Communist and as the author of The Gulag Archipelago, while largely taking for granted the accuracy of the caricature about him that had taken shape over the previous decade and a half. Podhoretz simply assumed that Solzhenitsyn was an authoritarian or anti-democratic thinker, though he did acquit Solzhenitsyn, a strong supporter of the state of Israel, of the charge of anti-Semitism. He also cavalierly dismissed as a literary failure The Red Wheel, Solzhenitsyn’s magnum opus that explores the events leading up to the Bolshevik revolution. (Podhoretz was in no position to do so at the time since he did not have access to any of the finished volumes of that great work.) The anti-Communist Podhoretz, however, never denied Solzhenitsyn’s greatness or his enduring commitment to human dignity.
Unfortunately, other American conservatives have succumbed to the facile consensus that has developed about Solzhenitsyn—a consensus that has, as we shall see, little connection with reality. The same tiresome distortions are recycled ad nauseam and contribute to a willful refusal to consider Solzhenitsyn’s thinking about the political and spiritual condition of modern man. My experience has been that even those who are well disposed toward Solzhenitsyn are genuinely surprised to learn that he is, in fact, an indefatigable advocate of democratic self-government, a critic of illiberal nationalism in all its forms, an erudite historian who has defended authentic Russian liberalism against its reactionary and revolutionary opponents, and an Orthodox Christian who does not take an exclusivist view toward other Christians and recognizes the wisdom inherent in all the great religions of the world. There is, to be sure, a good deal of impressive scholarship about Solzhenitsyn in all the major European languages, but such work rarely gains the kind of public hearing that would alter the reigning public perceptions about the Russian Nobel laureate.
Serious, informed, and measured engagement with Solzhenitsyn’s writing is all too rare in America. Some of Solzhenitsyn’s critics are content to sneer at him without bothering to produce quotations that would support their characterizations of his thought. The distinguished historian Richard Pipes has used this tendentious mode in his recent memoir, Vixi, in which Pipes calls Solzhenitsyn “quite innocent of historical knowledge” and declares, without offering any evidence, that Solzhenitsyn is committed to an impossible “‘Holy Russia’ of his imagination.” After acknowledging Solzhenitsyn’s “courage in standing up to the equally hate-filled and equally fanatical Communist regime,” Pipes goes on to dismiss him as a “false prophet” full of “hate-driven intellectual intolerance.” Thus Pipes fabricates a moral equivalence between the author of The Gulag Archipelago and the inhuman regime he did so much to bring to its knees. This shameful comparison dishonors Pipes, who here lends his considerable authority to the vituperative campaign against Solzhenitsyn.
The Russian-born libertarian journalist Cathy Young provides an equally shoddy account of the writings of Solzhenitsyn in the May 2004 issue of Reason Magazine (“Traditional Prejudices: The Anti-Semitism of Alexander Solzhenitsyn”). Her subject is Dvesti let vmeste (Two Hundred Years Together), Solzhenitsyn’s monumental study of Russian-Jewish relations. (Volume one was published in 2001 and volume two in 2003; there is as yet no English translation. See the July-August 2004 issue of Society for my extensive discussion of this work.) In a calm and authoritative-sounding tone, Young engages in nothing less than character assassination, eschewing anything that resembles explication de texte and ignoring everything in Solzhenitsyn’s writings that might militate against her claims.
A reader of her essay, for example, would never learn about Solzhenitsyn’s condemnation of “scandalous restrictions” against Jews under the Russian old regime, his criticisms of the Russian state for its “unpardonable inaction” in failing to anticipate and respond to brutal anti-Jewish pogroms, his admiration for the great Russian statesman Pyotr Stolypin’s efforts to end the Jewish disabilities, or his criticism of the White forces during the Russian Civil War for their inexcusable toleration of anti-Semitic violence in territories under their control. Nor would one learn about his moving and somber discussion in chapter twenty-one of Two Hundred Years Together of the Holocaust unleashed against Jews on Soviet territory. In that chapter Solzhenitsyn narrates the truly mind-boggling facts regarding the extermination of Soviet Jews in the western territories of the Soviet Union. It is true that he refuses to choose between the two terrible totalitarianisms of the twentieth century: this is because Communist and Nazi totalitarianism are equally deserving of unqualified condemnation by all decent people. Solzhenitsyn refuses to set the sufferings of Russians and Jews against each other. The “totality of suffering” experienced by both at the hands of the Communist and Nazi regimes was “so great, the weight of the lessons inflicted by History so unsupportable, the anguish for the future so gnawing” that it is imperative that such suffering give rise to empathy and understanding between Russians and Jews.
Throughout these two volumes, Solzhenitsyn is emphatic in his condemnation of all bigoted and hostile depictions of Jews qua Jews, and he expresses the deepest respect for the spiritual greatness of the Jewish people. He never attributes “collective guilt” to Jews or any other people. To be sure, he calls on Russians and Jews alike to take “collective responsibility” for their respective sins and omissions. In his view, Russians and Jews must both come to terms with the members of their peoples who acted in complicity with the Communist regime. They should also stop blaming others for all of their misfortunes and discontents. Jews must not pretend that every Jew was a victim, that there were no “revolutionary assassins” in their midst. And Russians must admit that they were the “authors of [their own revolutionary] shipwreck” and resist the deluded inclination “to blame everything on the Jews.”
Instead of accurately reporting Solzhenitsyn’s published views, Young resurrects several discredited indictments, perhaps the most egregious one being that the author of The Gulag Archipelago is not a true friend of human liberty but is instead a partisan of a traditionalist collectivism. She shows no awareness of Solzhenitsyn’s eloquent defenses of the rule of law and the importance of local self-government to a healthy and well-constituted civic life. The third and final volume of The Gulag Archipelago, for example, ends with a stirring denunciation of the absence of the rule of law in Soviet Russia, and all of Solzhenitsyn’s recent political writings invoke the crucial importance of local self-government for the consolidation of political liberty and civic virtue in post-Communist Russia. Solzhenitsyn does not slight what Russians can learn from the Western and American experiences of democratic self-government. Addressing the town meeting of Cavendish, Vermont (his home from 1976 until 1994), shortly before returning to his native Russia, he spoke thoughtfully about how in Cavendish and its neighboring communities he had “observed the sensible and sure process of grassroots democracy, in which the local population solves most of its problems on its own, not waiting for the decisions of higher authorities. Unfortunately, we do not have this in Russia, and that is still our greatest shortcoming.”
More fundamentally, Young shows no appreciation of the personalism that informs nearly every page of The Gulag Archipelago. This is a remarkable lacuna since the book is nothing less than “a celebration of personality,” to cite the apt formulation of the distinguished Russianist John B. Dunlop. The Gulag’s portraits of freedom-loving individuals and indomitable souls such as the young Zoya Leshcheva (who fearlessly defended her religious faith against her atheistic persecutors), the defiant Anna Skripnikova (who had the self-respect to act as a free citizen in a totalitarian state and spent the years from 1918 to 1959 in and out of prison), the committed escaper Georgi Tenno, and the religious poet Anatoli Silin, are unforgettable encomia to the human spirit. As any charitable reader of the Gulag will discern, Solzhenitsyn is no collectivist. But neither is he a “libertarian” who ignores the indispensable moral foundations of human liberty. Of course, Young has every right to quarrel with Solzhenitsyn’s account of Russian history or with his understanding of the moral and religious foundations of human liberty. But it is dishonest, and worse, to accuse him of anti-Semitism or to label him an enemy of human freedom.
How does one begin to break out of this interminable recycling of distortions and misrepresentations? To begin with, it is necessary to recognize that the defense of human liberty and dignity is not exhausted by the categories or assumptions of late modernity. Solzhenitsyn is a liberal in the sense that he is acutely aware of the myriad moral and cultural prerequisites of human liberty. In particular, he belongs to a noble Russian tradition that attempts to breathe “only the best air from the West” while “feeding ourselves only with the best milk from our own Mother Russia.” These words of the prerevolutionary Russian journalist M. O. Menshikov are highlighted in James H. Billington’s excellent new book Russia in Search of Itself (Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 256 pp., $24.95). As Billington points out, the most illuminating Russian thought of the past 125 years—from Soloviev, Bulgakov, and Berdiaev, to Solzhenitsyn and D.M. Likhachev today—has attempted to draw on the best of the Western and Russian philosophical, theological, literary, and political traditions. This synthesizing current, which is suspicious of Western nihilism and scientism as well as of Eastern despotism, is all but ignored by Western elites today, who reflexively identify liberalism with materialism, relativism, and political correctness.
Solzhenitsyn has meditated on this problem of conjugating Russia and the West, liberty and the moral contents of life, with great penetration and finesse in the various volumes of The Red Wheel. These books include profound reflections on the character of political moderation and the requirements of a statesmanship that would unite Christian attentiveness to the spiritual dignity of man with an appreciation of the need to respect the unceasing evolution of society. Solzhenitsyn takes aim at reactionaries who ignore the inexorability of human “progress,” at revolutionaries who take nihilistic delight in destroying the existing order, and at “false liberals” who refuse to explore prudently the necessarily difficult relations between order and liberty, progress and tradition.
In nearly all of his major writings, Solzhenitsyn appeals to the indispensability of the spiritual qualities of “repentance” and “self-limitation” for a truly balanced individual and collective life. But he never turns the classical or Christian virtues into an antimodern ideology that would escape the reality of living with the tensions inherent in a dynamic, modern society. He is not, however, unduly sanguine about the prospects for these virtues in the contemporary scene. As he writes in November 1916, “In the life of nations, even more than in private life, the rule is that concessions and self-limitation are ridiculed as naïve and stupid.” Solzhenitsyn thus has no illusions about repentance and self-limitation becoming the explicit and unchallenged foundation of free political life. His more modest hope is to claim a hearing for the Good amidst the cacophony of claims that vie for public notice. Neither genuflecting before progress nor irresponsibly rejecting it, Solzhenitsyn insists that we must “seek and expand ways of directing its might towards the perpetration of good.” Solzhenitsyn’s moral vision has too often been politicized in ways that mistake his rejection of progressivist illusions for a reactionary refusal to admit the possibility of progress.
Solzhenitsyn is, in truth, a conservative liberal who wants to temper the one-sided modern preoccupation with individual freedom with a salutary reminder of the moral ends that ought to inform responsible human choice. Like the best classical and Christian thinkers of the past, he believes that human beings should not “neglect their spiritual essence” or “show an exaggerated concern for man’s material needs.” Thus, while he displays a rich appreciation of the limits of politics, he also recognizes that “a Christian must . . . actively endeavor to improve the holders of power and the state system.” And when Solzhenitsyn addresses specifically political questions he does so as a principled advocate of political moderation. His portrait in August 1914 of Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin’s efforts to establish a constitutional order that would be consistent with Russia’s spiritual traditions and that would keep Russia from falling into the revolutionary abyss contains some of the wisest pages ever written about statesmanship.
The shamefully one-sided journalistic and critical reception too often accorded to Solzhenitsyn’s work thus serves as an unintended confirmation of the difficulty of pursuing what he has called the “middle line” in the service of human liberty and human dignity. Solzhenitsyn has used his literary gifts and moral witness to teach us, as he says in The Gulag Archipelago, “that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but through all human hearts.” Today, though he is eighty-five years old and has had some physical setbacks, he remains committed to his writing. Moreover, his stature and moral authority remain high where it most counts: in his native Russia. In response to the recent awarding of the Solzhenitsyn Prize to the actor and the director of the television series that brought Dostoevski’s The Idiot to the screen, the popular writer Darya Dontsova commented that “the great Solzhenitsyn is in reality a very modern man, and young of heart.” Most importantly, amidst the corruption and moral drift of the post-Communist transition, he has never ceased to remind his compatriots that they “must build a moral Russia or none at all.” He remains an intrepid defender of a freedom that is worthy of man and has thus maintained faith with the best in both Russian and Western traditions. He merits our continuing gratitude, respect, and admiration.
Daniel J. Mahoney is chairman of the political science department at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts and the author of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The Ascent From Ideology (2001).