Between Two Millstones, Book 1:
Sketches of Exile, 1974–1978
by aleksandr solzhenitsyn
notre dame, 480 pages, $35
The first volume of Solzhenitsyn’s memoir of exile, Between Two Millstones, begins with the author’s expulsion from the Soviet Union and closes with him viewing the landscape from his Vermont home and thinking about Russia. Intellectually, this period begins with the publication of his Letter to the Soviet Leaders, which had been written before his expulsion but appeared in print after he left Russia, and ends with his commencement speech delivered at Harvard in 1978. The Letter provoked a critical reaction from Andrei Sakharov, another heroic figure in the anti-communist opposition within the USSR. The Harvard speech unleashed an avalanche of criticism from all sides.
What must strike the reader is how little Solzhenitsyn was interested in the life of the countries he visited and lived in, and how immersed he was in Russian life at home and abroad. Whenever he mentions important political figures from Western Europe or the U.S., it is usually because he failed to meet them or, as in the case of the king of Spain or President Ronald Reagan, declined their invitations. In those rare cases when the invitation was accepted, he has few good words to say. For example, he concludes that his meeting with Pierre Trudeau was “quite unnecessary.” His dream was “to settle somewhere where there were Russians, so we could breathe in some Russian air, and the children could grow up in a Russian setting.”
In fact, from the very beginning Solzhenitsyn had serious doubts and reservations about the West. He saw himself as a man who was alien to the Western artistic, intellectual, and political elites.
I did not in any way sense that a sizable core of Western public opinion had begun to turn against me two years earlier in reaction to several publications . . . on account of my steadfast focus on Orthodox Christianity . . . [and] on account of my condemnation of the revolutionaries and liberals. . . . I had not only sinned against the laws of accepted artistic norms, but was now . . . transgressing against political decency, as well.
What some found particularly annoying was his unequivocal rejection of the détente, which was at the time viewed as the beginning of a new era of peace and cooperation between the Free World and the Soviet bloc. That was the reason why the effort to grant him honorary citizenship never succeeded. President Ford declined to meet Solzhenitsyn, and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, one of the masterminds of the détente, was reported saying that “Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s militant views are a threat to peace,” and, “if his views become the national policy of the United States we would be confronted with considerable threat of military conflict.”
But the first volume of Between Two Millstones is, as I said, mostly about Russia and Russians, not about America and Western Europe, both of which Solzhenitsyn identifies jointly as “the West.” This was a standard expression in all languages in the Soviet bloc countries, though its connotations varied. In Poland, “the West” meant the countries on the western side of the Iron Curtain, free and prosperous, colorful, rich in culture, and vibrating with life, from which we, the Poles, had been brutally separated, but among which we deserved to be and to which we really belonged. For Russia, the West was Them. Whether this foreign presence was to be admired and imitated or rejected because of its spiritual aridity and many other sins has been—as everyone knows—a matter of perennial dispute among the Russians.
Solzhenitsyn talks about the three roads open to Russian intellectuals: socialist, liberal, and national. On the first he places the brothers Roy and Zhores Medvedev, on the second Andrei Sakharov, and on the third himself. Since Solzhenitsyn considered Marxism a product of Western culture, it might seem that Sakharov and the Medvedev brothers—that is, liberals and socialists—had a lot in common. But however intense his irritation with Sakharov, and whatever his theoretical argument about liberalism and Marxism might be, he would never put Sakharov alongside Roy Medvedev, whom Solzhenitsyn intensely disliked. His attitude to Zhores was less negative, but he could not forgive him the statement, “We do not have a regime [in the USSR], but a government just like any other country, and it governs us through a constitution.” Sakharov would never have said such a thing.
Solzhenitsyn’s view of Russia is perhaps best expressed in his Letter to the Soviet Leaders. He describes the devastation of Soviet society, especially its moral norms and natural environment, which he attributes to the destructive nature of communist and Marxist ideology. He predicts recovery through a kind of non-ideological authoritarianism that would permit the leaders to keep their power but at the same time give them a free hand to make necessary reforms. On the spiritual plane, he believes that Orthodox Christianity can renew the Russian soul. The text was a mixture of a matter-of-fact description, a strategy of political realism, and the ruminations of a national prophet.
Sakharov’s lukewarm, even critical, reaction to the Letter could be expected, but at the same time it disappointed the author. Solzhenitsyn remarked that a lot of what Sakharov blamed him for was not in the text, and he was right. It seems that the dissident’s reaction to the Letter was dictated more by the basic division characteristic of the Russian intelligentsia than by what the text actually said. And it is difficult to take sides in this basic conflict, as both antagonists have some good arguments, and both are entangled in serious contradictions, especially with regard to Russia.
Sakharov painted a rather dark picture of Russian society, demoralized by repeated dictatorships, and isolated from Western civilization (“the servile, slavish spirit which existed in Russia for centuries, combined with a scorn for people of other countries, other races, and other beliefs”). At the same time, he strongly believed in democracy as a solution to Russian problems. Solzhenitsyn, on the other hand, maintained that Russia had a powerful and rich identity (“the nation as a person”) that would thrive when the nation was released from Communism. But he proposed authoritarian rule, fearing the explosion of violent radicalism that might follow the process of rapid democratization. In other words, for Sakharov what was an essentially unhealthy society needed democracy, while for Solzhenitsyn what was an essentially healthy nation needed authoritarian rule.
The ironies run even deeper. Sakharov wrote that in the Russian past there were “many beautiful examples of democratic endeavors, starting with the democratic reforms launched by Alexander II.” Alexander II was not a democrat, but an enlightened despot, more benevolent, perhaps, than those before and after him, but a despot all the same. I do not know if Solzhenitsyn ever wrote about Alexander II, but I suspect that Solzhenitsyn could very well count this particular Russian tsar among the type of authoritarian rulers that Russia needed.
Solzhenitsyn reacted angrily against those who said only bad things about the Russian nation, and he had, from his point of view, a good ad hominem argument against them. Denouncing and condemning one’s country and one’s people makes the opposition to an inhumane regime groundless and hopeless, as the country and the people apparently do not deserve any better. Why fight communism if Russia without communism is also doomed? Besides, those who denounce and condemn belong to the very same nation, whether they want it or not, and it makes no sense for them to exclude themselves from any bonds with it.
Solzhenitsyn did not hide his irritation with his fellow dissidents who gave in to such temptations. Among those whom he criticized was Andrei Sinyavsky (also known as Abram Tertz). “I exploded,” he wrote, “when I saw Sinyavsky’s strutting, jaunty article in which he called Russia ‘You Bitch.’ I could see in it (and in no uncertain terms) the birth of a whole movement hostile toward Russia. . . . His entire strained, neurotic, barbed article is devoted to denouncing ‘them,’ not ‘us,’ a futile direction that has never in history yielded anything positive.”
The argument is good but only ad hominem. It has little power ad rem. The truth is that the growth of Russian power since the sixteenth or seventeenth century did not bring civilization or political reform to the territories that were annexed by the tsars, nor did it improve the existing institutions. On the contrary, Russian rule meant regress, apathy, brutality, lawlessness, corruption, loss of civility, and decline of education. Russian imperialism did not have any good sides, and no wonder that the nations of Eastern Europe, Poland in particular, remember it as an historical calamity. In this, Russia was different from Prussia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which, however brutal they could be to subject nations, did have some civilizing influence on them.
Even the Russian spirituality of which Solzhenitsyn makes so much did not impress subject peoples. On the contrary, the Russian rule was too autocratic and the ruling class too demoralized to be carriers of spiritual values. In fact, they were the antithesis of spirituality. Orthodox Christianity could not take root in the societies in which Western Christianity had been for centuries the major religious force. Besides, the Russian Orthodox Church was too much at the service of the Russian autocracy to be spiritually attractive.
It is interesting that with widespread hostility to and even contempt for Russia, Eastern European elites were immensely attracted to great Russian art, particularly literature, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. If there is any genius of Russia, it is located in the works of Russian poets, novelists, composers. Unfortunately, so far these achievements have not suffused other areas of life—not politics, not law, not public morality, not in tsarist Russia, not in Soviet Russia, not in Putin’s Russia.
The great Russian writers had an ambiguous view of their own country. When one reads Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Karenina, one is impressed by the quality of life among the Russian high and middle classes, which very much resemble their Western counterparts, and sometimes exceed them. They are well-mannered and graceful, with subtle minds and high moral ideals. They could pass—literally—for French or English aristocrats. In War and Peace, there is a scene in which two Russian officers dressed in French military uniforms go to the French camp to find out about their enemies’ plans. It does not occur to them that they could be recognized by their foreign accent, apparently because they did not have one.
And yet the same Tolstoy in his Resurrection presented a completely different picture of Russia: a country of injustice, poverty, hopelessness, suffering, human misery, a nation in need of redemption rather than capable of redeeming others. This is a nation completely different from the victorious one we read about in War and Peace—led by superb elites, defeating the French not only on the battlefield but also through its deep sense of identity and its historical wisdom.
It would be unfair to say that similar ambiguity is entirely absent in Solzhenitsyn. He admitted, for instance, that he had been dismayed by what he learned about the February Revolution from the Hoover Institution’s archives; that first expression of Russian political freedom, instead of giving the nation a new impetus, turned out to be “unsuccessful, indeed repellent.” But whatever doubts he might have had about Russia and her political potential, his basic idea was that the Soviet Union was essentially a non-Russian entity. Hence his rage at Richard Pipes’s book Russia Under the Old Regime, a persuasive description of how the Russian despotic tradition prepared the ground for an infinitely more sinister communist regime. Hence also his claim that once the communist ideology is taken away, a recovery will begin, though we are never told what this recovery would look like and what its boundaries would be. Whether today’s Russia, twenty-five years after the disappearance of communism, has been recovering in the sense that Solzhenitsyn would find congenial is a separate question.
Whereas the Letter presented Solzhenitsyn’s views on Russia, the Harvard speech gave his views on the West. Unfortunately, Between Two Millstones does little to show how Solzhenitsyn arrived at the harsh critiques expressed in the commencement address. One might of course find a connection between Solzhenitsyn’s dislike for journalists from day one of his stay outside the USSR and his criticism of the media in the Harvard speech, or his irritation at the lawyers who made a mess of his publishing rights and his denigration of Western ideas of law, but this would be a terrible oversimplification. The truth is that the speech contained standard arguments against Western civilization from someone who came from the communist East; those few years Solzhenitsyn spent in the West were not an adventure in getting to know the new world, but only confirmation of his initial diagnosis.
This need not be, and is not, a reproach. Nor does it imply that Solzhenitsyn’s views were hollow. His deep understanding of the communist system provided him with the knowledge he needed to diagnose the ills of Western society. He faulted the West not because it was different from communist society, but because it was not as different as its advocates believed it to be. It is true that he started with standard arguments, but he used them in a quite sophisticated way and arrived at conclusions that were far from obvious. This is why the speech stood the test of time far better than the Letter to the Soviet Leaders.
Most of Solzhenitsyn’s arguments oscillated around the assumption that Western society is essentially dry, formal, cold, impersonal, secular, abstract, and built on contract rather than on custom. This is a sort of statement that has often been voiced, sometimes with pride by the Westerners themselves, but quite often with disapproval by the outsiders. And it has recurred in various versions since the nineteenth century. But Solzhenitsyn structured it with several sub-arguments and observations of his own. Sometimes he found an apt phrase to name them. Take, for instance, his expression “the tilt of freedom toward evil.” The defenders of liberalism and liberal society expressed indignation at such an accusation, but Solzhenitsyn was right. The liberal concept of freedom tends to favor immoral conduct and disfavor moral conduct. Liberals always say that we do not have sufficiently strong reasons to ban pornography, vulgarity, blasphemy, abortion, or drugs. All these things are deemed to be the inevitable consequences of liberty: We are told that once we accept freedom, we have to agree to them, partially or completely, even if we find them outrageous.
The same liberals are allergic to such concepts as truth, goodness, and morality. Merely invoking them in public discourse provokes very strong, almost knee-jerk resistance on their part. Efforts to praise or promote virtue are met with a reductio ad Hitlerum and invocations of the Spanish Inquisition, all these to the effect that those ideas necessarily engender authoritarianism, oppression, and ideological terror. But it is a colossal error to claim that totalitarianism was based on the absolute reign of truth and morality. On the contrary, the key to the totalitarian rule was that there was no truth and no permanent rules to which one could appeal. Everything could change overnight: What was true and good one day became high treason the day after.
But liberals know better. The language of acquiescence to the evil consequences of freedom changes into a fiery rhetoric of outright rejection, malicious irony, and sometimes even hysteria whenever truth or morality is mentioned. Liberals have made us used to a cliché that there is some kind of moral free market, analogous to an economic market where individuals should be free to pursue their own goals, unperturbed by the moral authorities, just as free economic actions should not be interfered with by the government. In the light of this strategy, moral laxity is definitely preferable to moral discipline, which in the long run must result in what Solzhenitsyn called “the tilt of freedom toward evil.” The expression may sound somewhat excessive, but it accurately captures the inherent tendency.
Or take his criticism of what he calls a “legalistic” attitude. This was largely dismissed with the claim that Solzhenitsyn did not understand Western law and the necessity of a distinction between law and morality. Perhaps he did not, but this did not prevent him from pinpointing a serious problem that most Westerners brush aside. In the four decades since the Harvard address, there have been countless cases of legality replacing morality and making sweeping moral rulings about life and death, good and evil, right and wrong.
We have been told by lawyers when a human being begins to be a human being, when life can be terminated, what is marriage, or sex, or family, and numerous other things of a deeply philosophical nature. All these problems have been decided by the courts, once and for all, with the use of the fraudulent argument that the rulings are not moral but legal, and they have dramatically changed the moral profile of modern societies. Moreover, the same courts have now decided that the speech of those who defend morality is sometimes punishable. It is shocking how members of a profession that from the very beginning has been viewed with derision and profound mistrust have become the apostles as well as executors of new morality.
Or take his highly critical remarks about journalists and intellectuals. Solzhenitsyn’s point was not—as many claimed—that as a person of traditional authoritarian inclinations he was displeased and even disgusted with diversity of opinions, cacophony of ideas, and a chaotic stream of arguments that characterize Western society. His point was the opposite: that this society, fallen into a slumber by its own monotonous rhetoric of pluralism, fails to see that it has been spawning “generally accepted patterns of judgments,” wheedling “herd instincts,” encouraging “not competition, but unification.” This conclusion may not sound extravagant today; forty years ago, it smacked of blasphemy.
All of Solzhenitsyn’s arguments from the Harvard speech can be defended, and all of them acquire additional relevance today. This gives the speech special significance, not only historical, but also as a landmark in the debate about our times. One only wishes that Between Two Millstones shed more light on the background of the speech.
Whatever the background, it is to Solzhenitsyn’s credit that he was able to look at Western society with a sharp eye, unaffected by the homegrown clichés that lulled many Westerners into complacency. He took none of those clichés for granted—that truth and goodness are authoritarian, that we must distinguish between morality and legality, that a modern society is inherently pluralistic, and several others—and having confronted them with an elementary experience, he discovered not only that they were wrong, but also that the opposite may be closer to the truth. Surprisingly, Solzhenitsyn was not able to look at his own country in a comparably unprejudiced and dispassionate way. The feelings he had for Russia—compassion, love, hope—which sparked his narrative talent to chronicle the miseries of the Russian people and to dissect the devilish mechanisms of Soviet communism, did not help him in grappling with Russia’s identity and her role in history.
Ryszard Legutko is professor of philosophy at Jagiellonian University in Kraków.
Photo by Bert Verhoeff and Anefo via Creative Commons. Image cropped.