The enduring achievement of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

AuthorEricson, Edward E., Jr.

In an old joke from the Soviet era, a teacher asks the class, "Who was Leonid Brezhnev?" and a schoolgirl replies, "Wasn't he some politician in the Age of Solzhenitsyn?" It didn't take anywhere near a century for Brezhnev's name to pass into oblivion. Trouble is, Solzhenitsyn's name disappeared too. Here's a conversation I frequently have. Someone asks what I am doing these days, in the leisure of my retirement. I reply, "Writing." Other person: "What on?" I: "Solzhenitsyn." Other person: "what?" Notice: not "who (or Whom)?" but "what?" If the other person regards himself as well-educated, I then say, "The greatest living writer in the world today." The other person changes the subject.

The name of Solzhenitsyn, though it has not entirely vanished, has fallen on hard times in the United States today. On a recent questionnaire given in two sections of a college World Literature course, only two of fifty-six students had read a single word by him. Ten more had heard of the gulag. But several confused gulag with goulash. Two gave recipes. One wrote, "If a person wants to eat goulash more than three times a day, he is considered a gulag." I'm sure the poll results would differ at Ave Maria School of Law, which I think is the Lake Wobegon of the State of Michigan--you know, "where the women are strong, the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average." (1)

What a difference three decades have made. In 1974, the London Times described Solzhenitsyn as "the man who is for the moment the most famous person in the western world." (2) In that little phrase "for the moment," the Times writer dropped a hint about how intellectual fashions work and how fleeting fame is when it's based on celebrity status, which is what Solzhenitsyn garnered when the Soviet leaders expelled him. Still, commentators back then expected Solzhenitsyn's fame to last, for surely he was more than a mere celebrity. Some of them made grand long-term predictions. Harrison Salisbury wrote:

Against the powerful state stands a single man.... The odds against Solzhenitsyn seem tremendous. Yet I know of no Russian writer who would not trade his soul for Solzhenitsyn's mantle, who does not know that one hundred years from now all the world ... will bow to his name when most others have been forgotten. (3) A hundred years happens to be Samuel Johnson's standard for declaring a literary work a classic. (4) Exactly thirty-three years have passed since Salisbury's stirring prediction, a third of the way to the target date. So far, Salisbury's prophetic powers look shaky. And so you have prima facie reason to be suspicious of my title, "The Enduring Achievement of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn." What do you mean, "Enduring"?

Perhaps if I describe his achievement, you will get some sense of its prospects for enduring. I will lay out three aspects of Solzhenitsyn's achievement: his influence on history, the power of his thought in general, and his contribution as a mission-driven literary artist. Today I will begin by emphasizing point one, his influence on history. But first, for those who may need it, I will quickly sketch his life story.


    Solzhenitsyn, a provincial boy with a religious rearing and a passion by age ten to be a writer, believed what his schoolteachers said and as a teenager became a committed Marxist-Leninist. He moved from the university to the army to the prison system, which we now call the gulag because of him. There he lost his Marxist-Leninist faith and gradually reclaimed the faith of his extended family--cause enough for him to write, "Bless you, prison!" (5) In prison he wrote and wrote, then memorized what he wrote and destroyed the evidence. Once out of prison, he wrote down all that he had memorized, stuffed it into a bottle, and buried it. When he was thirty-four, cancer brought him to death's door. Then in 1962, at age forty-three, this unknown small-town schoolteacher of math and physics saw an opening and got a short novel entitled One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich into print, (6) and overnight his name became a household word around the world, albeit one of the harder household words to pronounce. His window for publishing soon closed, and he became a writer underground, a writer on the run--yet with a prodigious output despite heavy harassment. The appearance in 1968 of two long novels, The First Circle (7) and Cancer Ward, (8) reinforced his standing as a fierce freedom fighter and a genius of a novelist. In 1970 he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The world press repeatedly gave him headliner treatment in his ceaseless conflicts with the Communist authorities, until in 1974 the regime kicked him out of his homeland. He's a prickly fellow; let him be a burr under someone else's saddle.

    The immediate cause of his expulsion was the discovery by the secret police of his secretly written Gulag Archipelago. (9) With a copy of this 1800-page history of the Soviet concentration camp system in KGB hands, Solzhenitsyn gave the word, and a copy that he had secretly sent to the West was published. When George Kennan, U.S. diplomat extraordinaire, read it, he too made a prediction: "It is too large for the craw of the Soviet propaganda machine. It will stick there, with increasing discomfort, until it has done its work.... It will shake the whole structure of Soviet power...." (10) Solzhenitsyn thought so, too. He said, "Oh, yes, Gulag was destined to affect the course of history, I was sure of that...." (11) And he was thrilled to read such Western reactions as this one: "The time may come when we date the beginning of the collapse of the Soviet system from the appearance of Gulag ..." (12)

    As soon as Solzhenitsyn reached the West, everyone wanted to hear from him. Journalists sought interviews; invitations to speak poured in. What he said, however, in his new-found freedom to speak out, caused Western opinion shapers who had lionized him to have second thoughts. Why? Listen to this: "[H]e is not the 'liberal' we would like him to be." (13) Other journalists used eerily similar wording. (14) One critic was sure that Solzhenitsyn would have voted for Nixon over McGovern. (15) Some liberals who had once praised his literary writing, now, discerning his otherness, found his writing dull and ponderous. Can you say non sequitur? The West's vaunted freedom of speech carried a high cost for Solzhenitsyn. And he never did get the hang of the West's unspoken rule governing public speech, namely, self-censorship. I should add one other point to the bill of particulars against Solzhenitsyn--and not a small one. In 1972, with all hope lost of his ever being published again in the Soviet Union, he made public the fact that he was a religious believer, specifically, a Russian Orthodox Christian--how quaint. Following his 1978 commencement address at Harvard University, conventional wisdom crystallized into cliche: Solzhenitsyn was objectionable, wrongheaded, retrograde. Case over. Close the books.

    Fast-forward to the 1990s, and not much has changed. A friendly observer lamented that "when [Solzhenitsyn's] name comes up now it is more often than not as a freak, a monarchist, an anti-Semite, a crank, a has-been, and not as a hero." (16) An unfriendly one described the writer's "descent from revered sage and prophet ... to...

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