A few days ago passed not entirely unperceived the 100th birthday of one of the great writers of the 20th Century, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. It might be said that the Soviet Union was brought down by a triumvirate, a trinity comprised of a priest, a politician and a poet: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Solzhenitsyn was “A modern Saint George, he slew the dragon of ideological despotism with rare eloquence, determination, and grit. For that alone, he deserves to be forever remembered.” And as with all writers who last, writers who wrote with power and purpose, his work only becomes more prescient over time.
Last year I went through a Solzhenitsyn phase as a sub-category of my Russian literature phase. And for me, the most powerful of all his novels was the short novelette: “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”. This novel captures poignantly and simply the travails of life in the Gulag. “Have you ever pondered a crust of bread? Or stopped to consider the ‘thickness’ of a bowl of soup? Have you thought about food in terms of ounces? The exact number of pinches necessary to fill a hand rolled cigarette? The careful choreography required to give you an advantage over others – advantages measured not in grand titles or powerful friends but in slices of sausage or the thickness of a fleece coat?”
Solzhenitsyn was an ardent anti-socialist. He considered his time spent in the Gulag, punishment for writing a private letter critical of communism, as one of the greatest things to happen to him. For it gave him a mission, gave his writing – which he had been engaged in since his teen years – a purpose; to witness to those who suffered and perished in the Soviet prison-camp system.
He was also a conservative in the true meaning of that word; in the way we know that time pounds out and polishes over the impurities of we the living, leaving behind for those who come after something hard and good and upon which to build.
Upon release from the camps, Solzhenitsyn was exiled to Switzerland and then to the United States; which is where his reflections become, for us, perhaps even more prescient. Because though he hated communism, he also saw through the veneer of America’s nascent anti-culture to a fundamental rot beneath. Anti-culture; I think Solzhenitsyn was John the Baptist to Patrick Deneen’s Jesus, if you’ll forgive the metaphor (I don’t think either of them would). Long before liberalism failed, Solzhenitsyn was telling us that it would, and why.
One of his great moments came in his commencement address to Harvard University, the architects of the failure. There, to the surprise of all and sundry, instead of speaking of the evils of socialism he chose to reflect upon disturbing trends he saw playing out in American life. “Whenever the tissue of life is woven of legalistic relations, there is an atmosphere of moral mediocrity, paralyzing man’s noblest impulses. And it will be simply impossible to stand through the trials of this threatening century with only the support of a legalistic structure. (…) Life organized legalistically has thus shown its inability to defend itself against the corrosion of evil. (…) A fact which cannot be disputed is the weakening of human beings in the West while in the East they are becoming firmer and stronger.” Not of course through efforts by the totalitarians to create a “new man” but through human sacrifice which is like a smelting furnace which purges impurities making a more lasting, stronger metal.
“How one evaluates Solzhenitsyn tells us much about how one ultimately understands human liberty: Is it rooted in the gift of free will bestowed by a just, loving, and Providential God? Or is it rooted in an irreligious humanism, which all too often leads to human self-enslavement, as we saw with the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century? Solzhenitsyn’s reasonable choice for “Liberty under God” has nothing to do with mysticism, authoritarianism, or some illiberal theocratic impulse. Those who attribute these positions to Solzhenitsyn cannot provide a single sentence to support such misrepresentations.” As Daniel Mahoney writes.
So then what is Solzhenitsyn’s final advice from beyond the grave? “We shall have to rise to a new height of vision, to a new level of life where our physical nature will not be cursed as in the Middle Ages, but, even more importantly, our spiritual being will not be trampled upon as in the Modern era.”