Acton Institute Powerblog

Were Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Jesse Helms Kindred Spirits?

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Estelle Snyder makes an excellent case that Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Jesse Helms had similar humble backgrounds and beliefs that helped form a deep bond between the two men, despite being separated by language, culture, geography, and an Iron Curtain.

In a paper published by the North Carolina History Project titled “Champions of Freedom: Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Jesse Helms,” Snyder argues that their relationship was an important one in terms of confronting the evils of Communism with a more aggressive posture, aimed at expanding human freedom.

Some may forget that at the time the two figures met in the United States in 1975, the United States government was moving even further towards easing relations with the Soviet Union and advocating long term coexistence and mutual understanding. Some conservative leaders, most notably Ronald Reagan and Jesse Helms, decided to aggressively attack that policy. Solzhenitsyn was instrumental in reinforcing and helping Helms and other conservative leaders argue that the United States was not properly confronting the Communist advance. Snyder notes:

Senator Helms was moved by Solzhenitsyn’s boldness in exposing the brutal truth about Communism that Helms had suspected and warned against for decades. It did not surprise him at all to learn that the Soviet government was intent on discrediting both Solzhenitsyn’s work and his personal integrity. He recognized the courage that Solzhenitsyn had shown in first daring to tell his story and then to risk re-imprisonment or worse by first making the decision to publish and now to speak out publically calling for his country to put aside their repression of personal freedom.

Senator Helms wrote Solzhenitsyn to express his admiration and appreciation for the author’s commitment to the pursuit of liberty in spite of the personal cost to himself and his family. Soon the two men had established a friendship through their regular correspondence that was fueled by their mutual commitment to the principle that every human being should be free from the control of tyrants.

Helms also invited Solzhenitsyn to the United States where the two first met in Helms’s Washington home. Despite the different worship styles of the Russion Orthodox and Southern Baptist traditions, Snyder points out in her paper their faith was an invaluable bond between the two. Soon after the meeting, Helms delivered a speech in which he said, “The news accounts have failed, I fear, to emphasize the real source of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s courage and strength, which is his faith in God.”

Snyder’s paper is a treasure trove of information on the relationship between Helms and Solzhenitsyn and their battle with Communism. It also chronicles the infamous stand off between Helms and fellow conservatives against President Gerald Ford after he snubbed Solzhenitsyn, by refusing to meet with him. The administration was afraid of angering the Soviets and did not want to threaten diplomatic agreements.

Solzhenitsyn and Helms’s confrontation with Communism was primarily a spiritual one that exposed the evils of a system that tried to erase man’s relationship with his Creator and limit his potential. Helms also said of Solzhenitsyn: “His testimony, I would reiterate, is that no man is inadequate if he has true faith in God.”

We have published a lot of work and analysis on Solzhenitsyn at Acton. This is something we are proud of and will continue. For the latest, check out the interview in Religion & Liberty with Solzhenitsyn scholar and editor Edward J. Ericson. I published a review of Righteous Warrior, a recent Helms biography. The review was also republished by the Jesse Helms Center in Wingate, North Carolina.

Ray Nothstine is opinion editor of the the North State Journal in Raleigh, North Carolina. Previously, he was managing editor of Acton Institute's Religion & Liberty quarterly. In 2005 Ray graduated with a Master of Divinity (M.Div) degree from Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. He also holds a B.A. in Political Science from The University of Mississippi in Oxford.


  • Of course it is right to honour Solzhenitsyn because few have done more to expose Communism for the fraudulent curse it is. But Jesse Helms, a champion of freedom? Is that meant to be funny? If it is, then I don’t get the punchline. If you hold with St Paul that “bad company corrupts good morals” (1 Corinthians 15:33) what does it say about Helms that he was the most ardent supporter of Roberto d’Aubuisson, the psychopath who led the death squads in El Salvador and who ordered the murder of Oscar Romero and goodness only knows how many others:

    Upon being confronted with evidence of the bloodletting, Helm’s responses was that “all I know is that D’Aubuisson is a free enterprise man and deeply religious.” How very Christian.

  • Ray


    Having studied Senator Helms and having followed his career, I would say the good far outweighs mistakes. Especially when you take into account the long tenure of his Senate career.

    His commitment to freedom, especially explained within the post is very clear, and really unmatched when compared to his colleagues.

    Helms was a hero to the Cuban refugee community for his strong opposition to Castro and like minded tyrants.

    He was a hero to many marginalized people in his home state and around the world. I could go on and on, but perhaps your personal dislike for Helms is the main problem for you.

    Thanks for reading the PowerBlog and providing feedback.

  • Stella Snyder


    In his memoir Senator Helms noted that not every individual who was not a Communist ultimately proved to be a blemish-free leader. In no way am I minimizing the alleged brutality of any person when I say that the actions of such disappointments doesn’t come near the level of the record and on-going brutality of Communism around the world.

    Today, thousands of political prisoners are locked away in North Korea,Cuba and China because their desire for freedom represents a threat to their captors. When the Lausanne World Conference opened in South Africa today(10/16) the 200 representatives of the non-government churches in China were once again absent because their desire to worship freely is considered subversive and they were not allowed to leave their country. When the Nobel Peace Prize was given to Liu Xiaobo his government celebrated with a crackdown on others who were willing to openly agree with his non-violent campaign to allow the Chinese people to actually enjoy the freedoms listed in their supposedly official constitution.

    Senator Helms vigorously opposed Communism long before he became a US Senator. He knew that there was no limit to what crimes would be committed in the act of gaining and keeping power. Solzhenitsyn and many others provided their stories and offered the sad documentation.

    Most of us are so accustomed to our freedoms that we can’t imagine what it would be like to live without them. Senator Helms made it his life’s work to remind us again and again and again that freedom is a basic human right that Americans must never take for granted in our own country. He also challenged us to understand that our freedom carries with it the responsibility to support those who seek freedom in their own nations.

    Like the Apostle Paul whose record before his conversion included the murder of Christians, Senator Helms was a mortal man. To harshly judge the Senator based on what we know in retrospect about the actions of someone else whose brief time on the world stage began years after Helms and Solzhenitsyn established their friendship and alliance seems unfair at best.

  • Without wishing to seem rude Stella, I find your rebuttal disingenuous. You speak as if the ‘alleged brutality’ of D’Aubuisson and his ilk was a closely guarded secret, revealed only many years later to Senator Helms and the rest of a startled world. This is wholly false. Everybody knew what D’Aubuisson represented, not in retrospect, but at the time, and you do yourself no credit by misrepresenting this. His temporary arrest in May 1980 had provided clear evidence of his involvement in mass-murder. The American ambassador to El Salvador at the time, Robert White, identified him as a ‘pathological killer’, something evinced by his countrymen’s nickname for him of ‘Major Blowtorch’. When Helms defended his Senate Seat in 1984, one of the principal tactics used by his opponent, Jim Hunt, was simply to point out to his constituents the Senator’s vocal support for a man whom everybody to knew to be steeped in blood. Helms’ attempts to plead ignorance don’t wash then or now. A US senator strikes me as someone unusually well placed to keep himself informed of events. If Helms did not know, it is because he did not wish to.

    Nor do I really see how pointing out the crimes of Communism silences critism of the Senator. I have never questioned the evil of Communism, nor that it had to be resisted. The question is whether this moral imperative justifies any response, however sadistic, however depraved, however downright anti-Christian (and it is difficult to think of an action more anti-Christian than shooting a priest celebrating communion). Forgive me if I am wrong, but the logic of your argument seems to be the old line that you can’t make an omlete without breaking a few eggs.

    In truth of course, supporting D’Aubuisson did not add creditably to the cause of anti-communism in El Salvador. The comparatively moderate Christian Democrat government, backed by the CIA, was destablised as much, if not more, by the actions of the extreme-Right as it was by the FLMN leftist guerillas. Helms did not throw his support behind the forces of moderation that had the most chance of success but behind the most extreme faction, which even the CIA was wary of. Again, I can only assume he knew what he was doing. You knew him, I believe. Perhaps you can put me right?

    You might ask, why go into this much detail? Because real events matter in how we assess somebody’s reputation. Even if the rest of Helms’ life had been a story of unbroken virtue, it would dishonest to overlook his actions here. We are none of us perfect. We all make mistakes. But few of us get to make mistakes such these – acting as a mouthpiece for the kind of men, Stella, that you should pay you never have to meet.