Posts tagged with: solzhenitsyn

Excerpts from remarks delivered at the Acton Institute annual dinner in Grand Rapids, Mich., on Oct. 29, 2009:

Twenty years ago today, a growing tide of men and women in Eastern Europe and northern Asia were shaking off the miasma that had led so many to imagine that central economic planning could work. The socialist regimes of Eastern and Central Europe—accepted as ontological realities whose existence could not be questioned—were, well, being questioned.

On November 4th, 1989, a million anti-Communist demonstrators took to the street in East Berlin. Three days later the entire East German Politburo resigned. In short order — the sort of event that television journalists live for — a hole appeared in the Berlin Wall, a hole big enough for hope to pour through. The East German borders opened and by Christmas, thousands were dancing atop the dead body of the Leviathan wall, that hideous symbol, tearing at it with bare hands, champagne bottles, hammer and sickles—anything that was available.

How could we in the West have tolerated that Wall in Germany for so long? From our perspective today it is obvious that the wall would eventually fall, but remember that in 1987 when Ronald Reagan called upon Mr. Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” the international media either ignored his words or criticized them as the simplistic bravado of a Hollywood cowboy. The President’s own advisors were divided, with his National Security Adviser, Colin Powell, objecting to what Reagan planned to say.

It was only after 1989 that President Reagan’s words became iconic. Reagan understood something that many of the Beltway experts had somehow forgotten or never learned — there is, in the human heart, an innate thirst for liberty. I suppose this is so because it is so closely tied to our very nature as creatures fashioned in the image of a free, rational and creative God: We thirst for freedom because we are created for, and called to, freedom and its complement, personal responsibility.

The fall of the Berlin Wall, the fall of Soviet Communism, was a great triumph, but the danger has been and remains that this grand victory some 20 years ago will render complacent the free peoples of the West. The threat today is not a physical wall through the heart of Berlin but walls no mason ever dreamed about or touched.

The American founders understood this: They warned that freedom cannot long endure without virtue, without vigilance. Because our choices are those to be made by intelligent beings who were designed by Intelligence, these choices are not the result of mere instincts like those of animals. They are choices, furthermore, that should be appropriate to creatures whose beginning is purposeful and not random, oriented to the truth of all things.

And that is the scandal of the Berlin Wall — and every barrier like it against liberty. Some are great and others are small, some obvious and others discreet — yet all of them seek to wall us off from our own humanity, to alienate us from the very part of ourselves that cannot be slotted into some planner’s tidy equations, or reduced to the arithmetic of animal appetite.

We are blessed not to live behind walls that would force us to swim shark infested waters, or race through border guard crossings to the sound of bullets striking all around us. And yet the planners, those builders of walls, haven’t given up planning, haven’t given up laying brick upon brick upon brick.

I’m not talking about some secret conspiracy. I’m talking about more mundane things — mundane because they have so long been with us, mundane because—at least until recently — they grew so very gradually, the brick upon brick, the little and now not so little walls rising all around us, innocuously labeled “the mixed economy.”

These walls come in the guise of stimulus packages that distort our markets and our knowledge, that steal away a bit of your future and that of your children by inflationary polices and transgenerational tax liabilities; walls that discourage our charitable impulse and restrict entrepreneurial courage, that encourage fiscal irresponsibility and punish thrift; that encourage vice and envy, that sacrifice liberty for security and, in the devil’s bargain, lose them both.

Last year I noted the frustration and bewilderment that many were experiencing, especially those who believe in and have fought to build the free and virtuous society, a frustration and bewilderment at what we were seeing around us. That was a short time before a whole new political atmosphere took hold. Since then we have seen this breathtaking lurch toward greater centralized planning and redistribution turn into what to many of us feels like a runaway locomotive: Government banks, government mortgage companies, government automobile companies, government healthcare, government religious charities. And all of this is just a warm up for an appropriation of the entire energy sector—cap and trade. Cap and smother would come closer to the truth.

We are compelled to confront the danger of the political-economic scales tipping from productivity to dependency, from business to bureaucracy, from energy to envy, from trade to tariffs, and from creativity and courage to corporate-government collusion, collectivism and cowardice—where more people in society live, not off the noble work of their own hands, but out of the largess of the statist trough.

We might be weary of the struggle, fatigued and discouraged—amazed that people around us just don’t seem to “get it.”

And we would have cause for such pessimism.

Then I remember the years leading up to 1989. The people who brought that victory about were not defeatist or compliant.

A former Hollywood actor, undaunted by ridicule and the compromising lethargy of his own party; a Soviet prisoner, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, reaching from the frozen tundra of the Gulags of the Soviet Empire and wounding the omnivorous bear with a simple pen; an iron lady in England, Margaret Thatcher, who didn’t get the memo about the demise of capitalism and the rise of the Marxist dialectic; a rough and crude Polish shipyard worker, Lech Walesa, who led a workers’ revolt against the Worker’s Paradise, encouraged by another Pole, John Paul II, who on his appearance on the world stage bade the world to throw open the doors to Christ and who, without tanks or military resources, stood face to face with Soviet puppets who literally trembled at his calm articulation of the Truth.

It is a remarkable testament to the human thirst for freedom under such hardship and against such odds—in the midst of deprivation and with guns pointed at them—all they were able to achieve, these mothers and fathers of freedom. Their example calls us not to acquiesce to the softer, more insidious and seductive tyranny of our own time, but to redouble our efforts.

Their example also calls us to remember what too many of us today have forgotten: We are beings with a destiny both in and beyond this world—a destiny which can only be worked out in human freedom.

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Saturday, August 9, 2008

In the Wall Street Journal, Edward E. Ericson Jr. asks whether “this week’s evenhanded obituaries signal merely momentary respect for the newly dead or augur better days ahead for Solzhenitsyn’s reputation.” In “Solzhenitsyn, Optimist,” Ericson observes that the writer “had the last laugh” in his struggle against the Soviets.

Solzhenitsyn has described himself as “an unshakable optimist.” On a dark day when one of his helpers had been arrested and interrogated and ended up dead (who knows how?), he could “raise a defiant battle cry: Victory is ours! With God’s aid we shall yet prevail!” Virtually every one of Solzhenitsyn’s works, of whatever type or length, ends on the note of hope. This is not an accident or affectation; it is a revelation of character and statement of faith. In seeing him as he isn’t, we err.

What could his mortal foe do about Solzhenitsyn’s great weapon, “The Gulag Archipelago,” first published in the 1970s? Solzhenitsyn was “sure” that “Gulag” “was destined to affect the course of history,” and early reviews reinforced his optimism. A German newspaper editorialized, “The time may come when we date the beginning of the collapse of the Soviet system from the appearance of Gulag.” Diplomat George Kennan said that this “greatest and most powerful single indictment of a political regime” would stick in “the craw of the Soviet propaganda machine . . . with increasing discomfort, until it has done its work.”

Solzhenitsyn, for his part, instructed us early in the book that if all we expected from it was a political exposé, we should “slam its covers shut right now.” It is more than a history of Lenin’s concentration-camp system; it is a literary investigation, the work of an artist. An “ordinary brave man” could decide “not to participate in lies, not to support false actions.” But “it is within the power of writers and artists to do much more: to defeat the lie! For in the struggle with lies art has always triumphed and shall always triumph!” Solzhenitsyn was not the first witness to speak truthfully about the gulag. But because he was an artist, he was the first one able to make us all hear it and believe it. There is no answering “the many-throated groan, the dying whisper of millions” that he transmitted.

In this week’s Acton commentary, Solzhenitsyn and His Critics, I point to the criticism that has been leveled for many years at the writer who turned out to be not exactly the sort of dissident that many in the West were waiting for. I suspect that much of this antipathy to Solzhenitsyn was based on his uncompromising moral vision, which seems to offend some people. I say:

Solzhenitsyn’s critique of modern societies went much deeper than ideology. He drew from a Christian moral tradition, not a political platform. He yearned for a “moral doctrine of the value of the individual as the key to the solution of the social problems.”

I received today a copy of the Spring 2008 Ave Maria Law Review in which is published an article titled “The Enduring Achievement of Alexander Solzhenitsyn” by Edward E. Ericson Jr. Ericson, with co-author Daniel J. Mahoney, edited ISI’s Solzhenitsyn Reader, an outstanding one-volume collection drawn from the author’s prodigious life work.

In Ericson’s article, adapted from a lecture he gave at Ave Maria last year, he says that Solzhenitsyn “never did get the hang of the West’s unspoken rule governing free speech, namely self-censorship.” Then there was his Russian Orthodox faith. Ericson:

In 1972, with all hope lost of his ever being published again in the Soviet Union, [Solzhenitsyn] 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.

Unless Solzhenitsyn’s many critics, on the left and the right, understand him on his own terms — as an artist working from the moral framework of an ancient Christian tradition — they will never understand him or his work.

Even before Solzhenitsyn publicly identified himself as a Christian, those with eyes to see could discern that his fiction operated within what we may call the moral universe, which, in turn, seemed to posit a religious worldview. In 1970, Father Alexander Schmemann described Solzhenitsyn as “a Christian writer” because his writings exhibit “a deep and all-embracing … perception of the world, man, and life, which, historically, was born a grew from Biblical and Christian revelation, and only from it.” Schmemann described the essence of this perception as “the triune intuition of creation, fall, and redemption.”

Is Solzhenitsyn above criticism? Of course not. But understand him in light of his great achievement — the moral courage he displayed and the power of his ideas. Ericson again:

Someone needed to articulate compellingly what everyone knew deep down. Someone needed to say the emperor had no clothes. Solzhenitsyn, more than anyone else, delegitimized the Soviet experiment at home and discredited it abroad. And he hammered home his case through the concreteness that literary art is singularly suited to provide. It helped to have people pushing against the tottering tower from the outside, but external pressures are of less consequence than demolition charges ignited from the inside.

At Solzhenitsyn’s grave. Donskoy Monastery, Moscow. Aug. 6, 2008.

The Associated Press has published a moving series of photographs from Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s funeral here.

Acathistus

By Alexander Solzhenitsyn

When, oh when did I scatter so madly
All the goodness, the God-given grains?
Was my youth not spent with those who gladly
Sang to You in the glow of Your shrines?

Bookish wisdom, though, sparkled and beckoned,
And it rushed through my arrogant mind,
The world’s mysteries seemed within reckon,
My life’s lot like warm wax in the hand.

My blood seethed, and it spilled and it trickled,
Gleamed ahead with a multihued trace,
Without clamor there quietly crumbled
In my breast the great building of faith.

Then I passed betwixt being and dying,
I fell off and now cling to the edge,
And I gaze back with gratitude, trembling,
On the meaningless life I have led.

Not my reason, nor will, nor desire
Blazed the twists and the turns of its road,
It was purpose-from-High’s steady fire
Not made plain to me till afterward.

Now regaining the measure that’s true,
Having drawn with it water of being,
Oh great God! I believe now anew!
Though denied, You were always with me …

From The Solzhenitsyn Reader. New and Essential Writings 1947-2005 (ISI Books, 2006)

Solzhenitsyn

“During all the years until 1961, not only was I convinced that I should never see a single line of mine in print in my lifetime, but, also, I scarcely dared allow any of my close acquaintances to read anything I had written because I feared that this would become known. Finally, at the age of 42, this secret authorship began to wear me down. The most difficult thing of all to bear was that I could not get my works judged by people with literary training. In 1961, after the 22nd Congress of the U.S.S.R. Communist Party and Tvardovsky’s speech at this, I decided to emerge and to offer One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.”

Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s momentous decision to publish his slim volume on Gulag life (he feared not only the destruction of his manuscript but “my own life”) ended his period of “secret authorship” and put him on the path of a literary career that earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970. But his work meant so much more than that. Solzhenitsyn, who died yesterday in Moscow at the age of 89, did more than any other single figure to expose the horrors of Soviet communism and lay bare the lies that propped it up. His life was dedicated to chronicling and explaining the Bolshevik Revolution and the tragic effects it wrought for Russia during the 20th Century. His was a first-person account.

In “Solzhenitsyn & the Modern World,” an essay on Solzhenitsyn published by the Acton Institute in 1994, Edward E. Ericson Jr. predicted that Solzhenitsyn’s influence would continue to expand. With his passing, there is good reason to hope, with Ericson, that Solzhenitsyn’s “world-historical importance” will be appreciated on a deeper level. “His most direct contribution lies in his delegitimizing of Communist power, and especially in the eyes of his surreptitious Soviet readers,” Ericson wrote.

At the publication of the Gulag Archipelago, Leonid Brezhnev complained: “By law, we have every basis for putting him in jail. He has tried to undermine all we hold sacred: Lenin, the Soviet system, Soviet power – everything dear to us. … This hooligan Solzhenitsyn is out of control.” A week later, the newspaper Pravda called him a “traitor.” On Feb. 12, 1974, he was arrested and charged with treason. The next day, he was stripped of his citizenship and put on a plane to West Germany. He would spend the next 20 years in exile.

When summoned for deportation in 1974, he made a damning written statement to the authorities: “Given the widespread and unrestrained lawlessness that has reigned in our country for many years, and an eight-year campaign of slander and persecution against me, I refuse to recognize the legality of your summons.

“Before asking that citizens obey the law, learn how to observe it yourselves,” Solzhenitsyn wrote. “Free the innocent, and punish those guilty of mass murder.”

The Gulag Archipelago was described by George F. Kennan, a former ambassador to the Soviet Union and the chief architect of postwar U.S. foreign policy, as “the greatest and most powerful single indictment of a political regime ever to be leveled in modern times.”

In my review of the “Solzhenitsyn Reader,” edited by Ericson and Daniel J. Mahoney, in the Spring 2007 issue of Religion & Liberty, I wrote that the Solzhenitsyn “could only understand what happened to Russia in terms of good and evil. Those who engineered and imposed the Bolshevik and Soviet nightmare were not merely ideologues, they were evildoers.” A former communist, the writer returned to his Russian Orthodox Christian roots after his experience of the Soviet prison camps. In the review, I said:

Ericson and Mahoney state simply that, “Solzhenitsyn was the most eloquent scourge of ideology in the twentieth century.” The editors are right to remind us of that. And any news account, biography or political history of the twentieth Century that talks about who “won” the Cold War—a complicated historical reality for sure—and does not include Solzhenitsyn with Reagan, Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II is not only incomplete but wrong. Solzhenitsyn was the inside man.

In an editorial published today, the editors of National Review Online said this of Solzhenitsyn: “There was no greater or more effective foe of Communism, or of totalitarianism in general.”

French President Nicolas Sarkozy called Solzhenitsyn “one of the greatest consciences of 20th century Russia” and an heir to Dostoevsky. Mr Sarkozy added: “He belongs to the pantheon of world history.”

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin wrote in a telegram to Solzhenitsyn’s family that the Soviet-era dissident, whose books exposed the horrors of the Communist Gulag, had been “a strong, courageous person with enormous dignity.”

“We are proud that Alexandr Solzhenitsyn was our compatriot and contemporary,” said Putin, who served in the same KGB that persecuted the author for “anti-Soviet” activities.

Mikhail Gorbachev told Interfax: “Until the end of his days he fought for Russia not only to move away from its totalitarian past but also to have a worthy future, to become a truly free and democratic country. We owe him a lot.”

Indeed, we all do.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Der Spiegel has published a far ranging interview with Alexander Solzhenitsyn in which the great writer “discusses Russia’s turbulent history, Putin’s version of democracy and his attitude to life and death.” It is very much worth the read. Once again, you come away from an encounter with Solzhenitsyn’s thought and marvel at his courage, his dedication to his art, and the almost indestructible quality of this man, now 88.

In the current Religion & Liberty, I reviewed the new “Solzhenitsyn Reader” from ISI books. I highly recommend this collection to anyone who wants to deepen their appreciation of Solzhenitysn.

Here are some highlights from the Der Spiegel interview. On the “nostalgia” for the Soviet past:

If we could all take a sober look at our history, then we would no longer see this nostalgic attitude to the Soviet past that predominates now among the less affected part of our society. Nor would the Eastern European countries and former USSR republics feel the need to see in historical Russia the source of their misfortunes. One should not ascribe the evil deeds of individual leaders or political regimes to an innate fault of the Russian people and their country. One should not attribute this to the “sick psychology” of the Russians, as is often done in the West. All these regimes in Russia could only survive by imposing a bloody terror. We should clearly understand that only the voluntary and conscientious acceptance by a people of its guilt can ensure the healing of a nation. Unremitting reproaches from outside, on the other hand, are counterproductive.

On the Russian Orthodox Church:

… we should be surprised that our church has gained a somewhat independent position during the very few years since it was freed from total subjugation to the communist government. Do not forget what a horrible human toll the Russian Orthodox Church suffered throughout almost the entire 20th century. The Church is just rising from its knees. Our young post-Soviet state is just learning to respect the Church as an independent institution. The “Social Doctrine” of the Russian Orthodox Church, for example, goes much further than do government programs. Recently Metropolitan Kirill, a prominent expounder of the Church’s position, has made repeated calls for reforming the taxation system. His views are quite different from those of government, yet he airs them in public, on national television.

On the concentration of political power under President Vladimir Putin:

Of course, an opposition is necessary and desirable for the healthy development of any country. You can scarcely find anyone in opposition, except for the communists, just like in Yeltsin’s times. However, when you say “there is nearly no opposition,” you probably mean the democratic parties of the 1990s. But if you take an unbiased look at the situation: there was a rapid decline of living standards in the 1990s, which affected three quarters of Russian families, and all under the “democratic banner.” Small wonder, then, that the population does not rally to this banner anymore. And now the leaders of these parties cannot even agree on how to share portfolios in an illusory shadow government. It is regrettable that there is still no constructive, clear and large-scale opposition in Russia. The growth and development of an opposition, as well as the maturing of other democratic institutions, will take more time and experience.

On facing death:

No, I am not afraid of death any more. When I was young the early death of my father cast a shadow over me — he died at the age of 27 — and I was afraid to die before all my literary plans came true. But between 30 and 40 years of age my attitude to death became quite calm and balanced. I feel it is a natural, but no means the final, milestone of one’s existence.