Acton Institute Powerblog

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the dragon slayer

At City Journal, Solzhenitsyn scholar Daniel J. Mahoney offers “A Centennial Tribute” marking the 100th anniversary of the Russian author’s birth. Mahoney, who holds the Augustine Chair in Distinguished Scholarship at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts, describes Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn as “the century’s greatest critic of the totalitarian immolation of liberty and human dignity.” The Russian novelist and historian was …

… a thinker and moral witness who illumined the fate of the human soul hemmed in by barbed wire in the East, and a materialist cornucopia in the West, the mature Solzhenitsyn remained remarkably faithful to the twin imperatives of courage and truth. 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.

Citing French scholar Georges Nivat, Mahoney points to the two great “literary cathedrals” produced by Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago and The Red Wheel, or “experiments in literary investigation,” that will keep readers, historians and literary researchers busy for decades. Mahoney:

Many silly and even pernicious things have been written about Solzhenitsyn by those who confuse love of truth with dogmatism, and the “active struggle with evil,” as Solzhenitsyn once described it, with moral fanaticism. And among these tendentious critics are those who mock patriotism, repentance, self-limitation, and liberty under God—that is, all of Solzhenitsyn’s enduring themes and commitments.

It was Solzhenitsyn’s own time spent in the prison camps that, as he describes it in The Gulag Archipelago, caused the scales of ideology to fall from his eyes and was “completely cleansed of Marxist belief.” Mahoney again:

His cellmates helped him see the light of truth and the unparalleled mendacity of the ideological lie, the destructive illusion that evil is not inherent in the human soul, that human beings and societies can be transformed at a revolutionary stroke, and that free will is subordinate to historical necessity. Solzhenitsyn’s life is marked by this great paradox: in the camps, cold and hungry, and subject to limitless repression by camp guards and camp authorities, he recovered an appreciation of the purpose of things.

And what of the claims that Solzhenitsyn supported Russian messianic nationalism?

He loved Russia profoundly but refused to identify his wounded nation with a Soviet despotism that stood for religious repression, collective farm slavery, and the elimination of political liberty and a tradition of literary reflection that spoke to the health of Russia and the permanent needs of the soul. He wanted Russia to abandon destructive dreams of empire and turn inward, but without forgetting the sorry fate of the 25 million Russians left in the “near abroad” after the break-up of the Soviet Union. In 1998’s Russia in Collapse, he forcefully attacked “radical nationalism…the elevation of one’s nationality above our higher spiritual plank, above our humble stance before heaven.” And he never ceased castigating so-called Russian nationalists, who preferred “a small-minded alliance with [Russia’s] destroyers” (the Communists or Bolsheviks). He loved his country but loved truth and justice more. But as Solzhenitsyn stated with great eloquence in the Nobel Lecture, “nations are the wealth of mankind, its generalized personalities.” He did not support the leveling of nations in the name of cosmopolitanism or of a pagan nationalism that forgot that all nations remain under the judgment of God and the moral law. In this regard, Solzhenitsyn combines patriotism with moderation or self-limitation. One does not learn from Solzhenitsyn to hate other peoples, or to deny each nation’s right to its special path, one that respects common morality and elementary human decency.

Read the whole thing, all the way to Mahoney’s conclusion:

We owe gratitude to this great man and writer for his courage, his fidelity to truth and to freedom (rightly understood), and his timeless reminder that, among the clamor of modern life, we should not lose focus on the underlying purpose of the human adventure, or the freedom granted to us. Beyond totalitarianism, there is the task of building regimes of self-government worthy of all the possibilities—and limits—of the human soul. In that great task, Solzhenitsyn remains as relevant as ever. And his art—and the profound philosophical reflections and insights embedded in his works—remain a gift to us all.

Homepage photo by Gerald Praschi, Wiki Commons: The fence and guard tower at the Soviet forced labor camp Perm-36 100 km northeast of the city of Perm in Russia, part of the prison camp system operated by the Soviet Union in the Stalin era known as the GULag. The last remaining example of a GULag labor camp, the site has been preserved as a museum and is open to the public as “The Museum of the History of Political Repression Perm-36.”

John Couretas

is Editor-at-Large for the Acton Institute.