Yesterday, December 11 was the birthday of the great Russian writer, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, born in 1918. The Imaginative Conservative published an essay I wrote on Solzhenitsyn and the HBO series Chernobyl. If you have not seen the series, it is excellent. As a warning, some of the scenes, especially in episode three are tough to watch, but it is incredibly well done.
One of the underlying themes of the series is the problem of widespread deceit. This of course was a recurring theme in Solzhenitsyn’s writings. Mendacity was so widespread that it helped create the way for communism and under Soviet rule Solzhenitsyn argues that the only places one could tell the truth were in the prison camps.
Solzhenitsyn’s grasp of the underlying problems of modern life, not only in the Soviet Union, but in contemporary Western political and social life, make him essential reading to understand our age.
The fall of the Soviet Union did not mark the end of relativism and deceit. As then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote in the early 1990’s after the fall of the Soviet Union relativism did not die, but it blended together with a desire for gratification to create a potent mix.
The lesson of the Chernobyl may be interpreted as warning against the dangers of nuclear power. And while we must be wary of hubris when we manipulate the environment, the real lesson of Chernobyl is the danger of persistent lies in a society that refuses to acknowledge truth and conform itself to reality.
The images and style of 1980s Soviet Union can make the deceit seem far away and foreign. It is easy for us, especially if you are anti-communist like me, to put this on other people or other systems.
Yet it would be a grave error not to take stock of our own tendencies toward deceit in our lives and work, or to see the increasing mendacity and abusive language in our society as something radically different from the deceit that underpinned the Soviet Union.