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.