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.