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Truth-Telling Solzhenitsyn Remained Great to the End

August 6, 2008

“Live Not By Lies!” thundered Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who died Sunday at 89, in the uncannily wise, noble and thrilling statement he addressed to fellow Russians on Feb. 13, 1974.

It was the day in the life of Alexander Isayevich that changed his own forever, the one on which Soviet leaders arrested their insufferably impudent Tolstoy and prepared his next-day exile.

In that moving, astonishing document, the courageous author of “The Gulag Archipelago” and other classic accounts of Soviet repression beseeched his often herdlike countrymen, with their “deep-seated organic cowardice” and desire to “seek only warmth and to eat my fill,” to rise to a minimum level of civic morality: “a personal non-participation in lies.”

Such a Russian, Solzhenitsyn inveighed, would not “write, sign, nor publish in any way, a single line distorting, so far as he can see, the truth.”

Such a Russian would not “utter such a line in private or in public conversation, nor read it from a crib sheet, nor speak it in the role of educator, canvasser, teacher, actor.”

Such a Russian, Solzhenitsyn continued, would not “take up a banner or slogan” in which he or she did not “fully believe,” and would “walk out from a session, meeting, lecture, play, or film” as soon as one heard “the speaker utter a lie, ideological drivel, or shameless propaganda.”

“We are not called upon to step out onto the square and shout the truth, to say out loud what we think,” Solzhenitsyn advised the people he’d immediately be leaving for some 18 years of exile _ though that’s exactly what he did. “This is scary, we are not ready. But let us at least refuse to say what we do not think!”

And so those who survive Solzhenitsyn should honor his words by trying to say nothing false about him in saluting his magnificent life.

The most important true thing to say is this: The greatest writer in the world died the other night in his Moscow apartment.

In an English-speaking world where we apply “great” to a well-diced salad, or the barely heard news that the person we’re greeting is feeling fine, the only way to reinvest it with gravitas is to outline the many ways Solzhenitsyn earned it, while countering the falsehoods that gathered about his name.

Solzhenitsyn would have liked that. One biographer, Joseph Pearce, (“Solzhenitsyn: A Soul on Exile,” 1999), asked him shortly before his 80th birthday how he’d like to be remembered.

The indefatigable novelist and historian replied that he hoped lies and slanders about him “would, like mud, dry up and fall off. It is amazing how much gibberish has been talked about me, more so in the West than in the U.S.S.R.”

Pearce himself noted the “stereotypical characterization” of Solzhenitsyn found again, in some of the obituaries: “He is, we are reliably informed, a prophet of doom, an arch-pessimist, a stern Jeremiah-like figure who is out-of-touch, out of date, and, worst of all in our novelty-crazed culture, out of fashion.”

A fine antidote to such simple-minded pigeonholing of Solzhenitsyn _ as the brave anti-communist who later went off the deep end _ is, as the author suggested, to read his work, particularly his later writings, which are not remotely as one-note as shibboleths about him suggest. A good place to start might be “The Solzhenitsyn Reader: New and Essential Writings,” 1947-2005, edited by Edward E. Ericson, Jr. and Daniel J. Mahoney (ISI Books).

Compiled with the cooperation of both Solzhenitsyn and his three sons, it provides a far more textured picture of the writer as an unrelenting artist (he began to compose poetry again in his last years); a flexible and theologically minded philosopher (more than worthy of his Templeton Prize); an often daring stylist; and a political and nationalist “ideologue” only in the eyes of predisposed critics. (Solzhenitsyn specifically rejected a blood-based, ethnic criterion for being “Russian.”)

Several pieces there also undermine the notion of Solzhenitsyn as a reborn monarchist or anti-Semite. One could just as easily charge that some Western intellectuals and journalists, having hero-worshipped Solzhenitsyn into a Russian version of a Cold War anti-communist liberal, turned on him in the post-exile years as Solzhenitsyn showed he could be just as tough on a meretricious, materialistic, capitalist empire that tends to throw its weight around.

One gets a picture of Solzhenitsyn, the survivor of cancer and the gulag who could always see a ray of spiritual light in the bleakest material catastrophe, by recalling his closing words about Ivan Denisovich Shukov, the character who brought him to fame in his first novel, “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.”

“Shukhov felt pleased with life as he went to sleep,” Solzhenityn began the final passage. “A lot of good things had happened that day. He hadn’t been thrown in the hole. The gang hadn’t been dragged off to Sotsgorodok. He’d swiped the extra gruel at dinnertime. The foreman had got a good rate for the job. He’d enjoyed working on the wall. He hadn’t been caught with the blade at the search point. He’d earned a bit from Tsezar that evening. And he’d bought his tobacco.

“The end of an unclouded day. Almost a happy one.”

Now comes the end of a magnificent life, unclouded by self-pity or pettiness. Solzhenitysn’s belief in silver linings, in an arc of moral progress leading upward, provided him with the stamina to forge a body of work that guarantees totalitarianism, even where it rules, must bear an eternal badge of shame.

If there is a “First Circle” in heaven for those writers who fulfilled truth-telling duties to the utmost, its new chairman is on the way.

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