The Evil of Arbitrary Power ; Solzhenitsyn Taught the Truth About the Soviets
By Mike Pride
When communism crumbled, the world perspective of a generation crumbled with it. For more than 40 years, all of us born just after World War II had filtered international events through the prism of the struggle between communism and capitalism. Violence and war in Korea, Hungary, Cuba, Vietnam, Central America, Afghanistan and a dozen other hot spots were all episodes in the same ideological stalemate.
Baby boomers were lucky. Yes, we lived under the threat of mutually assured destruction and constantly rattling sabers. But we also came along late enough to avoid the taint that ruined some members of the generation before us. Unlike them, we knew that for all of communism’s Robin Hood allure as a theory, it had failed as a governing philosophy. In practice in the Soviet Union, it bore many similarities with fascism.
We owed this knowledge to information smuggled out of a closed society by journalists, writers, dissidents and defectors. The truth about Stalin’s purges and the famine he waged against his own people had permeated even our high school curriculum. In college, if you dozed off while reading 1984 or Darkness at Noon, you might soon snap awake in a cold sweat.
But nothing confirmed the rot within the Soviet Union more effectively than the works of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who died Sunday in Russia at the age of 89. From One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich through The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn exposed the system of Soviet Gulags that had confined and consumed millions of innocent people.
To accomplish this, he combined human detail, a novelist’s imagination and an accessible style. His early books, including The First Circle and The Cancer Ward, were all the more powerful – and authoritative – because Solzhenitsyn had lived them.
He completed many of his best-known works before the Soviet Union expelled him in 1974. During a long twilight, he spent 18 years in Cavendish, Vt., where in the best New England tradition his neighbors protected his privacy and allowed him to live a writer’s life.
Nevertheless, he was not the grateful expatriate the American public expected him to be. He lashed out at the West, choosing time- honored targets like materialism and decadence, but he also criticized freedom of the press and what he saw as Americans’ reluctance to die for their beliefs.
Later, after his return to Russia, he acted more like a crank than a savant. In his final years he embraced Vladimir Putin, whose near-dictatorship evokes memories of the corruption of Soviet rule.
Because Solzhenitsyn the person proved to be such a disappointment, and because the Cold War is long gone, it is hard to recall just how important his early literary works were. They vanquished any lingering doubt about what happens when the state vests itself with power over individual rights. In a lesson with some relevance in our country today, they portrayed the evil of arbitrary power.
Solzhenitsyn’s own case made this latter point. Just as he finished three years as a combat artilleryman during World War II, he wrote a letter to a friend in which he referred to Stalin as “the man with the mustache.” This remark earned him an eight-year sentence in the camps.
I read Solzhenitsyn’s books as a young man before, during and just after my service as a Russian linguist in the Army. My Russian teachers at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., were expatriates. Most of them disclosed little about what they had given up in defecting or about family members who had been shot or banished to the camps. But we soldiers knew enough about our instructors to know that Solzhenitsyn spoke for them.
That these books were published at all seemed like a miracle, and so it proved to be. Now we know that Solzhenitsyn actually memorized large sections of his novels while composing them in hellish conditions where writing was forbidden. And we know that Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet premier at the time, approved the publication of One Day in the Life for political reasons – to undermine the cult of Stalin, which lasted far beyond the murderous dictator’s death.
Forty years ago, at about the time Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize in literature, some observers saw him as the greatest writer of the 20th century. Then and now, this is a difficult matter to judge.
Certainly his final years hurt his reputation. Younger people who know anything at all about Solzhenitsyn probably see him as an old scold who publicly rejected the open society that championed his work while embracing the very values that his books had scorned.
Yet maybe Solzhenitsyn’s books will prove to be great literature. Just as Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novels are still appreciated, maybe Solzhenitsyn’s works will strike a chord with coming generations that lack any grasp of the political culture in which he wrote them.
The books certainly mesmerized me when I first read them. I saw them as great novels, as a source of important news and as testaments of personal witness. And I never doubted – and still don’t doubt – Solzhenitsyn’s courage or his standing as a cultural and political giant. But now that death has separated the man from his works, they must stand or fall as literature alone, outside their time.
Originally published by Mike Pride Monitor columnist.
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