Since becoming aware of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn 50 years ago I’ve read—and read about—him. He has remained for me a powerful witness, revealing important truths regarding Communism, 20th century history, the importance of writers, and the durability of “permanent things.” I’ve recently read the first three volumes of The Red Wheel novels: August 1914, which focuses on the pivotal first month of Russia’s engagement in WWI, showing why and how the Tsarist state failed to rightly respond to the conflict; November 1916, which deals with the disintegrating home front (and is the most explicitly Christian of the novels); March 1917, which shows the government beginning to dissolve amidst the collapse of traditional authorities. In the judgment of David Walsh: “There is no doubt that The Red Wheel is one of the masterpieces of world literature, made all the more precious by its relevance to the tragic era through which contemporary history has passed. Moreover, the impulse of revolutionary and apocalyptic violence associated with the age of ideology has still not ebbed. We remain confronted by the fragility of historical existence, in which it is possible for whole societies to choose death rather than life.”
In toto, The Red Wheel constitutes what Solzhenitsyn considered “the chief artistic design of my life.” He believed the two Russian revolutions in 1917 were the crucial events of the 20th century—the cauldron of destruction still defacing the globe. Unfortunately, few Americans would plough through these massive (thousands of pages!) tomes since they deal, in intricate fashion, with figures and events in Russian history unlikely to interest them. But to Solzhenitsyn, “there is always only one right path: to tackle the main job. That job will lead you to the right path of its own accord. Tackling the job meant seeking out, for myself and for the reader, how, through our past, we can conceive of our future” (#5054). Russian history merits our attention since it provides an important lesson regarding the fatal consequences of embracing any utopian, socialist vision for society. Especially enlightening are passages such as one finds in November 1916, surveying the leftist movement that would finally prevail in the Bolsheviks’ triumph. Largely responsible for that triumph was a “hapless Russian liberalism, prostrating itself, dropping its spectacles, raising its head again, throwing up its hands, urging moderation, and generally making itself a laughingstock” (p. 59). Though feigning impartiality, Russian liberals unfailingly aligned themselves with leftist ideologies. “Educated Russian society, which had long ago ceased to forgive the regime for anything, joyfully applauded left-wing terrorists and demanded an amnesty for all of them without exception.” (p. 59). As the 20th century dawned, the democratic liberals issued angry fulminations against the Tsar and his government while refraining from any critique of “the revolutionary young” who had gained control of the universities and “knocked their lecturers down and prohibited academic activity.” Students—then and now—unleash what seems to be an effluence of adolescence—“the normal sympathy of the young for the left” (p. 495).
In a passage I’ve pondered many times—for it speaks as directly to the United States of 2019 as the Russia of 1917—Solzhenitsyn said: “Just as the Coriolis effect is constant over the whole of this earth’s surface, and the flow of rivers is deflected in such as way that it is always the right bank that is eroded and crumbles, while the floodwater goes leftward, so do all the forms of democratic liberalism on earth strike always to the right and caress the left. Their sympathies always with the left, their feet are capable of shuffling only leftward, their heads bob busily as they listen to leftist arguments—but they feel disgraced if they take a set to or listen to a word from the right” (p. 59). Indeed, as Lenin as other revolutionaries realized: “The wind always blows from the far left! No Socialist in the world could afford to ignore that fact” (p. 485). In a 1979 interview with the BBC Russian service, Solzhenitsyn lamented the 1917 failures of liberals and moderate socialists in the Duma and the Provisional Government. They lacked the courage needed to oppose the hard left—a pattern of “weakening and self-capitulation” that would be “repeated on a world-wide scale since those days.”
Russian revolutionaries, many of them representing the “hard left,” also relied on a supportive Russian press. As the main protagonist of The Red Wheel, Colonel Georgi Vorotyntsev, mused: “It’s always leftist. All destructive. Vilifies the Church, vilifies patriots—they narrowly avoid mentioning the throne directly, they’ve learned to yap about what they call the regime. Every fly-by-night journalist speaks in the name of Russia. They shower us with sewage but never print our denials, that’s their idea of freedom. And any newspaper that stands up for the government is called reptilian or said to be on the government payroll” (pp. 902). Joining the left-leaning press were the nation’s teachers. “There is in Russia some sort of ‘education league,’ teeming with hundreds and thousands of teachers. But what does ‘education’ mean to them? To them there is nothing sacred in Russia, it has no historic rights, no natural foundations. They hate everything Russian, everything Orthodox, everything that goes back into the depths of time. Education, to them, means revolution” (pp. 903-904). Thereafter, as Solzhenitsyn notes in his recently published, autobiographical Between Two Millstones, at the beginning of 20th century, Russia witnessed “a powerful student movement” whose “consequences . . . were horrific. Everything they did was from the purity of their hearts, but they lacked any civic experience and ended up being engulfed by theories of revolution and violence” (Millstones, #2165).
It became evident, with the publication of August 1914,that Solzhenitsyn was a conservative—both a Russian patriot and an Orthodox Christian—who treasured much about the “old Russia,” despite its deeply-flawed Tsarist authoritarianism. So he soon lost support in liberal circles in both Russia and the West. Even Secretary of State Henry “Kissinger for a long time prevented the Voice of America from broadcasting me, and the BBC and Radio Free Europe were also beginning to avoid me as an ‘authoritarian figure,’ which was how I was being portrayed after my Letter to the Soviet Leaders” (#4165). In particular he defended Pyotr Stolypin, the Russian prime minister from 1906-1911 who had sought to bring into being a “solid class of peasant proprietors,” convinced that they could support and preserve a constitutional monarchy of some sort. Unfortunately, Stolypin was assassinated in Kiev in 1911; he was probably the last hope for a “conservative liberal” regime that might have avoided the revolutionary chaos that subsequently ruined the nation.
For the many Americans interested in Solzhenitsyn but uninterested in his lengthy, ponderous, history-laden literary works, Edward E. Ericson, Jr. and Daniel J. Mahoney have assembled The Solzhenitsyn Reader: New and Essential Writings, 1947-2005 (Washington: ISI Books, c. 2006) and provided helpful editorial comments on all of his works. “The purpose of this book,” they say, “is to make the broad sweep of Solzhenitsyn’s remarkable oeuvre available to English-speaking readers” (p. xv), emphasizing that: “Amid the exceptional flux of his life, one thing remained constant: He remained committed to exploring the subject he had chosen in youth as the topic of his magnum opus, namely, the Bolshevik Revolution and its causes” (p. xvi). Importantly, The Solzhenitsyn Reader contains important non-fictional pieces, including some poetic, deeply religious musings such as his autobiographical Acanthistus: “When, oh when did I scatter so madly / All the goodness, the God-given grains? / Was my youth not spent with those who gladly / Sang to You in the glow of Your shrines? / Bookish wisdom, though, sparkled and beckoned / And it rushed through my arrogant mind, / The world’s mysteries seemed within reckon, / My life’s lot like warm wax in the hand. / My blood seethed, and it spilled and it trickled, / Gleamed ahead with a multihued grace, / Without clamor there quietly crumbled / In my breathe the great building of faith. / Then I passed betwixt being and dying, / I fell off and now cling to the edge, / And I gaze back with gratitude, trembling, / On the meaningless life I have led. / Not my reason, nor will, nor desire / Blazed the twists and turns of its road. / It was purpose-from-High’s steady fire / Not made plain to me till afterward. / Now regaining the measure that’s true, / Having drawn with it water of being, / Oh great God! I believe now anew! / Though denied, You were always with me. . . .” (P. 21).
Solzhenitsyn came to the world’s attention with his publication One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (a fictional depiction of his experience in Stalin’s prison camps) during the “Khruschev thaw.” He was briefly a celebrity in his native land and welcomed by the state-controlled literary establishment. In time he would be awarded The Nobel Prize for Literature, something he deeply appreciated simply because it enabled him to survive as a writer. Before long, however, he encountered mounting governmental opposition. So he began recording his struggles in a work entitled The Oak and the Calf: Sketches of Literary Life in the Soviet Union (New York: Harper Colophon Books, c. 1975). He began by confessing: “For the writer intent on truth, life never was, never is (and never will be!) easy: his like have suffered every imaginable harassment” (p. 1). Knowing this, Solzhenitsyn “entered into the inheritance of every modern Russian writer intent on the truth: I must write simply to ensure that it was not all forgotten, that posterity might someday come to know of it” (p. 2). He committed himself to writing because he believed “the Soviet regime could certainly have been breached only by literature.” No military coup or political movement could begin to challenge Stalin’s brutal dictatorship. “Only the solitary writer would be able” to effectively oppose it, simply because “one word of truth outweighs the world.” Thanks to his international status, Solzhenitsyn continued working for several years, though little he wrote would be published in Russia. But when he documented Stalin’s massive slave labor system in the three volume The Gulag Archipelago (first published only in the West) he was expelled from Russia in 1974. As he departed, he left behind a short, memorable message to his people: “Live Not by Lies!”
After spending some time in Switzerland, Solzhenitsyn ultimately settled in Vermont’s mountains, near the village of Cavendish, in 1976. Here he tried, inasmuch as possible, to create a little Russian outpost wherein he could continue his artistic/historical work. He also granted interviews and delivered lectures, many of them reprinted in his Warning to the West. Surprisingly he was not delighted by all things Western! In 1978 he delivered the commencement address at Harvard University. Entitled A World Split Apart, he began his speech abrasively, noting that though Harvard’s motto is Veritas graduates should know that “truth seldom is sweet; it is almost invariably bitter” (p. 1). But he resolved to speak Veritas anyway! And his words proved “bitter” to many who heard him! After assessing various developments around the world, he questioned the resolve of the West to deal with them. Unfortunately, he said, “A decline in courage may be the most striking feature that an outside observer notices in the West today. The Western world has lost its civic courage, both as a whole and separately, in each country, in each government, in each political part, and, of course, in the United Nations. Such a decline in courage is particularly noticeable among the ruling and intellectual elites, causing an impression of a loss of courage by the entire society” (pp. 9-11). This decline, “at times attaining what could be termed a lack of manhood,” portended a cataclysmic cultural collapse.
He especially upbraided the media. Granted virtually complete “freedom,” journalists in the West used it as a license for irresponsibility. Rather than working hard work to discover the truth, they slipped into the slothful role of circulating rumors and personal opinions. Though no state censors restricted what’s written, “fashionable” ideas get aired and the public is denied free access to the truth. Fads and fantasies, not the illumination of reality, enlist the mainstream media. “Hastiness and superficiality—these are the psychic diseases of the twentieth century and more than anywhere else this is manifested in the press” (p. 27). Consequently, “we may see terrorists heroized, or secret matters pertaining to the nation’s defense publicly revealed, or we may witness shameless intrusion into the privacy of well-known people according to the slogan ‘Everyone is entitled to know everything’” (p. 25).
Politicians who appeased Communism especially elicited Solzhenitsyn’s scorn. Appraising America’s recent withdrawal from Vietnam, he declared the antiwar agitators were “accomplices in the betrayal of Far Eastern nations, in the genocide and the suffering today imposed on thirty million people there. Do these convinced pacifists now hear the moans coming from there? Do they understand their responsibility today? Or do they prefer not to hear? The American intelligentsia lost its nerve and as a consequence the danger has come much closer to the United States. But there is no awareness of this. Your short-sighted politician who signed the hasty Vietnam capitulation seemingly gave America a carefree breathing pause; however a hundredfold Vietnams now looms over you” (p. 41). He envisioned an immanent “fight of cosmic proportions,” a battle between the forces of Good and Evil. Two years before Ronald Reagan was elected President, Solzhenitsyn insisted that only a moral offensive could turn back the evil empire.
Cowardice had led Americans to retreat in Southeast Asia. Indeed, democracies themselves, Solzhenitsyn feared, lack the soul-strength for sustained combat. Wealthy democracies, especially, become flaccid. “To defend oneself, one must also be ready to die; there is little such readiness in a society raised in the cult of material well-being. Nothing is left, in this case, but concessions, attempts to gain time, and betrayal” (p. 45). More deeply, the “humanism” that has increasingly dominated the West since the Renaissance largely explains its weakness. When one believes ultimately only in himself, when human reason becomes the final arbiter, when human sinfulness is denied, the strength that comes only from God will dissipate. Ironically, the secular humanism of the West is almost identical with the humanism of Karl Marx, who said: “communism is naturalized humanism” (p. 53).
Consequently, he said, “If the world has not approached its end, it has reached a major watershed in history, equal in importance to the turn from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. It will demand from us a spiritual blaze; we shall have to rise to a new height of vision, to a new level of life, where our physical nature will not be cursed, as in the Middle Ages, but even more importantly, our spiritual being will not be trampled upon, as in the Modern Era” (pp. 60-61). The Harvard address ended Solzhenitsyn’s speaking career in the United States. The nation’s elite newspapers—the New York Times and Washington Post—thenceforth ignored him. Prestigious universities, such as Harvard, slammed shut their doors. He became something of a persona non grata and spent the last 15 years of his life in America living as a recluse, working industriously on manuscripts devoted to Russian history.
He also wrote a personal memoir—much like The Oak and the Calf—recording his observations while living in the West. Entitled Between Two Millstones, Book 1: Sketches of Exile, 1974– 1978 (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, c. 2018), it provides us, says Daniel J. Mahoney, “one of the great memoirs of our time.” To Donald Rumsfeld, it “is an indispensable part of history,” a “lasting testimony to his unbending moral courage, his persistence, and his persuasiveness— all of which helped bring down Communism.” The two “millstones” grinding away at him refer to the dictatorial, dehumanizing regime in Russia and the vapid Western “freedom” that proffered little meaning for mankind. In America, Mahoney says: “He had a new tension-ridden mission: to write with force, clarity, and artfulness about the Russian twentieth century while doing his best to warn the West about the pitfalls of a free society caught up in the cult of comfort and increasingly unwilling to defend itself against the march of evil” (Kindle, #158).
This march of evil, he thought, gained considerable impetus from the media, which pounced on him as soon as he arrived in Zurich. In the USSR the press was rigorously censored and thus untrustworthy. In the West, the press was “free” but irresponsible and thus also untrustworthy! Consequently, “from the very outset the Western media and I were not to be friends, were not to understand one another” (#332), for he “was completely aware of how careful one had to be not to throw oneself into the arms of the press, though I did not know how to take cover from their relentless siege” (#443). Bewildered by their indifference to his privacy and message, he thought “their fly-by-night trade” consisted mainly in trying “to outdo one another in snooping, conjecturing, and snatching at whatever they can.” Having just published The Gulag Archipelago, “my book about the perishing of millions,” he found journalists nastily “nipping at some puny weeds” regarding passing remarks he had recently made. Angrily he declared: ‘You are worse than the KGB!’ My words instantly resounded throughout the world. So from my first days in the West I did much to ruin my relationship with the press; a conflict that was to continue for many years had begun” (#527).
Mystifying to him, Western elites reacted negatively to his letters defending Orthodox Christianity and the war in Vietnam. Consequently, “in the wake of all the recent enthusiasm came a flood of abuse from the Western press, an about-turn in just three weeks! If they had at least read the letter carefully! From the reviews and the invective, it quickly became clear that these newspapermen had not taken the trouble to read the letter in its entirety. It was the first time that I had encountered such a thing, but dishonesty of this kind quickly proved to be a steadfast characteristic of the press. The New York Times, which had refused to print my letter, was among the most violent critics” (#907). Pressured to sit down for a TV interview, Solzhenitsyn reluctantly agreed to do so with Walter Cronkite on CBS. “They came to our house with a noisy, well-equipped crew of about ten, the only shortcoming being that they had not brought with them competent translators. I, too, was poorly prepared, not realizing who Walter Cronkite was, how left his leanings were, his questions bristling with hidden jabs, all about the Western media and my attitude toward it (which by now had become common knowledge), and also about the Russian émigré community” (#1324). He was especially angered by articles claiming to be based on interviews with him that never happened—and by reporters who cherry-picked statements from interviews to advance their own views rather than truthfully report his.
Yet another source of evil Solzhenitsyn discerned in the West was the harm being done by industrialization. He anticipated Anthony Esolen’s recent defense of “people in the modern world struggling against the Leveling force of a technocratic and culture-dissolving state.” Thus Solzhenitsyn: “Today’s prosperous world is moving ever further from natural human existence, growing stronger in intellect but increasingly infirm in body and soul” (#581). On a personal level, he craved pastoral regions. Though he found some cities such as Zurich charming, he preferred to work in the Swiss countryside, where the industrious farmers’ work “strengthened the peace within my soul.” Looking at the alpine scenery “every day, every morning— somehow cleanses the soul and clarifies one’s thoughts. The simple act of standing and looking is already labor for the soul and the mind. The task of evaluating one’s past and tracing out the future becomes easier” (#1484). Struggling to settle into his writing routine, he found that “the grandeur and wisdom of this mountain place (almost as if a high mountain altar . . .) were soon to put me back in form” and he could resume his work on Russia (#1548). Thus in time he found inVermont a suitable environment wherein he could continue his literary work. Returning to Russia in 1994 and dying in 2008, he failed to much influence developments in has native land. And he is today largely ignored by most Westerners. But to those with ears to hear, he remains a lasting witness to what ought ultimately concern us.