Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The Paradigmatic Zek

Five years have passed since the demise, on August 3, 2008, of the great novelist, dissident, and thinker Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Forty-five years ago, on August 25, 1968, seven people demonstrated in the Red Square heroically against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, thus ushering in an era of open dissent and ruthless persecutions, including forcible internments into psychiatric institutions. More than twenty years ago, in December 1991, the ideocratic empire called the USSR collapsed. As historian Boris Souvarine, who wrote an unsurpassed Stalin biography, noticed mordantly:

“USSR, four letters, four lies. It was neither a free union, nor Soviet, in the sense of councils’ democracy. Neither was it socialist, if socialism involves social equality, nor a set of republics, in the etymological sense of the term, res publica, an object of civic commitment.”

The Solzhenitsyn effect, associated with the publication in the West of his non-fiction monument titled “The Gulag Archipelago,” a most devastating indictment of Sovietism, engendered a mutation in the global perception of communism and contributed to the inexorable de-legitimization of totalitarianism. The Soviet myth was dealt a mortal blow. Communist “humanism” turned out to be similar to the Nazi one. The Bolshevik “conscience” was not different from the Fascist one.

No one has demonstrated more persuasively than Solzhenitsyn the duplicitous, schizophrenic nature of communism, its absolute moral falsity.  His urge for individuals to live within the truth, echoed by Jan Patocka and Vaclav Havel, founders of Charter 77, was accompanied by his endeavor to expose the terrorist underpinnings of Bolshevism, whatever its incarnations (Stalinism, Trotskyism, Maoism, Castro-Guevarism, etc). For Solzhenitsyn, the roots of Bolshevik anti-humanism were linked to its proud embrace of a programmatic, militant atheism. It was, as French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy put it, “barbarism with a human face.” Far from being an extenuating circumstance, the humanist pretense was in fact an aggravating one.

Thanks to Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn, the word Gulag has entered current vocabulary as synonymous with the communist concentration camp universe. Romanian thinker intellectual Monica Lovinescu (about whom I wrote here, in FrontPage), once said that if a deluge were to come and she had to choose three books to rescue in order to speak about the totalitarian catastrophes as the hallmark of a century of shame and terror, these would be Solzhenitsyn’s “Gulag Archipelago,” Kostler’s “Darkness at Noon,” and Orwell’s “1984.”  She was right.

Solzhenitsyn was the indomitable chronicler of a century full of genocidal exterminations, impregnated with exacerbated cruelty and infamy. Like Vasilly Grossman, the author of the unforgettable novel “Life and Fate,” he explained that totalitarianism would have been impossible in the absence of the monstrously inebriating ideological ingredient:

“Thanks to ideology, the twentieth century was fated to experience evildoing on a scale calculated in the millions. This cannot be denied or passed over or suppressed. How, then, do we dare insist that evildoers do not exist? And who was it that destroyed these millions? Without evildoers there would have been no Archipelago.”

It was Solzhenitsyn who opened the eyes of millions in the USSR and abroad to the dismal fate of the zeks (concentration camp prisoners). Like Primo Levi who wrote about Auschwitz, Solzhenitsyn documented in immortal prose the struggle for survival under the most atrocious circumstances. Immensely courageous, he challenged the secret police harassment and, in spite of countless obstacles, kept writing. When intimidation and slander turned out to have no effect, the Soviet potentates decided to expel him. In exile, he continued his struggle against oppression and lies. He irritated many in the West with strong criticism of what he decried as rampant mercantilism and moral decay. His onslaught on Western scholarship of Russia and the USSR was ill-informed and unfair. Much of his behavior had something disturbingly Messianic. Yet, his commitment to freedom remained unwavering and his writings belonged to the best tradition of Russian literature. In fact, with all his missteps, including the final accolades to Putin and Putinism, he was one of the great moral consciences of the twentieth century, the epitome of the zek’s fate and conscience.

He was a giant of Russian and world literature. Max Hayward, Alain Besancon, Claude Lefort, Andre Glucksmann, Monica Lovinescu, Robert Conquest, Pierre Daix, Leo Labedz, Norman Podhoretz, Leonard Shapiro, Efim Etkind, Michael Scammell, Daniel Mahoney and many other praised his writings. The Nobel Prize, disgraced by being granted to the Soviet apologist Mikhail Sholokhov, recovered its honor when offered to Solzhenitsyn. His books, including “The Cancer Ward,” “The First Circle,” “The Oak and the Calf,” “The Gulag Archipelago,” and the novel on the Russian Revolutions of 1917 (“The Red Wheel”), belong to an enduring thesaurus of dignity.


Unfortunately, by the end of his life, he wrote a book on Russian-Jewish relations which lent itself to charges of anti-Semitism. My main objection is that Solzhenitsyn engaged in historical analysis without a deep knowledge of the appropriate scholarly field and indulged in speculations based on selective and not always reliable sources. He never regarded Bolshevism as an ethnic, specifically Jewish political project, but some of his writings allowed for malevolent and malicious interpretations. He may not have been anti-Semitic, probably was not, yet anti-Semites used his book for their own vicious goals. Let me quote from Natan Sharansky’s contribution to a symposium in “FrontPage”:

“When I was active in the Soviet dissident movement in the beginning of the 1970s, there were two clear camps. The first was led by Andrei Sakharov and was focused on fighting for universal human rights. The other, led by Solzhenitsyn, was fueled by a strong Russian identity. In a sense, this was a continuation of the classic divide among the Russian intelligentsia between ‘Westerners’ and Slavophiles.

I was fully in the Sakharov camp. I was also part of the Soviet Jewry/Zionist movement, which had serious disagreements with Solzhenitsyn. For instance, he was critical of the Jackson amendment, which was so important for our movement. Whereas Sakharov understood that any expansion of freedom inside the USSR was a victory for the human rights struggle and should therefore be embraced, Solzhenitsyn thought too much energy was being wasted on ensuring freedom of emigration when the entire regime had to go.

But while the differences between the camps were real and would later, as many of the previous writers correctly mentioned, result in profound disagreements, those differences paled in comparison to our common struggle against Soviet totalitarianism.

The main challenge for all dissidents – democrats, Zionists, nationalists, etc. – was to convince the West that the Soviet regime was evil and that there was no place for appeasement. In this effort, Solzhenitsyn contributed more than anyone to unmasking that evil. His widely read books had a huge impact, and as a spokesman for the dissident movement, I can tell you that when I mentioned ‘The Gulag Archipelago,’ everyone knew what I was talking about. By painting such a vivid and powerful picture of evil, he gave all dissidents an indispensable reference point for our struggle.

When the Iron Curtain fell, the differences between the camps came to the surface again. On one side were the democrats, heirs to the legacy of Sakharov. On the other was Solzhenitsyn, who put Russian identity first. Against the KGB, the forces of identity and freedom stood on the same side of the barricades. Today, unfortunately they often find themselves on different sides. And Solzhenitsyn was always a champion of identity more than a champion of freedom.

In a sense, Solzhenitsyn believed that one had to choose between being a man of his people and a man of the world. As I argue in my latest book, Defending Identity, this is a false choice. We can be both, as long as our commitment to our own unique history, people and faith is coupled with a firm commitment to freedom and democracy. For all his great insight, this was something that Solzhenitsyn never saw.

With Solzhenitsyn, one must also address the issue of anti-Semitism. In the Gulag Archipelago, he writes about some Jews as heads of the camps and in important KGB positions. While this is true, it is clear that he writes about Jewish (and other minority) support for the Soviet regime with a special bitterness and disdain. It is as if he wants his readers to understand that a kind of foreign element oppresses the Russian people.

In his book, 200 Years Together, he analyzes the history of antisemitism in Russia and of Russian-Jewish relations. Sadly, his explanation of the many anti-Jewish laws and double standards applied towards Jews turns into understanding and even justification.

But to call him an antisemite would be unjust. His writing stems from a love of his own people rather than a hatred of others. He was more biased in favor of Russia than he was biased against Jews.”

A philosopher of dissident action, Solzhenitsyn demystified communism as the dictatorship of lies. For him, like for Anna Akhamatova, Nikolai Berdiayev and Lev Shestov, Bolshevism (an offspring of Marxism), represented a neo-barbaric atheism. In his 1967 letter addressed to the Soviet Writers’ Union, at a moment when he had been turned into a non-person, with no right to publish anything, he asked his former colleagues to give up ideological chimeras and live within the truth. Those words were moral dynamite. Soviet writers ignored him, but critical intellectuals in Czechoslovakia heard him and decided to follow his advise. Writers like Vaclav Havel, Ludvik Vaculik, and Pavel Kohout spelled out their solidarity with Solzhenitsyn. The dissident concept of liberty originated, to a great extent, in his thinking about human honor. Whereas Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov had many disagreements regarding the role of liberalism and pluralism in Russian history, they shared the same unflinching commitment to truth as a non-negotiable value.

Solzhenitsyn’s novel “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” published in 1963 with Nikita Khrushchev’s approval, changed the moral landscape, the ethical compass of literature in the Soviet Bloc. It introduced a new moral matrix, a new grammar of historical knowledge; it made ignorance of the totalitarian evil impossible. It was the first time that the theme of the camps emerged in officially printed prose. Moreover, the main character was a simple Soviet man, not a Bolshevik luminary persecuted by Stalin.

In the West, the effect was also shocking. I would mention the symptomatic case of writer Pierre Daix, editor of the communist weekly “Les Lettres Françaises” (the director was the notorious, though immensely gifted, poet Louis Aragon, an ex-Surrealist converted to Stalinism). In 1949, Daix accused Soviet defector Viktor Kravchenko of defamation and lies about the Gulag. It was one of the most publicized trials of that era, a major defeat for the communist propaganda. In 1964, the former zealot Daix wrote the preface to Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day.” In 1968, “Les Lettres Françaises” took the side of the Prague Spring, Daix broke with the French Communist Party and became himself an intellectual dissident.

Whatever his human errors, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn remained faithful to the memory of the dead. It took an iron will, an incredible amount of intransigence, a genuine sense of moral urgency, to fight the totalitarian colossus. George Kennan was right, no other writer did as much as Solzhenitsyn in umasking totalitarian despotism. He was the prosecution’s supreme witness.

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