Aleksander Solzhenitsyn killed off leftist attachment to the Soviet ideal in Europe. But his own attitude towards the motherland was complexby Lesley Chamberlain / August 31, 2008 / Leave a comment
If Tom Stoppard were to update his Russian trilogy to take in the sweep of the 20th century, Aleksander Solzhenitsyn would have to take centre stage. Soldier, physicist, dissident, religious thinker, historian, novelist, playwright, poet, gulag prisoner and unwilling exile, Solzhenitsyn experienced the whole Russian gamut. His lifespan alone—December 1918 to August 2008—seems to define a Russian century, a rough hundred years of agony and muddle, defeat and hope. The Russian intellectual scene of which Solzhenitsyn was the iconic figure during his lifetime is defined by an arrogant hope for a grand Russian future. It never goes away: you can force it underground, harness it to party discipline, even banish it abroad, and still it reappears, holding on to the view that Russian history, people and destiny are like some special field of philosophy in which the hardest problems are still not solved, but will be one day—and then the world will see.
In my early days, coming from a literary background, I remember being disappointed by what critics claimed were Solzhenitsyn’s great novels, Cancer Ward and The First Circle, smuggled versions of which first appeared in the west in 1968. These were rather simple chronological narratives, with masses of just-about distinct characters struggling with the perverse conditions of Russian life. Not a single sentence was written for the sake of the joy or ambiguity of language. There are many fabulous moments of art for art’s sake in Russian poetry and prose, but Solzhenitsyn was not of that school. He had Russia to solve, and the only thing that figured in his tales as ironic was history.
No historian of Soviet Russia can fail to salute the impact of those two novels, but of course it was already an irony that their main impact was in the west. Together with Solzhenitsyn’s devastating chronicle of institutional cruelty in The Gulag Archipelago (1973-78), these works drove the final nail into the coffin of Soviet humanity for export, a long-cherished dream on the European left. Finally even Sartre and de Beauvoir, true believers in the righteous claims of Moscow from their base on the Left Bank, had to concede that the Soviet achievement was inhuman.
Solzhenitsyn himself was always more nuanced about what could be expected for Russia. When I came back to Cancer Ward and The First Circle as a historian of Russian ideas, I found the novels brilliant documents for…