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 the full panoply of Russian worldviews they included and the facility with which those ideas were expressed. Many characters in these novels were based on well-known intellectual contemporaries of Solzhenitsyn’s, whom he had met in the camps. One of the functions of all those “whither Russia” dialogues—set in the special prison at Mavrino for gulag-sentenced scientists, or on the cancer ward which was at once a real hospital for dying men and woman and a metaphor for the dying Soviet state—was to keep alive the choices 19th-century Russian history had offered, from the official church through the Slavophiles and other religious philosophers, to the liberals like Herzen and Turgenev and populists like Lavrov and Mikhailov. Under totalitarianism, these theories disappeared from the intellectual map. Solzhenitsyn revived them by depicting them as still alive in thinking people’s minds.
Yet he was not just a chronicler, but a thinker in his own right. Moreover, there were moments when the power of analogy did raise him to the literary heights. The title of The First Circle comes from Dante’s Inferno, specifically the first circle of hell: a walled garden in which the Greek philosophers could enjoy a relative paradise in hell’s heart. Solzhenitsyn’s novel explores the idea that for some people, like Solzhenitsyn himself in his days as a privileged scientist, the Soviet system could be almost paradise, a world for privileged men and women not far off Plato’s ideal society. Solzhenitsyn also had a large enough understanding of what separated Russia and the west philosophically that he could joke about it, in Cancer Ward:
“There was this philosopher Descartes. He said, ‘Suspect everything.'”
“But that’s nothing to do with our way of life,” Rusanov reminded him, raising a finger in admonition.
“No of course it isn’t,” said Kostoglotov, utterly amazed by the objection. “All I mean is we shouldn’t behave like rabbits and put our complete trust in doctors.”
Russian governments have not generally been interested in literary nuances. After the mess they made over permitting publication of Solzhenitsyn’s revelatory One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in 1962, at a late, relatively liberal hour under Khrushchev, Solzhenitsyn became a dangerous man again under Leonid Brezhnev. The KGB tried to poison him on a trip south. (They succeeded only in making him horribly ill: Solzhenitsyn, who also survived the gulag and cancer, was a man of what ought to be legendary physical and mental strength.) In the end, the only way they could get rid of him was to bundle him forcibly on to an aeroplane in 1974 and revoke his citizenship.
Solzhenitsyn settled in Vermont, that part of the US that most closely approximated the cold, remote landscape in which he was used to working. With his second wife he set up a secluded household, in which he hid away from the outside world to lead a Russian life within high fences. He had a hut in the garden, just as he had had in the gulag, and a little stove to cook on. There, he worked on The Red Wheel, his epic cycle of novels about 20th-century Russian history, which was never completed, although the first few volumes were published in his lifetime. (All these marvellous details are to be found in DM Thomas’s 1998 biography A Century in His Life.)
Solzhenitsyn didn’t like America and nor did America like him, once it realised that for a Russian, being anti-Soviet did not entail being a liberal. In the American years, before his return to Russia in 1994, Solzhenitsyn rediscovered himself as a religious conservative, suspicious of western materialism and intent on finding a superior path for Russia. He set out his stall in a lucid, daunting book called The Russian Question (1995): “We must build a moral Russia or none at all.”
Russia under Yeltsin, a gangster state in the making but suddenly, in its great cities, alive to new freedoms of every kind after 70 years of repression, was in no mood for Solzhenitsyn’s hieratic lectures. His meeting with Yeltsin and his address to the Russian parliament happened for form’s sake. His fortnightly television show was taken off the air because so few people tuned in.
In his last decade, however, Solzhenitsyn seemed to make his peace with his homeland. In 2006 he attacked the west for orchestrating a military threat to a peaceful Russia by expanding Nato eastwards. He also strongly endorsed the authoritarian style of Vladimir Putin, “to salvage the [Russian] state from failure.”
Solzhenitsyn was not just a writer, not just an intellectual, but a true Russian intelligent, in a way even Russians seem to feel nostalgic about since they swapped the spiritual benefits of political repression for the chaos of material wealth. Undoubtedly he will be rediscovered in future times of need.