Sunday, August 3, 2008

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, RIP

It is difficult to underestimate the effect that Alexander Solzhenitsyn had on his time. With the Gulag Archipelago, he pulled back the veil and forced Western leftist fellow-travelers to confront the reality of Soviet communism.

He was hardly an uncritical observer of the West. He had the temerity to address a Harvard University commencement in the late 1970's, and remind the gathered elite that the motto of their university was Veritas -- proceeding to point out that a purely secular and humanistic pursuit of the truth, such as he knew was the norm at Harvard, is doomed to failure.

...we have lost the concept of a Supreme Complete Entity which used to restrain our passions and our irresponsibility. We have placed too much hope in political and social reforms, only to find out that we were being deprived of our most precious possession: our spiritual life.

In the East, it is destroyed by the dealings and machinations of the ruling party. In the West, commercial interests tend to suffocate it. This is the real crisis. The split in the world is less terrible than the similarity of the disease plaguing its main sections.

Solzhenitsyn's critiques of the West, however, usually came in one of two forms -- he harshly criticized the West's increasing rejection of traditional religion, and he criticized the West for not being willing to stand up for itself in the face of Communism. While he noted "the similarity of the disease" rotting the West to that which had destroyed humane (as opposed to humanistic) culture in the East, Solzhenitsyn never bought into the idea of moral equivalence between the free world and the communist world. He knew too much, and knew better.

His critiques of the Soviet bloc were one's designed to help bring those regimes crashing down -- his critiques of the West were the "faithful wounds of a friend," as the Scriptures put it.

Solzhenitsyn was a devout Russian Orthodox Christian, and it is perhaps telling that he died on the feast day of the prophet Elijah on the Russian calendar. Like Elijah, Solzhenitsyn was reviled for telling truth that the rulers of his time didn't want to hear. Both men were exiled to desert places, and remarkably survived. At one point, Elijah tells God that those who persecute him "have digged down Thine altars, and have slain Thy prophets with the sword; and I only am left alone, and they seek my life to take it." Could this not have been the story of Solzhentisyn's own life in which he must have felt as though he was a lone voice in the wilderness?

Of course, God reminded Elijah that there were yet 7000 who had not "bent the knee" to the false gods of his time, and one can be sure that Solzhenitsyn likewise learned over time that he was hardly alone. But his stances won him few friends among the elite intellectuals in the West, the longer he stayed here.

One recalls Malcolm Muggeridge, appearing on William F. Buckley, Jr.'s "Firing Line." The Oak and the Calf had recently been published, and Muggeridge (no stranger to the vicious attacks of former admirers) predicted that Solzhenitsyn's book, because of its unapologetically Christian character, would result in "the hounds being set on him" by the secular-minded Western press and intellectual world. Muggeridge was certainly right about that.

Solzhenitsyn was, like all great writers, someone for whom a mere reference to his "complexity" hardly suffices. While the different phases of his life and work can be categorized and parsed endlessly, what should ultimately be remembered are books like The First Circle -- still as fresh and piercing today as they were when they were written 40 years ago.

Just one scene in that book illustrates what Solzhenitsyn brought to his fiction: The scientist (and political prisoner in a forced labor camp for high-level scientists) Gleb Nerzhin sits across the desk from a man who assumes that Nerzhin will be trembling with fear. Instead Nerzhin calmly tells the official that when the state takes everything away from a man, it has unintentionally set him free again, since there is nothing left for that man to lose. In that moment, the official realizes that it is he who is actually feeling fear, something from which Nerzhin is paradoxically free.

Solzhenitsyn wrote with the power of someone who had experienced losing everything -- and who had also experienced the freedom that comes with having nothing left to lose. At the heart of his writing and his life was a simple principle: do not take part in "the lie." Not bad advice for anyone living in any country in any time. And never is it easy advice to follow.

Like great writers who are more attentive to their pursuit of the truth than to cultivating popular celebrity, he was no stranger to controversy. But that voice speaking the truth as he saw it will be missed. The Nobel Laureate will long be read. The visionary will be remembered. Prayers will be said around the world for his soul and for his family.

As the Russians would say, "Vechnaya Pomyat!" Memory Eternal...


Update 8/4/2008 -- Read the fine editorial that appears in National Review today -- the beginning of what is sure to be a great outpouring of gratitude and praise.

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