Monday, August 04, 2008

Alexandr Solzhenitsyn Dies

Yesterday evening, the New York Times, in a short statement citing Interfax, announced that Alexandr Solzhenitsyn had died of ill health, at the age of 89. Today's papers carry considerable coverage, including a lengthy New York Times piece by Michael T. Kaufman.

Variously a novelist, poet, teacher and dramatist, he was the founder of a literary genre, a style through which he told the story of the Gulag Archipelago about the creation and administration of the vast Soviet penal system.

That three-volume work was based on his own experiences and the testimonials of hundreds of others. It is both a compelling and exhaustive work, describing details of the history of that system -- including mass arrests, imprisonments, tortures, and executions -- and tracing all the way back to Lenin and the founders of the Soviet system. In doing so, he exposed more of the ultimate evil underbelly of communism.

The work was not only officially embarrassing to the Soviets, it exposed their fundamental system of official political repression at the time when they were an emerging superpower in the years following World War II, and had been fiercely competing with the west in an ideological struggle for influence throughout the world.

He was the great Soviet dissident, becoming a central public figure in the history of the last quarter of the 20th Century, and a prominent and controversial intellectual influence on international thought.

Only one of his book-length works, One Day In The Life Of Ivan Desinovich, was published in Soviet Union. Nikita Khrushchev allowed it to be published for political reasons in 1962. As the First Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, and Premier, Khruschchev had for several years been taking on his major predecessor, Josef Stalin, attacking the "cult of personality," and the "violation of Leninist norms," as well as calling the "great purges" crimes. Solzhenitsyn's book supported some of his anti-Stalinist claims.

But Solzhenitsyn also wrote many other great works, including The First Circle, Cancer Ward, his momumentally important historical novels of the Soviet Union, beginning with August, 1914, and it's later editions and successor works, known as The Red Wheel.

While his other works were consistently suppressed, and the manuscripts of some were confiscated, the Soviets were simply unable to ultimately silence him. It was one thing to go after the so-called "excesses" of Stalin had who ruled the Soviet Union for nearly thirty years, including throughout World War II. It was quite another to make the historical case that Stalin was merely the logical extension of Lenin, who put in place the entire repressive political police state system which Stalin then carried forward. That suggested the illegitimacy of the entire Soviet communist system, and of their own power.

But that was the case that Solzhenitsyn made, especially in the Gulag. In 1970, he achieved an irrepressible level of international fame, having been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. Owing to his international fame, the Soviets were unable do away with him, but they could not allow him to remain. Eventually the Soviets deported him to West Germany in 1974, and stripped of his Soviet citizenship.

As my close friend reminded me last night (who specialized in Soviet studies in graduate school) the Soviets simply could no longer tolerate his presence in the Soviet Union. He said they perceived he was becoming a serious threat because they feared that he would gather an alternative and dissident intellectual following around him if he was allowed to remain in the Soviet Union. Solzhenitsyn himself as much as said so in his book, The First Circle, a key phrase of which is quoted in the MSNBC story about him today:

"A great writer is, so to speak, a secret government in his country," he wrote in "The First Circle," his next novel, a book about inmates in one of Stalin's "special camps" for scientists who were deemed politically unreliable but whose skills were essential.
That, of course, was an intolerable concept in a "one party" system.

Today's Times relates the very public struggle that took place following his expulsion from the Soviet writer's union. They name many of the dozens of well known writers defended him and signed petitions calling for "an international cultural boycott of the Soviet Union."

As also noted at Wikipedia, "During this period, he was sheltered by the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who suffered considerably for his support of Solzhenitsyn and was eventually forced into exile himself." (links in original)

The Soviets eventually deported him, whereupon he quietly emigrated to the United States in 1974. He located briefly in California, but settled in Cavindish, Vermont by 1976, where he lived in relative personal seclusion for 20 years, before returning to Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. His Soviet citizenship was restored in 1990, but he did not return to Russia to live until 1994.

Solzhenitsyn was actually a military officer in the Soviet Army during World War II, but as a result of his personal criticisms of Stalin's conduct of the war army, he came to the attention of the Soviet political hierarchy. The Soviet military, including the Army, had powerful political officers, known as "military commissars" attached at all levels who protected the communist party's complete control of those services, and who even had the authority to countermand a military commander's orders. Solzhenitsyn was critical of the manner in which the Army was run, and was eventually "arrested and convicted for writing a derogatory comment in a letter to a friend, N. D. Utkevich, about the conduct of the war by Joseph Stalin," having referred to Stalin's moustache in a derogatory manner.

During his imprisonment, he abandoned Marxism and returned to the Russian Orthodox faith of his youth that his mother had taught him. He survived severe illness, including cancer at a time when survival was nearly unheard of.

Throughout his life Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn remained a controversial figure, having critics in both the East and West. For example, he was both vigorously attacked and stoutly defended for his 2003 book, Two Hundred Years Together, in which he discussed the role of Jewish participants in the communist revolution, and in the ensuing Soviet bureaucracies, including the dreaded Cheka. In light of a long history of Russian anti-semitism, the work was viewed -- by critics and defenders alike -- as having breached what had been a taboo subject.

He was also highly critical of Western society, as was best exemplified by his Harvard Commencement address, given in 1978, in which he observed that:
[a]fter the suffering of decades of violence and oppression, the human soul longs for things higher, warmer and purer than those offered by today's mass living habits, introduced by the revolting invasion of publicity, by TV stupor and by intolerable music.
His overarching belief was that spirituality had been too long gone from our lives.
If the world has not come to its end, it has approached a major turn in history, equal in importance to the turn from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. It will exact from us a spiritual upsurge, 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.

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At 11:03 PM, August 25, 2008, Blogger Jesse O. Kurtz said...

This is a fantastic post. More people should be made aware of this great Russian voice for ordered liberty.


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