Solzhenitsyn left enduring legacy of freedom

By  Ian Hunter, Catholic Register Special
  • August 7, 2008

{mosimage}LONDON, Ont. - It will take years, even decades, to comprehend fully the impact of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who died of heart failure Aug. 2 at the age of 89 in his home near Moscow.

Born in 1918, the same year as his father’s death, Solzhenitsyn was brought up by his mother and graduated in mathematics and physics from Rostov University in 1941, then went directly into the army. After four years of front-line service in a Russian artillery unit, he was arrested in February 1945 because of disrespectful remarks made about Joseph Stalin and discovered by government censors in correspondence with a friend.

In July, 1945 Solzhenitsyn was sentenced (in absentia) to eight years hard labour in a detention camp. It was in the camps, in the desperate, daily struggle for survival, that Solzhenitsyn’s art took shape.

“In agonizing moments in camps, in columns of prisoners at night, in the freezing darkness through which the lanterns shone, there often rose in our throats something we wanted to shout out to the whole world, if only the world could have heard one of us. . . . Such ideas came not from books and were not borrowed for the sake of harmony or coherence; they were formulated in prison cells and around forest campfires, in conversations with persons now dead, were hardened by that life, developed out of there.”

Solzhenitsyn’s literary genius first burned itself into Western consciousness when a slim novel called One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was published in 1962. Other novels (notably Cancer Ward and The First Circle) followed, unlikely bestsellers that culminated in the 1970 Nobel Prize for Literature.

Moscow refused to give Solzhenitsyn a visa to travel to Stockholm to accept the prize; shortly thereafter, the government revoked Solzhenitsyn’s citizenship and sent him into exile. It might have been the biggest blunder that blunder-prone, thuggish dictatorship ever made. In exile, first in Germany, then in Cavendish, Vermont, Solzhenitsyn was left undisturbed to complete his massive three volume account of the far-flung Soviet slave labour camps, The Gulag Archipelago.

Communism never recovered from his account of its shameful past. Governments love darkness rather than light because their deeds are generally evil, and Solzhenitsyn shone light into this darkness.

Although prevented from attending the Nobel Prize ceremony, Solzhenitsyn managed to smuggle out his acceptance speech, read in his absence. He spoke then of the significance of art:

“The task of the artist is to sense more keenly than others the harmony of the world, the beauty and outrage of what man has done to it, and poignantly to let people know. . . art warms even an icy and depressed heart, opening it to lofty personal experience. By means of art we are sometimes sent - dimly, briefly - revelations unattainable by reason.

“Like that little mirror in the fairy tales - look into it, and you will see not yourself but, for a moment, that which passeth understanding, a realm to which no man can ride

or fly. And for which the soul begins to ache…”

In a sense Solzhenitsyn was always an exile, not so much from his homeland but from his time. When he lived in the United States, he was invited to give the commencement address at Harvard University in 1978. In this speech, he denounced shallow Western materialism, upsetting the Harvard establishment who had invited him, and many liberals who had previously fawned over him when he was a Soviet dissident but who had no sympathy for a Christian prophet.

In an astonishingly prophetic essay (From Under the Rubble) Solzhenitsyn made it clear that the alternative he foresaw to Communist tyranny was not Western democracy but rather a spiritual reawakening:

“Authoritarian regimes are not terrible in themselves, only those which are not answerable to God or their own conscience. Russia will most likely move from one authoritarian form of government to another. This will be the most natural and least painful path of development. Our present system is terrible not because it is undemocratic and based on force - a man may still live without harm to his soul under such regimes. What makes ours uniquely horrible is that it demands total surrender of the soul. What we need is not political liberation, but liberation of the soul from participation in the lies forced upon us.”

I shall always be personally indebted to Solzhenitsyn because in an era of political correctness run amok and Stalinist human rights commissions, he articulated a succinct credo to live by, the best I have yet discovered. In another brilliant essay (Live not by the Lie), he wrote:

“The main thing is never to act against your conscience, not to put your signature on documents you do not believe in, not to vote for those who you think should not be elected, not to approve decisions, not to applaud, not to pass on lies, not to broadcast them, not to write them, not to put them down on paper, not to pretend. . . . Let your creed be - Let the lie come into the world, let it even triumph - but not through me.”

And now Solzhenitsyn - surely a descendent of John Bunyan’s Mr. Valiant-For-Truth - has passed over; and all the trumpets sounded greatly for him, we may be sure, on the far side.

(Ian Hunter is professor emeritus in the Faculty of Law at the University of Western Ontario in London.)

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