In the “Ascent,” one of the autobiographical sections of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, you will find the justly famous assertion that “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between political parties—but right through every human heart.”
And read just a little further and you come to these words, not so well known but just as true, which describe the evil that roots itself not in the personal, but in the political:
… I have come to understand the falsehood of all the revolutions in history: They destroy only those carriers of evil contemporary with them (and also fail, out of haste, to discriminate the carriers of good as well). And they then take to themselves as their heritage the actual evil itself, magnified still more.
Solzhenitsyn was a writer whose vast body of work, beginning with the great artistic achievement of the stories and novels, but also of course the essays and speeches, was guided by a great moral imagination. The writer who took the Bolshevik Revolution and its aftermath as his great theme and life’s work, could only understand what happened to Russia in terms of good and evil. Those who engineered and imposed the Bolshevik and Soviet nightmare were not merely ideologues, they were evildoers.
In The Solzhenitsyn Reader: New and Essential Writings 1947-2005 (2006, ISI Books), editors E. Ericson, Jr., and Daniel J. Mahoney have assembled, in one volume, a new collection of the author’s work that provides a broad sweep of his prodigious talent: history, autobiography, political writing, speeches, fiction, and poetry. Ericson and Mahoney place Solzhenitsyn— who always first and foremost considered himself a writer and artist—in the tradition of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, “a moralist who defends age-old distinctions between good and evil and truth and falsehood.”
With this excellent new reader, the editors also hope to provide a corrective to the many misstatements and misinterpretations of Solzhenitsyn’s work and life. These misreadings—which lately seem more based on disinterest or neglect—come from both the left, which could not forgive Solzhenitsyn for so devastatingly exposing the violence and the lies of Soviet totalitarianism, and the right, which suspected that the writer was no friend of liberty.
In their illuminating introduction, Ericson and Mahoney state simply that, “Solzhenitsyn was the most eloquent scourge of ideology in the twentieth century.” The editors are right to remind us of that. And any news account, biography or political history of the twentieth Century that talks about who “won” the Cold War—a complicated historical reality for sure—and does not include Solzhenitsyn with Reagan, Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II is not only incomplete but wrong. Solzhenitsyn was the inside man.
Ericson and Mahoney tell us that The Gulag Archipelago, perhaps Solzhenitsyn’s best known work, was written to “help readers imagine the unimaginable.” The author was successful. The book got Solzhenitsyn kicked out of the Soviet Union and sold more than 30 million copies worldwide in three dozen languages. “By discrediting Soviet communism at home and abroad, this single book played an undeniable – perhaps a decisive – role in ending the Soviet Union and thus the Cold War,” the editors say.
Solzhenitsyn accomplished this as a true artist, not a propagandist. He understood the artist as one who “recognizes above himself a higher power and joyfully works as a humble apprentice under God’s heaven.” That humility also involves reverence for the mystical depths of faith.
Solzhenitsyn’s deeply religious view of things is everywhere evident in Ericson and Mahoney’s new volume. It is there explicitly in the poem “Acathistus” with its intensely personal, hymn-like theme of repentance in the face of “purpose-from-on-High’s steady fire.” There is the short story “Easter Procession,” in which a gang of young hoodlums threatens a solemn procession of believers on the holiest day of the Orthodox Christian calendar. Or the slow, wrenching torment of Zinaida, the young woman in The Red Wheel, whose selfish rendezvous with a lover has led, she believes, to the neglectful death of her infant son. Transfixed before an icon of Christ, deaf to a church service going on around her, Zinaida perceives that “Christ was suffering acutely, suffering yet not complaining. His compassion was for all those who approached him—and so at that moment for her.”
Solzhenitsyn follows God, and it is not so hard to imagine why the writer has been ignored or dismissed by Western secular progressives and much of the media. While some may be able to tolerate his decorative Russian Orthodox pieties, it is the stark morality behind it, and the perfectly orthodox understanding of the Christian faith, that cannot be ignored. Says Ericson and Mahoney: “Solzhenitsyn accepts the validity of a classical Christian cosmology and anthropology, one that has nothing in common with facile modern (and postmodern) belief that that universe is indifferent or even hostile to human purposes.”
This new volume includes Solzhenitsyn’s famous 1978 commencement address at Harvard (deserving to be read at least annually), where he catalogued the West’s failings, including rampant materialism, the superficiality of the media, and the moral cowardice of intellectuals. (A prophet tends to speak his mind, even when invited to the most exclusive parties.) At Harvard, before the cream of the Cambridge intelligentsia, Solzhenitsyn accused the West of leaving behind “the moral heritage of Christian centuries with their great reserves of mercy and sacrifice.” He took the political and intellectual elites to task for cowardice, a “lack of manhood” in its dealings with international aggressors and terrorists. He lamented the “boundless space” that the West had provided for human freedom but without making any distinctions for human decadence. “The West has finally achieved the rights of man, and even to excess, but man’s responsibility to God and society has grown dimmer and dimmer,” Solzhenitsyn told the Harvard crowd.
As a boy, Solzhenitsyn was deeply influenced by his Aunt Irina who instilled in him a love of literature and of Russian Orthodoxy. But he drifted away from the Christian faith under the spell of state indoctrination in Marxist-Leninism. It was his experience with the realities of the Soviet system that brought him to his metanoia, the change of mind that put him on the road to repentance. “He returned with adult thoughtfulness to the Christian worldview of his rearing,” the editors write. “Solzhenitsyn’s mature articulation of Christian truths was deeply informed by his experience in the prison camps. There he witnessed human nature in extremis and learned about the heights and depths of the human soul.”
Solzhenitsyn reserved his harshest condemnation for his own, particularly the Soviet leadership, and could not forgive what he saw as passivity in so many Russians during the long terror. The political problem was, again for the author, not so much a matter of sorting out competing political systems, but a question of evil.
In a chapter of the Gulag Archipelago that looks at the history of the Soviet political police, one of the interrogators tells a condemned man: “Interrogation and trial are merely judicial corroboration. They cannot alter your fate, which was previously decided. If it is necessary to shoot you, then you will be shot even if you are altogether innocent. If it is necessary to acquit you, then no matter how guilty you are you will be cleared and acquitted.”
The chapter closes with the narrator discussing the just punishment for evildoers. He talks about the vigorous prosecution of Nazi war criminals in West Germany—by one count some 86,000 convicted by 1966. And he compares that with the almost total lack of any justice served for the architects of Soviet terror: “Someday our descendents will describe our several generations as generations of driveling do-nothings. First we submissively allowed them to massacre us by the millions, and then with devoted concern we tended the murderers in their prosperous old age.”
But for those descendents to come to conclusions about “driveling do-nothings” they will first need moral criteria. And that is what worries Solzhenitsyn. In a 1993 address in New York, shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the author observed that “for a post-modernist, the world does not possess values that have reality.” Perhaps it is the moral reality provided by true faith that most threatens revolutionaries and totalitarians, and explains why the Church, which stands in the way of these utopian fantasies, receives so much of their fury.
Russian historian George Vernadsky estimated that between the years 1917-1920 “several hundred bishops, priests, and monks were either shot or starved to death in prisons.” In 1922, the Soviets confiscated religious art and liturgical items, citing the need to raise funds to combat a famine, and in the process, Vernadsky wrote, “many priests were arrested and a number executed, among them the bishop of Petrograd, Benjamin.” To this day, the Russian Orthodox Church holds an annual memorial service in Butovo, the location of a former secret police camp now known as Russia’s Golgotha. No one knows exactly how many died at the “shooting field” in 1937-38, although the official number tops 20,000 people. Among them were more than 1,000 clergymen, including seven bishops. Witnesses said "enemies of the people" were brought to the shooting range in food vans marked "MEAT." Shootings went on non-stop day and night in the later stages.
The Russian exile theologian Vladimir Lossky defined evil as “nothing other than an attraction of the will towards nothing, a negation of being, of creation, and above all of God, a furious hatred of grace against which the rebellious will puts up an implacable resistance.”
Solzhenitsyn, now eighty-eight and for a long time back in his native land, understands this. If he had only written history, his contribution to our understanding of political terror and totalitarianism would be incalculably great. But he also gave us the artist’s moral vision. And that is something that Russia—and the West—need now more than ever.