Solzhenitsyn and American Culture: The Russian Soul in the West. David P. Deavel and Jessica Hooten Wilson, eds.
University of Notre Dame Press. 2020. 392 pages.
Reviewed by John Couretas
English literature scholar Ed Ericson told a story about teaching Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago to American undergrads, who knew plenty about the Nazi Holocaust of the Jews and other dehumanized minorities but next to nothing about the genocidal history of the Bolshevik and Stalinist regimes. Ericson, who worked tirelessly to widen Solzhenitsyn’s audience in the West, thought it was comic (or maybe tragi-comic) that students often thought “gulag” was something served in dormitory cafeterias, mistaking it for “goulash.”
With the publication of Solzhenitsyn and American Culture: The Russian Soul in the West, Ericson’s life work gains a fitting tribute from scholars who are today at work studying and assessing Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008), a protean writer and thinker who ranged over the twentieth century’s tragic landscape in political analysis, history, fiction, and poetry. The new book of essays is dedicated to “the memory of Edward E. Ericson Jr., Christian, scholar, mentor.” Ericson, who died in 2017, was a Chicagoan who spent the bulk of his teaching career at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He collaborated with Solzhenitsyn and his family for years and edited the first abridged, one-volume edition of the Gulag Archipelago, published in 1985.
In their introduction to this collection of essays, editors David P. Deavel and Jessica Hooten Wilson assess Solzhenitsyn’s claim, in his 1983 Templeton Prize Lecture, that “the devastating outcomes of the twentieth century derived from the fact that ‘men have forgotten God’ is no simple appeal to theocratic and autocratic past. It is a recognition that though human will and technique are powerful, they will tend toward destruction and violence if untethered to divine and natural law.” The English journalist Malcolm Muggeridge once called Solzhenitsyn a “holy prophet” and strongly recommended the study of his work on college campuses. “Rather than view Solzhenitsyn as only a Russian writer or a political dissident,” the editors write, “Ericson argued, in agreement with Muggeridge, that Solzhenitsyn was a Christian writer, one whose work embodied a vision of life which we would all do well to see and apply.”
This new collection of essays brings together scholarly assessments of Solzhenitsyn’s work from the West, and from Russian novelist Eugene Vodolazkin, in five parts: “Solzhenitsyn and Russian Culture”; “Solzhenitsyn and Orthodoxy”; “Solzhenitsyn and the Writers”; “Solzhenitsyn and the Politicians”; and “Beyond Solzhenitsyn: Russian Writers and American Readers.”
In the first part, an essay by Deavel brings forward an observation that Solzhenitsyn made about the intellectual climate on campuses in the West and in elite outlets of journalistic opinion, which holds up well with the passage of time. “It is safe to say,” Deavel writes, that Solzhenitsyn “saw the intellectuals – and both journalists and professors belong to this class – as particularly ready to surrender to illusions. Particularly to illusions of a benevolent and progressive sort.”
Among the chief illusions held by Western intellectuals – and here let’s not leave out left-wing seminary professors and a legion of social justice preachers – is the embrace of socialism in all its permutations. Solzhenitsyn asserted that the “defects” of capitalism merely represent the flaws of human nature under an ethic of unlimited freedom and the affirmation of human rights unmoored from human obligations. Such flaws, which exist in all societies, “under Communism (and Communism is breathing down the neck of all forms of socialism, which are unstable), run riot in any person with the least degree of authority; while everyone else under that system does indeed attain ‘equality’ – the equality of destitute slaves.”
For Americans, Deavel writes, “we need to be able to look at Solzhenitsyn and his Russian forebears for an experience that is both like ours and not, the experience of a nation historically Christian that was swallowed by a materialism sadly too much like the one we seem tempted by.”
Those new to Solzhenitsyn would do well to start with Ericson’s one-volume abridgement. (A new edition with a forward by Jordan B. Peterson was issued in 2018.) By way of an introduction to the Gulag Archipelago, readers would profit from reading Daniel J. Mahoney’s essay titled “Judging Communism and All Its Works” in the Solzhenitsyn and American Culture collection.
“Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s writings remain the greatest scourge of the ideological justification of tyranny and terror,” Mahoney begins. He pushes back on the sentiment that what happened in Russia in the twentieth century can be explained away by an ingrained Russian tradition of passivity or one of Asiatic despotism. “Truth be told,” Mahoney writes, “the ideological justification of ‘utopia in power’ is part and parcel of philosophical and political modernity, rooted in the unfounded belief that human nature and society can be transformed at a stroke.”
That terror in the service of utopia began at the outset, with Lenin, and swallowed up any person or group that was seen as an obstacle to the true ideological aim of total power: workers, local council officials, nuns, priests, monks, members of cooperatives, kulaks, suspect teachers, eccentric Tolstoyans, and that durable scapegoat known as the bourgeoisie. Some 85,000 priests and nuns were executed in 1937 alone at the height of Stalin’s Great Purge.
Mahoney tells us that, as a writer, Solzhenitsyn could reveal the “sparks of the spirit” that literature alone can truly incarnate. “The Gulag Archipelago is an ‘experiment in artistic/literary investigation,’ in Solzhenitsyn’s description of it, in no small part because of its power to illustrate the sparks of the spirit that miraculously survived the assaults of ideology,” Mahoney writes. “Human nature is more powerful than ideology. God’s grace is more powerful than imperfect human nature.”
I like to think that Ericson, who died in 2017, would have been delighted with the publication of Solzhenitsyn in American Culture but he, characteristically, would have been embarrassed by the well-deserved attention it would have brought him. I can think of no greater tribute to this man’s life work than to include Solzhenitsyn and American Culture in university reading lists for teaching not just Russian history, but the entire tragic arc of twentieth-century history. That reading list would include the one-volume Gulag, the Solzhenitsyn Reader edited by Ericson and Mahoney, and novels and short stories beginning with One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.
Solzhenitsyn described Ericson as “measured, very good-hearted – and concerned above all with spiritual matters. He worked absolutely selflessly and, to ease the procedure of negotiating with publishers, he renounced any fee.”
For more on Ericson’s work, see my conversation with him in “Literature in the realm of moral values,” from the Spring 2010 issue of Religion & Liberty. In 2018 on the Acton Institute’s PowerBlog, I posted in a short video clip of Ericson talking about “Teaching the Gulag Archipelago to American College Students.” A common reaction from Ericson’s students, who thought they were well-educated in modern history, when they encountered the history of the Soviet gulag was: “Why didn’t they tell us this? I haven’t heard this from our teachers.”
The lesson that students should draw from the study of Solzhenitsyn’s works, and his great soul, is to resist the temptation of thinking that the demonic forces of famine, imprisonment, and mass murder in Russia could never happen in America or in the West.
“Alas,” Solzhenitsyn wrote, “all the evil of the twentieth century is possible everywhere on earth.”