News of the passing of Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn on August 3 brought me a flood of memories. Although I never met Mr. Solzhenitsyn, he had a profound effect on my life. He also had a great impact on the world. The adage “the pen is mightier than the sword” was rarely truer than in the case of this man.
Solzhenitsyn entered my life during graduate studies in literature at Oxford. In January 1974, my tutor, the great Miltonian scholar Archie Burnett, assigned Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich as my first-week assignment. Less than two years earlier, I had considered myself a socialist, maybe a communist. After reading this book, I forever closed the door on my youthful flirtation with Big Government.
The novel—a microscopically detailed account of the miserable daily grind of inmates in Soviet penal labor camps—was autobiographical. The author had spent eight years in such a camp. His offense? After fighting in the Red Army for several years in World War II (and serving well, having received two citations for bravery), Solzhenitsyn sent a letter to a friend that included criticisms of Stalin’s strategy. In the suffocating police state that was the Soviet Union, Communist Party hacks monitored people’s mail—even letters written by decorated patriots—and treated any indiscreet comment about Stalin as a “crime against the state.”
The sheer power of One Day… is unforgettable. The vivid word pictures painted by the author make it obvious why he won the Nobel Prize in literature. Solzhenitsyn’s genius in storytelling lay in his willingness to let events speak for themselves. His narration was calm, understated. Here was unvarnished, unembellished truth, relentlessly yet matter-of-factly exposing unspeakable cruelties routinely committed by an inhuman regime. Thousands of those labor camps (dubbed “the Gulag Archipelago” by Solzhenitsyn’s trilogy of the same name) were still in operation in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but that didn’t stop many liberals in the West from remaining active apologists for the Soviet communists.
Solzhenitsyn was a polarizing figure everywhere. In his native country, he received honors for Ivan Denisovich and several other stories that Soviet leader Khrushchev regarded as conveniently anti-Stalinist. However, after Khrushchev was deposed and replaced by Brezhnev, Solzhenitsyn and his dedication to truth-telling caused him to be deemed a threat to the Soviet system, and he officially became a “nonperson,” his works unpublishable in his own country. Thankfully, though, a couple of manuscripts (notably, his novels The First Circle and Cancer Ward) found their way to the West, where they were published and highly acclaimed. After winning the Nobel Prize in 1970, and with the help of western diplomatic pressure, the Soviet regime deported Solzhenitsyn from his beloved Russia in 1974.
In the West, Solzhenitsyn became a hero to anticommunists while enraging liberals. One liberal professor stridently told me that Solzhenitsyn belonged in an insane asylum—a telling remark, since the Soviets themselves used insane asylums as a preferred place of imprisonment for dissident intellectuals. But for those of us who were not infatuated or deluded by Soviet propaganda, Solzhenitsyn was an invaluable fount of information about Soviet communism. He opened our eyes to reality, writing and telling us about the USSR’s economic backwardness—of most hospitals lacking hot water, of widespread shortages, of awards being given for new factories that didn’t even exist. He wouldn’t let the West forget about the ongoing violations of every human right by the secret police, nor about the horrors of the gulag. Like some biblical prophet, he warned us that evil, when left unhandled, only grows more aggressive, and that we needed to resist and withstand evil, not appease it. Ronald Reagan took that message to heart, boldly calling the Soviet empire “evil” while pursuing policies that bravely and consistently countered Soviet aggression until the evil empire imploded.
Despite his anticommunism, Solzhenitsyn wasn’t a conservative in the American sense—far from it. My master’s thesis explored his economic beliefs, which were anything but free-market. Alexander Solzhenitsyn shared Adam Smith’s initials; like Smith, Solzhenitsyn’s father died before his birth, so they were both single children raised by devoted mothers, and like Smith, he was a great writer. However, when it came to trusting the “invisible hand” in economics, Solzhenitsyn did not.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn was a Russian nationalist, an orthodox Christian, a traditionalist who favored an authoritarian government exercising a dominant role in his country’s economic life. Most importantly for the world, though, he was a courageous, principled man, who stood up to evil and prevailed. In doing so, he helped us to do the same. God bless you, sir, and thank you. R.I.P.