Editor’s Note: This article is also posted at National Review Online.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a great figure of the 20th century, is dead at the age of 89.
How does one adequately honor the man? It’s impossible to capture in one column what Solzhenitsyn meant, experienced, and how he went about translating it to the West in an unprecedented way. Professors everywhere will struggle to fully convey his impact to their students. I will point to just a few things that stand out in my mind.
First was his creative, trenchant opening to his majestic, The Gulag Archipelago, the shocking firsthand account of the Soviet forced-labor-camp system, where tens of million innocents perished and countless more, like Solzhenitsyn himself, were held captive. Solzhenitsyn began his work with a mundane but instructive example: He cited an article in the journal Nature, which informed its readers, in a strictly scientific fashion, about a group of fleeing, desperate men in Siberia who, starving, happened upon a subterranean ice lens that held a perfectly preserved prehistoric fauna.
“Flouting the higher claims of ichthyology,” narrated Solzhenitsyn, and “elbowing each other to be first,” they chipped away the ice, hurried the fish to a fire, cooked it, and bolted it down. No doubt, said Solzhenitsyn, Nature impressed its readers with this account of how 10,000-year-old fish could be kept fresh over such a long period. But only a narrower group of readers could decipher the true meaning of this “incautious” report. That smaller club was the fellow gulag survivors—the “pitiable zeks,” as Solzhenitsyn called them. When your goal is survival, you survive, even if it means hurriedly devouring something that in a normal world would be carefully rushed to a museum.
As Solzhenitsyn knew, however, and proceeded to make clear in the pages that followed, Soviet communism was no normal world. His groundbreaking work unearthed gem after gem to an outside world not yet fully acquainted with the “horror house” (Boris Yeltsin’s characterization) that was the Soviet Union.
Among the many other items worthy of mention from The Gulag Archipelago was how Solzhenitsyn literally did the Lord’s work by reporting on the Moscow “church trials” of the 1920s—classic, prototype communist show trials, aimed specifically at the Russian church. These were outrageous miscarriages of justice, the outcome always predetermined, and the goal to undermine communism’s most despised foe: God. Solzhenitsyn’s reporting on these trials, including excerpts of exchanges between saintly priests and stooge apparatchiks, offered only one glimmer of solace each time another good man was sentenced to execution: every priest could identify with Christ’s passion.
There was never a need for witnesses. Guilty as charged.
Some, like Severian Baranyk, were killed with a cross-shaped slash across their chests, or, like Zenobius Kovalyk, in mock crucifixions.
The Gulag Archipelago, plus other Solzhenitsyn masterpieces such as A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, may get a half-day-news-cycle worth of attention from our superficial media. That’s too bad, since Solzhenitsyn’s unfiltered voice in our press frequently exploded like cannon fire at the Iron Curtain.
The Soviets recoiled each time Solzhenitsyn’s words were broadcast in the West. A striking case that enraged them twice over was when his words were (spiritually) employed inside the USSR by the visiting American president. This occurred on May 30, 1988 at the Moscow Summit, when President Ronald Reagan—who had been quoting Solzhenitsyn since the 1970s—met with Soviet religious leaders at the 700-year-old Danilov Monastery. Reagan said:
There is a beautiful passage that I’d just like to read, if I may. It’s from one of this country’s great writers and believers, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, about the faith that is as elemental to this land as the dark and fertile soil. He wrote: “When you travel the byroads of central Russia, you begin to understand the secret of the pacifying Russian countryside. It is in the churches. They lift their bell-towers—graceful, shapely, all different—high over mundane timber and thatch. From villages that are cut off and invisible to each other, they soar to the same heaven…. [T]he evening chimes used to ring out, floating over the villages, fields, and woods, reminding men that they must abandon trivial concerns of this world and give time and thought to eternity.”
In our prayers we may keep that image in mind: the thought that the bells may ring again, sounding through Moscow and across the countryside, clamoring for joy in their new-found freedom.
The Soviets hated this. For Reagan to invoke Solzhenitsyn inside the USSR was bad enough, but to do so in behalf of religious liberty was galling. They wasted no time blasting this passage in editorials in their government-controlled newspapers. Reagan had dared cite Solzhenitsyn in the House of Lenin, an unacceptable blasphemy to the Gospel of Marx.
If a man’s achievements can be measured by the vicious un-holiness of his persecutors, then Alexander Solzhenitsyn will now enjoy a lifetime of heavenly rewards. Spared the martyrdom of the dead Russian believers who could not live to blow the whistle, it was left to him to witness to the outside world. It was a job that this faithful servant did better than any other zek. May he rest in peace, free from pain and elevated high above his tormentors.