The full text of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's Open Letter to the Soviet Leaders was first published on March 3 by the London Times, which described it as “a testament of astonishing power, with uncanny relevance to our own problems in the West.” In its introduction the Times glossed over the authentically reactionary nature of Solzhenitsyn's political statements. Those who have remarked upon it have done so with surprise. Many Western admirers of his fight against despotism had considered Solzhenitsyn an advocate of liberal values and had, until the publication of the Open Letter, refused to acknowledge what should have been evident from a careful reading of his fiction and his earlier political pronouncements. Steeped in a mysticism distinctively Russian, shaped by circumstances peculiarly Soviet, Solzhenitsyn has evolved a unique, eccentric viewpoint. It is worth trying to understand, both for what it tells us about him and in order to revise certain faulty Western perceptions of recent Soviet events.
When he was arrested in 1945 for criticizing Stalin in a letter from the front, Solzhenitsyn was twenty-seven years old, a gifted mathematician and a capable, respected artillery officer. He had yet to become aware of the full vindictiveness of Stalin's rule. If anything, his outlook and training, by his own admission, might very well have led him to become one of the executioners. Instead, he became a victim and was sent to prison. He emerged after eight years of forced labor, only to be engulfed by a new sentence: “exile for life” in a remote South Kazakhstan desert town. There he became seriously ill with cancer. Once again he confronted pain and the likelihood of death; once again he survived, quite miraculously cured. In 1956, three years after Stalin's death, he was “rehabilitated”; after eleven years, he was free.
At thirty-eight, Solzhenitsyn was an ex-prisoner, an outcast, alone. His mother had died during the war, and his wife had divorced him and remarried. He had no job to return to, nor had he even committed to paper the novels, plays, and poems he had composed and stored in his head during his years of imprisonment.
He had emerged from prison with two passions: an intense, mystical fixation upon Russia and her suffering people, and an abhorrence of Soviet Marxism. While in prison he had become a very religious man. He saw the ordeals that he had survived as trials devised by God to strengthen his moral character. His future fame, thus, was ordained; he had been “chosen” for a mission: to expose the terrors of Soviet violence. Years later, in his Nobel Lecture on Literature, he said:
I have climbed my way to this lectern from which the Nobel Lecture is read . . . out of the dark and the cold where I was fated to survive and where others, who possessed perhaps greater talent and were stronger than I, perished.
Solzhenitsyn was in official favor for a short-lived period, coinciding more or less with the rise and fall of Nikita Khrushchev in the Kremlin. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a fictionalized account of prison life and the book which brought Solzhenitsyn instant international fame, was published in 1962; aside from a few short stories, it is the only work of his that has been issued in the USSR. And by 1966 he had become a “non-person.” No reference was made to him in journals or the press, his name was excised from reference books and literary histories, and his few published writings vanished from bookstores and library shelves. He was to be ignored until he could be disposed of, quietly.
It was then that he began an active campaign to increase his public exposure, counting upon sympathetic world opinion to protect him from official wrath. The furthering of his cause thus gained added significance; it became, in itself, a means of self-preservation. His public statements were more frequent and more forceful, planned with military precision, timed to coincide with specific political events and introduced in ways that would insure the greatest amount of Western press coverage and publicity. A New York Times photographer for whom he posed described how Solzhenitsyn assumed a serious expression, “evidently thinking of his world image.” For the first time he joined with others—men like Andrei Sakharov and Zhores Medvedev—in protesting the abuse of civil rights in the USSR.
In all this, Solzhenitsyn was evidently preparing himself for martyrdom. As early as 1967 he declared that “no one can bar the road to truth, and to advance its cause I am prepared to accept even death.” At a tempestuous writers' meeting in 1969 he read the same words again, underscoring what then began to seem like a self-fulfilling prophecy, and he repeated another of his statements, that he would “fulfill [his] duty as a writer . . . from the grave even more successfully and more irrefutably than in [his] lifetime.” Last September he told Soviet leaders that he was “prepared to sacrifice [his] life.”
Solzhenitsyn notified Western reporters that he might die mysteriously at the hands of the KGB. He advised them that he had sent unpublished works to the West with instructions to publish them should he die. The reference was to Gulag Archipelago, his exhaustive and momentous indictment of the Soviet prison-camp network. The recent publication of Gulag in the West was of course not triggered by Solzhenitsyn's death but by the suicide of a Leningrad woman who had turned a copy of the manuscript over to the KGB after five days of brutal questioning. Once the contents of Gulag were known to the secret police, there was no reason to delay its publication further. “In this act of seizure,” Solzhenitsyn said, “I saw the hand of God. It meant the time had come.”
After Gulag was published in Paris, Solzhenitsyn's position became untenable. “I and my family are ready for anything,” he said in January of this year. “I have fulfilled my duty to those who perished and this gives me relief and peace of mind.” His message was heard throughout the world: he was prepared for a martyr's fate—arrest, a trial, imprisonment, even death. His wife's first reaction, on being told that he was safe in Germany after his arrest, was: “It's a great misfortune.”
Mrs. Solzhenitsyn's spontaneous response may sound strange to Western readers, accustomed as they are to the idea that human life is a supreme value, the willing sacrifice of it evidence of irrationality or worse. Moreover, the post-Freudian concept of human complexity lays even heroic behavior open to scrutiny. We question the existence of “pure virtue” or “pure evil,” and are suspicious of the motives of anyone who claims moral purity for himself.
This is not Solzhenitsyn's view of human nature. Like the characters in his novels, people for him are essentially good or bad. And the unwavering self-assurance with which he has pursued his own goal demonstrates Solzhenitsyn's personal identification with “the righteous”—a very select company. Unlike Tolstoy, who believed that wisdom was to be found by “going to the people,” Solzhenitsyn believes in the “spiritual superiority of certain people.” Thus, Nerzhin, the hero of The First Circle, having shared the life of “the people” in the camps, “not as a condescending and therefore alien gentleman, but as one of them,” discovers that “the People had no homespun superiority to himself.” Most of them lacked “that personal point of view which becomes more precious than life itself.”
That “point of view,” according to Solzhenitsyn, arises out of hardship and suffering: through suffering “one must try to temper, to cut, to polish one's soul so as to become a human being.” Success depends not on social origins but on strength and moral fervor. “The cultivation of one's soul,” Solzhenitsyn has said, “is more importtant than the well-being of countless future generations.” This he learned from the hardships of his own life, and it is this which he believes qualifies him for membership in the spiritual elite.
Despite differences between them, Solzhenitsyn's concern with the suffering of the Russian people reflects the commanding influence of Tolstoy on his life and his writings. Solzhenitsyn's beard, his humble dress, his disdain for material possessions, his love of hard labor, and his almost ascetic style of life are all “Tolstoyan.” There are parallels as well between Solzhenitsyn's public role in Russia and the role played by Tolstoy in his time. And Tolstoy's literary influence is evident in all of Solzhenitsyn's work, reaching extreme proportions in August 1914, in which whole episodes are modeled on scenes from War and Peace and many characters are no more than latter-day simplifications of the Rostovs and the Bolkonskys. Tolstoy dominates the content of the book, too: his pictures adorn the walls of bourgeois homes, his views are followed and debated, and, in a hopelessly stereotyped scene, Tolstoy himself appears, sententiously preaching about “good” and “love.”
As a novelist, however, Solzhenitsyn is no Tolstoy. In later life Tolstoy renounced his earliest (and greatest) novels, alleging that they contradicted his teachings. As his writing became increasingly didactic, it was saved from utter tediousness only by his monumental talent as an artist. It may, in fact, be said that what accounts for the incredible vitality of Tolstoy's work is the conflict between his intuitive sensibilities and his conscious goals. This conflict does not exist for Solzhenitsyn. His work, for the most part, is didactic, as he intends it to be, and it is often dull and ponderous.
Soviet readers, however, brought up on the aridities of socialist realism, have been electrified by Solzhenitsyn's concern with what he calls “eternal values” and his dealing with such forbidden themes as Stalinist terror. Zhores Medvedev, in his recent, quietly affecting tribute to Solzhenitsyn, Ten Years After Ivan Denisovich,1 has described reading The First Circle in one twenty-four-hour sitting, “stopping at intervals for cups of black coffee.” Medvedev points out that since everyone in Soviet society has been touched in some way by terror, “many people read his books several times over . . . mentally experiencing them so acutely that they failed to notice, or ignored, subtlety of style. . . .” Although Medvedev considers Solzhenitsyn a writer of unquestionable stature, he does admit that in the case of August 1914, which did not have such extra-literary interest, even some Soviet readers were more critical.
The situation is different in the West, where Solzhenitsyn is probably one of the least read of best-selling novelists. Despite the inflated praise he has received from Western reviewers, whose admiration for Solzhenitsyn's courage is often mistakenly expressed as esteem for his works, many Western readers appear to find his novels heavy-handed, humorless, and monotonous. Solzhenitsyn's characters lack dimension: his heroes are all passive, prisoners not so much of themselves as of immutable circumstance. The political and philosophical theories for which the novels serve as vehicles are oversimplified and irritatingly presented with a repetitious, self-indulgent verbosity. His works often seem like morality plays, with each character representing a specific abstract idea. This is why One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the least ambitious of Solzhenitsyn's writings, is in some ways the most successful: it is a morality play.
There are admittedly a number of fine moments in Solzhenitsyn. Even August 1914, the most cumbersome of his novels, contains a few scenes—bourgeois life at the Tomchaks, Samsonov's suicide—that recall the best of Russian 19th-century realism. But Solzhenitsyn seems to tire quickly of such moments, no doubt feeling driven to go on to “weightier” problems. Like his life, Solzhenitsyn's novels have become increasingly didactic over the years. Again in a manner reminiscent of Tolstoy, he may well decide one day to abandon fiction altogether in favor of polemics; if so, Gulag Archipelago will have been the harbinger.
While all of Solzhenitsyn's writings are indictments of Soviet society, three of his works deal specifically with the Soviet penal system: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, an understated account of prison life as viewed through the eyes of a simple prisoner during the course of an “ordinary” day; The First Circle, a much more ambitious attempt to show how the prison-camp atmosphere affects all aspects of Soviet society; and, most definitively, Gulag Archipelago, a unique, exhaustive, non-fiction work which documents every aspect of the labor-camp network, building one detail upon another to create what must be the lengthiest and most excoriating account of institutionalized terror in world literature.
The “truth” that Solzhenitsyn serves in these works is not metaphysical; it is historical truth, the story of what happened in Russia after 1917. Solzhenitsyn is worried about “the amputation of the national memory”; as he explained in his Nobel Lecture, he wants to restore to Russia the missing chapters of her history:
. . . literature communicates irrefutable and condensed human experience—from generation to generation. In this way it becomes the living memory of nations. In this way it keeps warm and preserves within itself its lost history in a way not subject to distortion and falsification.
Nikita Khrushchev had tentatively begun such a process of restoration, but the devastating effect of his revelations about Stalinism on the entire fabric of Soviet political society caused the process to be abruptly halted, and a full accounting was never made. Now a new generation is coming of age in the Soviet Union; it knows nothing about what happened under Stalin and does not really care. Unless the facts are recorded by those who witnessed them, those terrible events will be a totally forgotten chapter in Russian history. This prospect is unthinkable to Solzhenitsyn.
In Gulag, however, Solzhenitsyn blames not Stalin but Marxism itself for the system that destroyed millions of his countrymen:
. . . then Stalin quietly died. But how much has the course of our ship of state changed in fact? . . . he simply followed in the footsteps.
Contrary to what has been asserted of him by some Western observers, Solzhenitsyn rejects the view that Soviet Marxism can be restored to a correct path by eliminating vestiges of Stalinism; for him Marxism itself is the corruption.
Marxism for Solzhenitsyn is the antithesis of everything Russian. “Patriotism means the rejection of Marxism,” he has said. Western in its origins, concerned with world domination rather than internal Russian development, atheistic and totally antagonistic to spiritual values, Marxism in Solzhenitsyn's view is a dark, un-Russian force imposed by Lenin on a helpless and unprepared society: “The murky whirlwind of progressive ideology swept in on us from the West at the end of the last century and has tormented and ravaged our soul quite enough.”
What alternative to Marxism does Solzhenitsyn envisage for Russia? Definitely not Western democracy, which he finds “weak and effete” and lacking a “built-in ethical foundation.” The freedom from suffering in Western societies—freedom from that unremitting pain which Solzhenitsyn alternately deplores and reveres—has led to “complaisance and concession”; in the West people “have lost the will to live a life of deprivation, sacrifice, and firmness.” And Solzhenitsyn has nothing but scorn for the workings of a democratic system in which politicians “nearly kill themselves . . . trying to gratify the masses,” in which a judge “panders to the passions of society” (by releasing Daniel Ellsberg), and in which “even the will of the majority is not immune to misdirection.”
The alternative for Solzhenitsyn is not Western democracy but an idealized Russia, a Russia purified, turned inward, away from the West, to her own “vigorous, inexhaustible, spiritual strength.” Solzhenitsyn's ideal Russia would be governed by “those who can direct its activities intelligently.” He believes in a benevolent authoritarianism, “an authoritarian order, but one founded not on inexhaustible ‘class hatred’ but on love of your fellow men.” An authentic reactionary, he longs for a return to Russian Orthodoxy and to the values with which “Russia lived for a thousand years.”
Indeed, Solzhenitsyn appears to distrust the very freedom for which he has so long fought. He has declared that “freedom is moral . . . only if it keeps within certain bounds, beyond which it degenerates into complacency and licentiousness.” He is appalled by the “innumerable drunks and hooligans who pester women in the evenings and when they are not at work.” “If no police force can handle them,” he has said, “still less are they going to be restrained by an ideology that claims to be a substitute for morality.”
Solzhenitsyn combines his belief in authoritarianism with an intense nationalism. He considers it “perfectly feasible for a colossus like Russia, with all her spiritual peculiarities and folk traditions, to find its own particular path.” He is an isolationist, advocating an all-Russian state with no ties to Eastern Europe or to the many nationalities that presently constitute the USSR. He is uninterested in global solutions to world problems, even those affecting Russia: “After all we have endured, it is enough for the time being for us to worry about how to save our own people.” Yet in describing the Russian “colossus,” Solzhenitsyn uses the vocabulary of great-power politics. He boasts of Russia's industrial prowess, its capability of overtaking the West, and he is disdainful of “backward” countries:
We, a great industrial superpower, like the meanest of backward countries, invite foreigners to exploit our mineral wealth and, by way of payment, suggest that they carry off our priceless treasure, Siberian natural gas.
His Open Letter to the Soviet Leaders offers a chauvinistic dream for the Russia of the future, based on his analysis of the relative weakness and indirection of the Western world:
Neither after the Crimean War, nor, more recently, after the war with Japan, nor in 1916, 1931, or 1941, would even the most unbridled patriotic soothsayer have dared to set forth so arrogant a prospect: that the time was approaching, indeed was close at hand, when all the great European powers taken together would cease to exist as a serious physical force; that their rulers would resort to all manner of concessions simply to win the favor of the rulers of the future Russia, would even vie with one another to gain that favor, just so long as the Russian press would stop abusing them; and that they would grow so weak, without losing a single war; that countries proclaiming themselves “neutral” would seek every opportunity to gratify us and pander to us; that our eternal dream of controlling straits, although never realized, would in the event be made irrelevant by the giant strides that Russia took into the Mediterranean and the oceans; that fear of economic losses and extra-administrative chores would become the arguments against Russian expansion to the West; and that even the mightiest transatlantic power, having emerged all-victorious from two world wars as the leader and provider for all mankind, would suddenly lose to a tiny, distant Asiatic country and show internal dissension and spiritual weakness.
Reactionary, authoritarian, chauvinistic—hardly adjectives that sit comfortably with the typical image of a freedom-fighter and Nobel Prize winner. But Solzhenitsyn is a figure in whom contradictions abound. He believes in the Russian people, but does not trust them to govern themselves; outspoken against tyranny, he advocates authoritarianism; appalled by Russia's suffering, he criticizes the West for not enduring enough; opposed to war, he brags of Russia's potential for world power.
Solzhenitsyn was born in 1918, and all his life has known only the Soviet system. Some of his attitudes—his anti-modernism in literature and art, his disdain for Western “decadence,” his commitment to self-sacrifice, his utopian dreams for the future—in a curious way reflect the Soviet dogma on which he was raised. Thus, for Marx's “withering away of the state” he has substituted the concept of an “authoritarianism based on love,” a solution which no doubt seems to him more realistic but which in point of fact is equally unworkable; and in place of the dictatorship of the proletariat he has proposed the equally antidemocratic system of rule by a spiritual elite. Solzhenitsyn also seems affected by the attitude of paranoid suspicion toward everything foreign that pervades Soviet society. It is as much through choice as through circumstance that he has been cut off from intellectual currents in the outside world. Thus in some ways, although he has been received with adulation into the arms of the West, he seems today even more alone than ever.
And yet he is hardly without resources: his writing, his mission, and, above all, his own sense of himself. Responding recently to a Republican Senator who had called him a “citizen of the world,” Solzhenitsyn said that he did not deserve the designation “since my life experience has not yet given me an opportunity to include the tasks and needs of the entire world.” It will be interesting to see what he will make of the opportunity, now that it has forced itself upon him.
1 Knopf, 202 pp., $6.95.