An icon of his age
Aug 4th 2008
The death of Alexander Solzhenitsyn gives Russia a chance to reflect on authoritarianism
PROPHETS are without honour in their own country—at least until they die. For most of his adult life in the Soviet Union, Alexander Solzhenitsyn was persecuted. In exile in the West from 1974, his gloomy philippics and increasingly turgid prose aroused more bafflement than appreciation. After he returned to Russia in 1994, he was welcomed but then ignored.
His death is a chance to make amends, although whether a Russia that is increasingly nostalgic for its totalitarian past will chose to take it is another matter. In an online poll (admittedly wildly unscientific) taken in recent weeks, the totalitarian leader Joseph Stalin is a front-runner for the title of greatest Russian. It was criticism of Stalin, expressed privately in a letter to a friend, that landed Mr Solzhenitsyn with an eight-year sentence in the camps. It counted for little that he was a twice-decorated artillery officer, on the front-line of the Red Army’s triumph over Nazi Germany.
Having experienced the crimes of Stalinism at first hand, he exposed them in both fiction and factual form. “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”, published in 1962, gave Soviet citizens their first opportunity to read about the brutality, squalor, humiliation and fear of daily life in a prison camp, all told in the matter-of-fact style of a Russian folk tale. “The Gulag Archipelago” described the system, its tortures, rules and subculture, in relentless, gruesome, encyclopedic form. Modern scholars, able to research the subject with a freedom that Mr Solzhenitsyn could never have dreamed of, say it is astonishingly accurate.
His other books are more patchy. Although he detested the ravages of communist rule on Russian language and culture, the clunky techniques of Socialist Realism are all too visible in works such as “The Cancer Ward”. His later works are mostly panoramic histories of Russia in the past century that most readers found impenetrable. His latest work, a lengthy series of reflections on Jewish-Russian relations, prompted charges of anti-semitism that he furiously denied.
Mr Solzhenitsyn was a loyal communist in his youth. As a young man, he dreamed of writing a history of the Russian revolution, oblivious to the Stalinist terror going on around him. As a bright, young maths student, he once said he could easily have ended up being recruited by the NKVD, the secret police, to perpetrate terror. Instead he became its most potent critic. His political awakening came from long talks in prison with Arnold Susi, an Estonian lawyer jailed for being a minister in a non-communist government. That friendship survived for many years after both men were released.
As well as the gulag, Mr Solzhenitsyn’s titanic willpower triumphed over other adversaries: cancer, censorship and Soviet bureaucratic intimidation. In 1970 he won the Nobel prize for literature, but declined to accept it in person for fear that he would not be allowed to return to the Soviet Union. But by 1974, the Soviet authorities had had enough: he was bundled onto a plane to West Germany, to spend two decades abroad. Those in the West who had championed his cause were disconcerted to find that he saw the capitalist system as little better than communism. He denounced materialism and moral emptiness, and lived in increasing seclusion in a remote corner of New England.
As communism collapsed, his books, once read only in flimsy, blurred carbon copies, could all be published legally inside the Soviet Union. But he detested the man who brought that about: Boris Yeltsin, the first freely-elected leader in Russia’s history, spurning his offer of a state decoration. He could not, he said accept honours from a man who had brought misery on his people.
To the consternation of some of his supporters, he did accept an award from the ex-KGB officer who became Mr Yeltsin’s successor, Vladimir Putin. He even seemed to downplay Mr Putin’s role in the KGB, saying that every country needed an intelligence service. Yet, although he praised the self-respect and stability that Russia had regained under Mr Putin, he remained deeply critical of its politics and the corruption and greed that capitalism had exposed and fuelled.
That message, often delivered in sententious, near messianic tones, had little appeal. A television programme consisting largely of all but unwatchable monologues lingered painfully on the airwaves and then died, unlamented. Few read his books.
But his death is a chance for Russia’s rulers to say what they think about totalitarianism. Was the collapse of the Soviet Union the “geopolitical catastrophe” of the last century? Or is the real disaster the failure of an independent Russia to cast off the chains of authoritarianism and empire? If Russia’s new president, Dmitry Medvedev, goes beyond simply offering condolences to the Solzhenitsyn family, his thoughts on that would be eagerly awaited.