Sunday, August 03, 2008

Alexander Isayevich Solzhenitsyn 1918-2008


One of the paradoxes of Stalinism was that its brutal, oppressive evil had the effect of transforming ordinary people into heroic characters. Alexander Solzhenitsyn was one of them. In 1945 just as the war was ending he was convicted of anti-Soviet crimes whence began his long odyssey in a succession of Soviet prisons and labour camps. These experiences saw the one time ardent member of the CPSU lose his faith in Marxism and find a new identity; that of the dissident, the fierce internal opponent of the Soviet regime. His chosen weapon was the pen, which he wielded to great effect producing such masterpieces of Gulag Literature as A day in the life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago which saw him awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970.

Solzhenitsyn was far from an uncritical admirer of the West, however, which he saw as shallow and obsessed with fashionable fripperies. He was to be similarly disappointed with the glitzy vulgarity of post-Soviet Russia, taking refuge in a mystical Russia more imagined than remembered. He opposed Ukrainian and Byelorussian independence because, he declared "we are all descended of the same Kievan Rus". Russia, for him was synonymous with Orthodoxy. Hence his opposition to the evangelical efforts of both Catholics and Protestants. Nonetheless it would be a mistake to dismiss him as a mere reactionary. His thundering condemnation of totalitarian oppression was too impassioned, too intellectually serious for that.

In his later years he explored the history of Russian Jewish relations in "Two Hundred Years Together" which led to accusations of anti-Semitism. The reaction was understandable if a little simplistic. On the one hand he claimed that the lives of Jewish inmates in the camps he was imprisoned in were "softer" than those of others, on the other hand he rejected the notion that the ethnic composition of the Cheka determined its actions or that the Russian Revolutions of '05 and '17 were Jewish conspiracies. Russian Jews were both perpetrators and victims of revolutionary violence he said, adding that all the nation's ethnic groups shared the blame for the Soviet regime's horrors.
He wasn't the most morally upstanding Soviet dissident, that honour goes to the impossibly saintly Andrei Sakharov. Neither was he the best exponent of the Gulag Literature genre; for my money Bukharin's widow, Anna Larina and Evgenia Ginzburg wrote superior works. And in his failure to adapt to post Soviet Russia, to understand that the human spirit needs gaiety and ephemera as much as it does the weightier kind of spiritual improving he seemed like a man out of time. He was a figure of Dostoyevskian proportions whose flawed, complex and brilliant nature mirrored that of his country; Russia, it is said, is great at culture but awful at civilisation. But he was also a man of stern courage who was unyielding in his opposition to barbarism. That was his remarkable achievement and enduring legacy.

From the Preface to The Gulag Archipelago

In 1949 some friends and I came upon a noteworthy news item in Nature, a magazine of the Academy of Sciences. It reported in tiny type that in the course of excavations on the Kolyma River a subterranean ice lens had been discovered which was actually a frozen stream - and in it were found frozen specimens of prehistoric fauna some tens of thousands of years old. Whether fish or salamander, these were preseved in so fresh a state, the scientific correspondent reported, that those present immediately broke open the ice encasing the specimens and devoured them with relish on the spot.
The magazine no doubt astonished its small audience with the news of how successfully the flesh of fish could be kept fresh in a frozen state. But few, indeed, among its readers were able to decipher the genuine and heroic meaning of this incautious report.
As for us, however - we understood instantly. We could picture the entrire scene right down to the smallest details: how those present broke up the ice in frenzied haste; how, flouting the higher claims of ichthyology and elbowing each other to be first, they tore off chunks of the prehistoric flesh and hauled them over to the bonfire to thaw them out and bolt them down.
We understood because we ourselves were the same kind of people as those present at that event. We, too were from that powerful tribe of Zeks, unique on the face of the earth, the only people who could devour prehistoric salamander with relish.

4 Comments:

Blogger Ontario Emperor said...

Thanks for noting that simplistic analyses of Solzhenitsyn as an anti-Communist do not do justice to the depth of his views. While I may not agree with his views on Protestant Christianity, I nevertheless acknowledge and respect them.

8/04/2008 9:50 AM  
Blogger Red Maria said...

Thanks for the comment, ontario emperor.
Solzhenitsyn's slavophilia and deep attachment to Russian Orthodoxy made him very reminiscent of Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Like Solzhenitsyn, Dostoyevsky took a very dim view of Catholicism "and all its sects" as he dismissively referred to Protestantism.
Both were doctrinaire, irasible and exemplified that current in Russian culture which sees it as standing aloof from the West. Both were world historic writers who boldly ploughed their own furrows without regard to fad or fashion.
Solzhenitsyn earned the right to express his own decidedly independent opinions by bearing witness to the horrors of Stalinism.

8/05/2008 4:16 PM  
Blogger Merseymike said...

He was actually a very right wing romantic Russian nationalist.Not surprising that religionism was part of the make-up. I think I prefer Stalin....at least he didn't pretend to be 'nice'

8/07/2008 3:36 PM  
Blogger Red Maria said...

Merseymike, if you want a critical take on Solzhenitsyn you could do worse than read Mark Steel's column in The Indy this week. His reflections had more depth and were rather better written than yours. Difficult to believe, I know.
Steel's column was infused with humour and pathos and he managed to include some difficult political observations about his subject while maintaining a tone just the right side of de mortuis nil nisi bonum respectfulness. But Steel is a professional writer, of course.
Whatever you do, Merseymike, don't give up the day job.

8/08/2008 5:27 PM  

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