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A Russian prophet

By Michael Cook - posted Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008)

So finally he has joined his fellow zeks. Year after year, millions of lives poured into the thirsty Gulag - for a caustic joke, for losing battles, for being heroic, for thinking counter-revolutionary thoughts, for failure, for success, for being related to a zek, for hatching imaginary plots, for nothing at all. How could it be - such lies, such injustice, such truckling to the insane whims of the bloated spider at the heart of the web? He escaped from hell to tell the tale, filled with a flailing fury that evil should grind to powder good, ordinary men in the frigid wastes of northern Russia.

Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn was educated as a Marxist and served with distinction in the Red Army in an artillery unit. But towards the end of World War II he made a terrible blunder. In letters to a friend, which were intercepted by the censor, he had made veiled criticisms of Stalin. There wasn’t much evidence, but anyway he received an eight-year sentence, followed by years of internal exile in Kazakhstan. Whatever Marxism there was in his heart evaporated as he witnessed what it was doing to Russia.


He wrote his novels secretly, hardly daring to show them even to friends, lest he be betrayed and his manuscripts destroyed. Finally, he broke his silence and offered One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich to the editor of the leading Soviet literary journal, Novy Mir. Nikita Khrushchev approved it personally as part of his campaign to denigrate Stalin. It was published, uncensored, in 1962.

One Day in the Life was a bombshell in the Soviet Union and in the West as well. It opened the eyes of ordinary Soviet citizens to the barbarity and injustice of life under Stalin, and it confirmed Western hostility towards Communism.

It is a simple, short book that relates the strategies Ivan uses to survive oppression, hunger, cold and unending toil. You cannot forget it. It lives with you, not because of its documentary value, but because of its humanity. For anyone who cares to read it closely, it had a positive and deeply Christian message: that the measure of a life well lived is not success or recognition, but a deepening of one’s humanity. The most sympathetic figure, for instance, is a pious Baptist, Aloyshka, who tries to persuade Ivan Denisovich that he is freer in prison because he can pray without distractions. Ivan Denisovich remains unconvinced, but nods off to sleep “pleased with life”: “The end of an unclouded day. Almost a happy one. Just one of the three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days of his sentence, from bell to bell. The extra three were for leap years.”

Solzhenitsyn’s curse was that his novels were read in both East and West more as political statements than works of art.

In the Soviet Union under Leonid Brezhnev, who deposed and succeeded Khruschchev, he became persona non grata. The First Circle and Cancer Ward were both smuggled out of the USSR and published in the West in 1968 to extravagant praise. In 1970, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. By this time the Soviet leadership was fed up and in 1974 it stripped him of his citizenship and expelled him. In exile he continued writing, and in 1973 appeared the first of three volumes of his act of piety to the millions who perished in Stalin’s camps, The Gulag Archipelago.

Although The Gulag Archipelago became his best-known book and made him the world’s most famous Soviet dissident, many people found it almost unreadable. A history, not a novel, it made bleak reading, full of endless gloom and unpronounceable names. This had the unfortunate effect of diverting many readers away from the brilliance and humanity of his other two novels about the Gulag.


The First Circle is a snapshot of a camp where scientist zeks are trying to create a voice recognition machine that can identify an official who made a single subversive phone call. Cancer Ward - filled, like most Russian novels, with more characters than the Moscow phone book - uses a cancer hospital as a metaphor for the bleakness of Soviet life after Stalin.

Solzhenitsyn’s great themes are the survival of good in an evil world, human dignity, the redeeming value of truth, and the importance of a spiritual dimension to life. He was astonished to find when he moved to the United States in 1976, that these were no more welcome there than in the Soviet Union. In his eyes, America had become weakened and corrupted by its material success. He expanded upon this in a blistering address at Harvard in 1978 - only a little while after it had granted him an honorary doctorate. But Aleksandr Isayevich was not one to be bribed with the gewgaw of academic honours. Beginning with an invocation of the Harvard motto, Veritas, truth, he hammered an establishment which had strayed from the pursuit of truth and had liberated itself from God:

But should someone ask me whether I would indicate the West such as it is today as a model to my country, frankly I would have to answer negatively. No, I could not recommend your society in its present state as an ideal for the transformation of ours. Through intense suffering our country has now achieved a spiritual development of such intensity that the Western system in its present state of spiritual exhaustion does not look attractive ...

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First published in Mercator Net on on August 6, 2008.

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About the Author

Michael Cook edits the Internet magazine MercatorNet and the bioethics newsletter BioEdge.

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