A Lamp in the Dark
By Gabriel Blanchard
An author who saw most of the twentieth century from the vantage point of two of the greatest world powers, Solzhenitsyn offers his readers a singular wisdom.
Born three years before its foundation in 1922, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn would enjoy the rare fate of outliving the state he spent most of his life in; the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991, sixty-nine years (almost to the day) after its formation. There is a slightly grim kind of satisfaction in reflecting on the course of his life and work as juxtaposed with the repeated attempts of Soviet leadership to silence him—one man, triumphant over a world power.
Solzhenitsyn’s family defied the de-Christianization campaign instituted by the government during the rule of Lenin, remaining staunch practitioners of the Orthodox faith. Aleksandr himself, by his teens, had abandoned his religion, accepting the mainstream beliefs of Marxism-Leninism. When the Nazis turned on the Soviet Union in 1941, Solzhenitsyn joined the Red Army; he was decorated twice for his service in the war. But it was also during this period that he began to entertain doubts about the moral legitimacy of Stalin’s regime, and in 1945, he was arrested for “anti-Soviet propaganda” and “founding a hostile organization” (by which they meant negative remarks about the government made in private letters and comments to a friend). He was sent to the Lubyanka—a windowless Moscow prison, notorious as the site of brutal interrogations at the hands of the KGB—and eventually sentenced to eight years in a labor camp, to be followed by a life sentence of internal exile in the Russian Far East. It was during this period that he slowly turned back to the Orthodox Christianity of his childhood, and attained a philosophical and moral depth of thought that shines throughout his writings.
Unsurprisingly, Solzhenitsyn became a fanatical opponent of Communism. (Given his apparent willingness to overlook the crimes of fascist states like Francoist Spain as long as they were anti-Communist, we may even feel that he carried this fanaticism too far.) His internal exile was remitted in 1956, during the Kruschev-led “thaw” in Soviet politics that followed the death of Stalin. This allowed him after a few years to publish One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, a novel set in a labor camp, which became a runaway success and exposed the cruelties of the Gulag to both international audiences and Russians at home. Drawing on his own narrow survival of the disease, he wrote Cancer Ward shortly thereafter—and, simultaneously but in secret, he had begun to write what would become his most famous work, The Gulag Archipelago.
Unfortunately, when Kruschev fell from power in 1964, Soviet leadership turned back to repressive tactics. The Union of Writers, whose approval was necessary for books to be published in the USSR, refused their approval to Cancer Ward; by 1969, Solzhenitsyn had been expelled from their ranks entirely; two years later, the KGB made an attempt to assassinate him. Finally, in 1974, he was deprived of his citizenship and deported to West Germany. (Ironically, it was this action which enabled him to accept the Nobel Prize for Literature which he had won in 1970—until then he had been unable to go to Sweden for fear of not being allowed back into the USSR.) After a short time there and a stay in Switzerland, Solzhenitsyn was invited to come to the United States, where he lived for almost twenty years.
Though an outspoken admirer of western societies’ commitment to political liberty, Solzhenitsyn was not uncritical of the west any more than he had been of the Soviets. He wrote with great disgust of the consumerism and spiritual vapidity that in his view prevailed in western culture, especially in popular art and entertainment; and, while criticizing the pacifist movement that sprung up during the Vietnam War, he also took a dim view of American military interventions in the Balkans and the Middle East in the 1990s and 2000s.
All this could leave the reader with the impression that Solzhenitsyn simply found fault with everyone and everything, practically for its own sake. However, his work is far subtler and wiser than that: his critique is consistently rooted in self-critique, ultimately going back to his experiences in World War Two, when he first began to doubt not just his country’s righteousness, but his own. One of his most celebrated quotations (coming, fittingly, from The Gulag Archipelago) encapsulates the issue, inviting every reader to costly self-examination: “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
Every week, we publish a profile of one of the figures from the CLT author bank. For an introduction to classic authors, see our guest post from Keith Nix, founder of the Veritas School in Richmond, VA.
If you liked this post, check out some of our other posts here at the Journal, like this author profile of David Hume, this “Great Conversation” post on the famous problem of universals, or this student essay on Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. And don’t miss out on our seminar series, Journey Through the Author Bank, or our podcast, Anchored.
Page image, Raising a Flag Over the Reichstag, obtained via Wikimedia Commons.