by Brian C. Anderson
On Daniel J. Mahoney's new book, The Other Solzhenitsyn, and why Solzhenitsyn is still relevant today.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s reputation has waned in the English-speaking world. The Russian writer still gets credit, at least from sensible quarters, for revealing the Soviet Union’s infernal system of forced labor and institutionalized mendacity in the series of works that includes One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and the three-volume “experiment in literary investigation,” The Gulag Archipelago, the publication of which in the West in 1973 sounded the first death-knell of the Soviet Union and made its author a household name. But Anglophone critics have tended to dismiss Solzhenitsyn’s later output—and that’s when they’ve bothered to acknowledge its existence. Diminished interest in Solzhenitsyn is reflected in the fact that much of his post-Gulag writing—including the bulk of his multi-volume literary and historical narrative about the Russian Revolution, The Red Wheel—remains untranslated into English, six years after his death from heart failure at eighty-nine.
The notion that Solzhenitsyn is of merely historical interest in a post-totalitarian age is one likely reason for this neglect. The other is political. The American left, never fond of Solzhenitsyn, began actively to despise him after his 1978 commencement speech at Harvard, “A World Split Apart,” which denounced the rise of moral relativism in the West, praised the idea of liberty under God, and blasted anti-war activists for forcing the United States to withdraw militarily from South Vietnam, leaving that country prey to the Communists—views that were anathema to elite opinion, then as today. As one journalist then put it, Solzhenitsyn “is not the ‘liberal’ we would like him to be.” Around this time arose a perception of Solzhenitsyn, sold primarily by the left but endorsed by some on the right, that provided an excuse not to read him: he was a tsarist reactionary, an Orthodox Christian ayatollah, a hater of democracy, a Russian ultranationalist. None of this was true. Solzhenitsyn wasn’t just dismissed; he was demonized.
Daniel J. Mahoney, a political scientist at Assumption College, has labored in recent years to reestablish Solzhenitsyn’s rightful place as a novelist, historian, and moral and political thinker of the first order, whose work provides not only an astonishing account of the soul of man under communist totalitarianism but also deep insights into the problems of modern democratic societies. Back in 2001, he published Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The Ascent from Ideology, an exploration of the Russian writer’s key spiritual and philosophical themes. A few years later, Mahoney and fellow Solzhenitsyn scholar Edward Ericson Jr. edited The Solzhenitsyn Reader: New and Essential Writings, 1947–2005, a 600-plus–page collection of the author’s work, including material previously unavailable in English. And now comes The Other Solzhenitsyn: Telling the Truth about a Misunderstood Writer and Thinker, a luminously argued book in which Mahoney directly takes on the main charges against Solzhenitsyn and defends him as a man of faith and reason, moderation, and commitment to freedom and the truth.1
Mahoney’s new book isn’t a biography, but the major moments of Solzhenitsyn’s remarkable life run through his narrative. Brought up in humble circumstances in Rostov-on-Don by his well-educated mother Taisia—his father had died in a hunting accident six months before his birth—Solzhenitsyn was encouraged from an early age to pursue his literary interests. Young Aleksandr was raised as an Orthodox Christian, but by the time he left Rostov University with a math degree, he had accepted the Marxian worldview of his teachers. It was while serving as a Red Army commander during World War II that he first began to doubt that worldview. In 1945, the authorities intercepted private correspondence of Solzhenitsyn that criticized Joseph Stalin. Swiftly arrested, he spent the next eight years in the nightmarish Soviet system labor camps, which he would name “the gulag archipelago.” The searing experience transformed Solzhenitsyn, leading him to reject Marx, rediscover Christ, and embrace his destiny as a witness of evil and suffering. A period of internal exile followed in Kazakhstan, where he taught high schoolers math and physics and won a life-threatening bout with stomach cancer—and where he started to write daily, something he didn’t stop doing until he died.
Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn
(/ˌsoʊlʒəˈniːtsɪn, ˌsɔːl-/; Russian: Алекса́ндр Иса́евич Солжени́цын, pronounced [ɐlʲɪˈksandr ɪˈsaɪvʲɪtɕ səlʐɨˈnʲitsɨn]; 11 December 1918 – 3 August 2008)
"The great Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918–2008) is widely recognized as one of the most consequential human beings of the twentieth century. Through his writings and moral witness, he illumined the nature of totalitarianism and helped bring down an ‘evil empire.’ His courage and tenacity are acknowledged even by his fiercest critics. Yet the world-class novelist, historian, and philosopher (one uses the latter term in its capacious Russian sense) has largely been eclipsed by a caricature that has transformed a measured and self-critical patriot into a ferocious nationalist, a partisan of local self-government into a quasi-authoritarian, a man of faith and reason into a narrow-minded defender of Orthodoxy. The caricature, widely dispensed in the press, and too often taken for granted, gets in the way of a thoughtful and humane confrontation with the “other” Solzhenitsyn, the true Solzhenitsyn, who is a writer and thinker of the first rank and whose spirited defense of liberty is never divorced from moderation. It is to the recovery of this Solzhenitsyn that this book is dedicated. This book above all explores philosophical, political, and moral themes in Solzhenitsyn’s two masterworks, The Gulag Archipelago and The Red Wheel, as well as in his great European novel In the First Circle. We see Solzhenitsyn as analyst of revolution, defender of the moral law, phenomenologist of ideological despotism, and advocate of “resisting evil with force.” Other chapters carefully explore Solzhenitsyn’s conception of patriotism, his dissection of ideological mendacity, and his controversial, but thoughtful and humane discussion of the “Jewish Question” in the Russian – and Soviet twentieth century. Some of Solzhenitsyn’s later writings, such as the “binary tales” that he wrote in the 1990s, are subject to critically appreciative analysis. And a long final chapter comments on Solzhenitsyn’s July 2007 Der Spiegel interview, his last word to Russia and the West. He is revealed to be a man of faith and freedom, a patriot but not a nationalist, and a principled advocate of self-government for Russia and the West. A final Appendix reproduces the beautiful Introduction (“The Gift of Incarnation”) that the author’s widow, Natalia Solzhenitsyn, wrote to the 2009 Russian abridgment of The Gulag Archipelago, a work that is now taught in Russian high schools."