For in the struggle with lies, art has always triumphed.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the world’s most powerful post-World War II writer, was in the great Russian mode of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.
Awarding him the Nobel Prize in 1970, the jurors cited “the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature.”
Solzhenitsyn, who died last month, was jailed in the Gulag network of labor camps, camps for the destruction of body, mind and spirit. Camps where prisoners went to die, camps where 50 million suffered more than five decades. Camps, as Orwell phrased it in “1984,” of “a boot stamping on a human face.”
The Gulag was Stalin’s holocaust, important to his reign of terror. Prisoners landed there for trivial reasons – or no reason.
Solzhenitsyn, while serving in the Red Army, was sent to the Gulag in 1945 for referring to Stalin in a letter to a friend as “the man with the mustache,” “the whiskered one.”
Counterrevolutionary words written by an enemy of the people! Such words cost him eight years at hard labor. But Solzhenitsyn’s revenge was the magnificent novel, “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” based on his life as a zek (prisoner).
The novel, with its protagonist Shukhov, a simple guy, a type beloved by Russians, created a sensation. “One Day” first appeared in Novy Mir (New World), liberal monthly magazine, in 1962. It sold out the entire run of 95,000 copies the first day.
Despite the slavery, the intense cold and “work, work, work” in the Gulag, the novel concludes on an upbeat note: “Shukhov went to sleep fully content. He’d had many strokes of luck that day…he’d swiped a bowl of kasha (porridge) at dinner. He’d built a wall and enjoyed doing it. He’d smuggled that bit of hacksaw blade…A day without a dark cloud. Almost a happy day.”
The New York Times applauded Solzhenitsyn for “holding a mirror up to Soviet society.” The Soviet authorities did not like the reflection, finally exiling him in 1974.
Solzhenitsyn’s three-volume “The Gulag Archipelago,” part history, part autobiography and part analyis, cemented his literary immortality.
It told how the notorious Article 58 of the criminal code swelled the Gulag. “There is no step, thought, action or lack of action under the heavens that could not be punished by (its) heavy hand,” Solzhenitsyn wrote in the first volume.
It decried the Cheka, the Soviet secret police, “the Sentinel of the Revolution,” as “the only punitive organ in human history that combined in one set of hands investigation, arrest, interrogration, prosecution, trial and execution.”
In the third volume, Solzhenitsyn gives a breathless account of two escapees whose encounter with a kitten revealed that the hardened zeks had not lost their humanity. Another stirring chapter, “The Forty Days of Kengir,” tells how rebellious zeks seized a camp and ruled briefly.
The two most important post-Stalin rulers of the Soviet Union were Khrushchev and Gorbachev.
Khrushchev, despite his shoe-banging at the U.N. and crude rhetoric of “We will bury you,” began the de-Stalinization. Then his thaw allowed the publication of “One Day.” Gorbachev, with his glasnost (openness), showed that socialism had a human face.
The last two decades of Solzhenitsyn’s life were sad.
He extolled Holy Russia, defended Holy Church and espoused Holy Capitalism. A victim of cancer in 1953, he attributed his recovery, not to a successful operation, but to “a divine miracle.” In a speech at Harvard in 1978 he called man “God’s creature.”
In that same speech Solzhenitsyn denounced “the ossified formulas of the Enlightenment,” a pitiful descent into reactionaryism. The Enlightenment was the Age of Reason, applying intelligence to politics and morality. It attacked ignorance and superstition. It replaced dogma with science, knowledge and truth.
Solzhenitsyn also lauded Russian President Putin for the “restoration” of Russia. Some restoration. He restored the autocratic rule of Czars and Soviet leaders. He fostered the dictatorship of business rather than the communism he once served.
Solzhenitsyn lectured America about its “vulgar materialism” (true) and lamented its hasty capitulation in Vietnam (false). He deplored the country’s music as intolerable (true) but attacked its unfettered press (false).
He repudiated socialism, calling it “a false and dangerous doctrine.” He declared that it “leads to a total destruction of the human spirit and to a leveling of mankind.”
Socialism is not the problem. Stalin was. Civilized nations, abandoning the savagery of capitalism, have long established democratic socialism. It works. Scandinavian countries with cradle-to-grave socialism prove it.
Jake Highton teaches journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno.