Solzhenitsyn: The Fall of a Prophet

By Cathy Young

The 100th anniversary of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s birth on December 11 was an occasion for many tributes. A decade after his death, Solzhenitsyn remains one of the past century’s towering figures in both literature and public life. His role in exposing the crimes of the Soviet regime is a historic achievement the magnitude of which can hardly be overstated. But his legacy also continues to be the subject of intense debate among people who share his loathing of that regime—and those controversies, which have to do with freedom, traditional morality, and nationalism, are strikingly relevant to our current moment.

Solzhenitsyn was once my childhood hero. Growing up in the Soviet Union in the 1970s, in a family of closet dissidents, I knew him as the man who defied the system and told the truth about its atrocities—the man idolized by my parents, especially my father, himself the son of gulag survivors. I was eleven when Solzhenitsyn was arrested and expelled from the Soviet Union; our Stalinist political instructor at school bellowed that he should have been shot as a traitor. A year or two later I heard excerpts from The Gulag Archipelago on foreign radio broadcasts; then, the coveted book appeared for a short while in our home.

Later, after my family emigrated to the United States in 1980, Solzhenitsyn’s heroic halo gradually began to lose its luster in our eyes. We were hardly alone; as the years went by, many of his erstwhile admirers came to believe, with bitter disappointment, that Solzhenitsyn could no longer be seen as a champion of freedom and justice.

None of that lessens what Solzhenitsyn accomplished. One of millions who survived the infernal machine of Stalin-era “correctional labor camps,” he turned that ordeal into literature. His short novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich appeared in the Soviet magazine Novy Mir in 1962, its publication greenlit thanks to Nikita Khrushchev’s push for de-Stalinization. Its effects, both at home and abroad, were explosive: while Stalin’s Great Terror had been discussed before, its victims had never been so powerfully brought to life.

But Solzhenitsyn was just getting started. Changing tides in the Kremlin, where Khrushchev was deposed and the new leadership under Leonid Brezhnev was quick to slam the brakes on liberalization, cut off all avenues for publication at home. Finding a platform abroad, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970 “for the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature.” That was three years before the appearance of the masterwork forever associated with his name, the nonfiction epic The Gulag Archipelago, based in large part on the thousands of letters to Solzhenitsyn and to Novy Mir with first-person accounts by former prisoners. The gulag—the name of the Soviet agency in charge of the camps, an abbreviation for “chief administration of correctional labor camps”—became internationally known as a symbol of totalitarian evil.

Solzhenitsyn not only denounced the ghost of Stalinism; he also made a compelling case that the evil was in communist ideology itself and that Stalinism was merely the logical conclusion of Leninism, which treated human beings as material for social engineering.

In exile, Solzhenitsyn turned to harsh criticism of the West, not just for failing to stand up to the Soviet regime and fully confront its malevolence but for the sins of excessive materialism, personal and sexual liberation, and irreligion. Increasingly, his polemical zeal was also directed at ex-Soviet dissidents who were to his left ideologically—a few Marxists of the “Soviet socialism isn’t real socialism” variety, but mostly advocates of Western-style liberal democracy and markets who criticized not only communism but pre-communist Russia’s authoritarian traditions. Their dispute culminated in Solzhenitsyn’s 1983 essay “Our Pluralists,” which blasted his opponents as arrogant Russia-haters fixated on pluralism as “the supreme good.” To Solzhenitsyn, the worship of pluralism inevitably led to moral relativism and loss of universal values, which he believed had “paralyzed” the West. He also warned that if the communist regime in Russia were to fall, the “pluralists” would rise, and “their thousand-fold clamor will not be about the people’s needs … not about the responsibilities and obligations of each person, but about rights, rights, rights”—a scenario that, in his view, could result only in another national collapse.

The essay went virtually unnoticed by American and European audiences but drew strong reactions in Russian émigré intellectual circles. A 1985 rejoinder by writer and former political prisoner Andrei Sinyavsky assailed Solzhenitsyn for positioning himself as a prophet of “God’s truth” and trying to replace one form of groupthink with another. (Sinyavsky also pointed out that the supremacy of obligations over rights was classic Soviet rhetoric.) An even more scathing letter from dissident Lev Kopelev, once a close friend of Solzhenitsyn’s—sent only to a few people besides Solzhenitsyn himself and not made public until 1993, several years after Kopelev’s death—lambasted Solzhenitsyn as a “true Bolshevik” of a different stripe.

The following year, Solzhenitsyn’s war with the “pluralists” made him the target of a savage satire by another ex-Soviet writer forced out of the country for defying the regime, Vladimir Voinovich. Voinovich’s 1986 novel Moscow 2042 featured an easily recognizable Solzhenitsyn alter ego—the exiled writer Sim Karnavalov, a reactionary Slavophile with messianic pretentions who takes daily practice rides on a white horse to rehearse his return to Russia as the nation’s savior. That dream comes true at the end of the novel, when Karnavalov gets himself crowned Tsar and sets out to make Russia medieval again, issuing decrees that mandate floggings and forbid men to shave.

When Moscow 2042 was published, few could imagine that Solzhenitsyn’s actual return to Russia (sans white horse) would take place less than a decade later. But change was coming. Solzhenitsyn’s Soviet citizenship was restored in 1990, at the same time that his pamphlet, How We Should Rebuild Russia, was published as a special supplement to two major newspapers, the daily Komsomolskaya Pravda and the weekly Literaturnaya Gazeta. Four years later, Solzhenitsyn returned to а post-Soviet Russia, where he lived the rest of his days.

The final act of Solzhenitsyn’s life could be viewed as an impossible, miraculous triumph of good over evil (which is how Jordan Peterson sees it in his foreword to the new abridged Penguin edition of The Gulag Archipelago). The once-reviled exile was welcomed back to Russia with high honors; he and his wife settled in a country house near Moscow next to homes once occupied by members of the Soviet Politburo. He established an annual literary award, the $25,000 Solzhenitsyn Prize (financed with royalties from sales of The Gulag Archipelago). After his death in 2008, a major street in Moscow—previously Big Communist Street—was renamed Solzhenitsyn Street, circumventing a law under which recipients of such honors must be deceased for at least a decade. (Nearby Communist Lane has kept its name, creating the cosmic irony of a corner of Solzhenitsyn Street and Communist Lane.)  Two years later, an abridged version of The Gulag Archipelago was added to the national school curriculum. For the centennial, a monument to Solzhenitsyn was unveiled in downtown Moscow, and an opera adaptation of A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich opened at the Bolshoi Theater.

And yet, in too many ways, it was a triumph that wasn’t. By the time Solzhenitsyn came back to Russia three years after the fall of communism, most of the Russian public reacted with a shrug. His final novel, the latest installment in the “Red Wheel” multivolume epic that was supposed to cover the entire history of the Russian revolution but reached only up to April 1917, was a flop. So was the prime-time biweekly talk show he got on Moscow television in the fall of 1994, which started out as conversations with guests but later shifted to one-man monologues; it was canceled about a year later due to low ratings. Solzhenitsyn’s 1998 book Russia in Collapse, a collection of essays on public affairs, sold about 2,000 copies. His funeral was attended by then-President Dmitry Medvedev; but only a few hundred people came to pay their respects.

No less importantly, it’s unclear whether the Russian establishment’s embrace of The Gulag Archipelago as school reading has done anything to boost the historical memory of communism’s crimes in Russia. Writing for Novaya Gazeta, one of Russia’s few surviving independent newspapers, journalist Sergei Baimukhametov notes that few high school students actually read Solzhenitsyn, assigned in their final year when they are focused on studying for college entrance exams. In a recent poll, nearly half of Russians aged 18 to 24 said they had never heard of Stalin-era repressions.

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In 2018, Solzhenitsyn’s hostility toward Western-style democracy and secular universalist liberalism may find much broader resonance than it did in his twilight years. When Solzhenitsyn asserted in a 2006 interview with Moscow News that “present-day Western democracy is in a grave crisis,” that statement could be easily dismissed as a maverick’s wishful fantasy. Today, it sounds startlingly prescient. In an age when nationalist/populist movements are on the rise in Europe and the Americas and the liberal project is increasingly seen as outdated, Solzhenitsyn might be seen as a man ahead of his time.

But one could also make a compelling argument for the opposite: that Solzhenitsyn’s life and career are a case study in the perils of choosing the path of nationalism and anti-liberalism, a path that ultimately led him to some dark places.

For a start, Solzhenitsyn’s focus on national and ethnic identity has led to persistent and troubling questions about a streak of prejudice in his work, including antisemitism. This accusation, which has caused fierce controversy over the years, goes back to Gulag Archipelago passages that selectively stressed the Jewish names of some camp administrators. It was further fueled by the expanded 1985 edition of the historical novel August 1914, in which the assassin of Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin, Dmitry Bogrov—an anarchist from a family of converted Jews—was portrayed, with no factual basis, as a Russia-hating Jewish avenger. Solzhenitsyn’s two-volume history of the Jews in Russia, Two Hundred Years Together, published in 2001 and 2003 and undertaken in part to defuse the accusations, did little to help. In a 2002 essay in the magazine Russkiy Zhurnal (Russian Journal), Natalia Ivanova, a non-Jewish critic who defended Solzhenitsyn against some attacks she considered unfair, nonetheless caustically wrote that in his account of history, “the foolish Russians have spent two hundred years trying to talk sense to [the Jews], to free them, and to help them in every way, for which the Jews have always paid back with black ingratitude and treachery.”

Solzhenitsyn always indignantly denied the charge of bigotry, and it should be noted that his defense has been taken up by prominent Jewish figures including the late human rights activist Elie Wiesel and former Soviet dissident Nathan Sharansky. Yet the defenses sometimes sound more like strained apologetics: Solzhenitsyn is not antisemitic, he simply shows “insensitivity … to Jewish suffering” (Wiesel) or “resents the intrusion of foreign influences into Russian life” (Harvard historian Adam Ulam). In a Front Page Magazine symposium on Solzhenitsyn’s passing, Sharansky regretfully acknowledged that in Two Hundred Years Together, Solzhenitsyn often minimizes or even excuses the oppression and persecution of Jews in Tsarist Russia—but asserted that this tendency stems from being “biased in favor of Russia,” not against Jews.

I have written more extensively elsewhere on the question of Solzhenitsyn and antisemitism. But some of Solzhenitsyn’s comments about other groups are equally troubling. In his 1973 essay, “Repentance and Self-Limitation As Categories of National Life,” he suggested Russians’ moral responsibility for Soviet crimes against Hungary and Latvia was somewhat mitigated by the fact that Hungarian and Latvian nationals were actively involved in the Red Terror after the Russian revolution, while the shame of the ethnic cleansing of Crimean Tatars was lessened by their status as “chips off the Horde,” the Mongol khanate that violently subjugated Russia in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. And, while Solzhenitsyn often asserted that his Russian patriotism was grounded in respect for the self-determination of other nations, he was vehemently hostile to Ukrainian and Belarussian independence.

But to many of Solzhenitsyn’s former admirers, his wholehearted embrace of Vladimir Putin and Putin’s neo-authoritarianism in the 2000s was even more dismaying than his views of ethnic conflicts.

After his return to Russia, Solzhenitsyn became a vocal critic of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency. There were, of course, entirely valid reasons to criticize Yeltsin’s often erratic leadership and the state of Russia in the 1990s, when the country was beset by economic hardship and social upheavals (although the criticism should also take into account the unique challenges of the transition from totalitarian communism to a market economy and a civil society, however flawed). But in the next decade, Solzhenitsyn had no harsh words for Putin—not when Putin restored the Soviet anthem with new words and the Soviet red banner as Russia’s military flag; not when he launched an assault on the independent media; not when political prosecutions returned.

Perhaps the most comprehensive expression of Solzhenitsyn’s politics in the final years of his life can be found in a 2006 interview he gave to Vitaly Tretyakov, then editor in chief of the weekly Moskovskiye Novosti (Moscow News). In it, he lashed out at both Mikhail Gorbachev and Yeltsin for discarding “the very concept and consciousness of gosudarstvennost”—a hard-to-translate Russian word that is sometimes rendered as “statism” or “statehood” but actually means something like the political and moral authority of the state—and for making “numerous capitulations and thoughtless concessions in foreign policy.” He praised Putin for reversing those trends with efforts to rescue the authority of the state and conduct a “wiser and more farsighted foreign policy.” While praising democracy via local self-government, he dismissed the idea of multiple parties as an expression of “collective selfishness” with no roots in Russian tradition. He also reiterated his belief that there should be less talk of human rights and more of “human obligations.” And, while assailing the West for seeking to promote “the ideology and forms of modern Western democracy” around the globe, he struck a remarkably conciliatory note toward radical Islam, describing it as an understandable reaction to Western secularism and inequalities of wealth.

In 2007, Solzhenitsyn, who had previously turned down awards from both Gorbachev and Yeltsin, not only accepted a State Award for humanitarian achievement from Putin but received Putin in his home. The coziness between the former chronicler of the gulag and the former KGB officer was jarring to many people. Yet, when asked about this shortly afterward in an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, Solzhenitsyn defended his stance, pointing out that Putin had not been “a KGB investigator” of political offenses or “the head of a camp in the gulag” but had served in foreign intelligence, a respected career in other countries: “George Bush Sr. was not much criticized for being the ex-head of the CIA.” (This is, of course, precisely the kind of moral equivalence anti-Communists once lamented.) He made no mention of Putin’s consistent praise for the KGB as an honorable institution; he also pointedly refused to condemn Putin’s comments about the need to stop “masochistic brooding” over the Soviet past.

Solzhenitsyn’s meeting with Vladimir Putin, 2007

Depressingly, the man who exposed the full horror of Stalin’s rule had nothing to say about the creeping rehabilitation of Stalin on Putin’s watch.

According to polling data, the share of Russians who expressed an entirely negative view of Stalin dropped from about 60 percent in 1998 to 22 percent in 2012; in recent years, more than half of Russians have said that Stalin’s role in Russian history was entirely or mostly positive. The Putin regime’s role in this revival has been at best ambivalent. While Stalin’s crimes have been acknowledged (as the praise for Solzhenitsyn indicates), the official line has increasingly emphasized Russia’s past achievements and national greatness, whether under the Tsars or the Communists.

In 2007, а controversy erupted in Russia over a new, officially approved manual for history teachers, The Modern History of Russia: 1945-2006 by Aleksandr Filippov, in which the question of whether Stalin was a bloody tyrant or a highly successful leader was treated as a “both sides” debate. While the textbook acknowledged the “cruel exploitation of the populace” and “several waves of repressions” under Stalin, it also credited his “grandiose” achievements: industrializing the economy, restoring the Russian empire, winning a great war and rebuilding a war-torn country, creating “the world’s best educational system,” advancing science, and conquering unemployment. The repressions and purges were described as a “rational” strategy to force rapid development and create an efficient, loyal “managerial class.”

The author of The Gulag Archipelago stayed silent about this controversy. But he did speak out on some issues. On April 2, 2008, the daily Izvestia ran his short article titled “Pitting Kin Against Kin?”, which denounced the Ukrainian government’s push for the international recognition of the Holodomor, Stalin’s terror-famine of 1932-33, as a genocide of the Ukrainian people. (While Kazakhstan and some regions of Russia were also devastated by the famine, most historians believe Ukrainians were indeed targeted to break their resistance to Soviet rule.) In rhetoric reminiscent of Soviet-era propaganda, Solzhenitsyn thundered that “the provocational outcry about ‘genocide’ was born … in stale chauvinistic minds filled with malice against the ‘moskali,’” a Ukrainian anti-Russian slur.

The Izvestia article drew a shattering rebuke from Solzhenitsyn’s erstwhile ally Father Gleb Yakunin, a dissident priest defrocked by the Russian Orthodox Church under the Soviet regime and then again in post-Soviet years for exposing the collaboration between the church and the KGB.  “For over 40 years, your public statements, your heroism and your talent were a revelation and inspiration to me and my peers,” wrote Yakunin in an open letter. “And now it turns out that you, along with the Duma politicians and the pundits who secretly adore Stalin as an ‘effective manager,’ are essentially covering for Stalinism and for imperial nationalism. … You are attacking the first state in [former Soviet] space to condemn communist genocide. … It is painful to see the fall of a prophet. How did you end up in the ranks of the very people against whom you fought so bravely and selflessly for so many years?”

Solzhenitsyn never responded. “Pitting Kin Against Kin?” turned out to be the last thing he published in his lifetime.

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In a centennial tribute to Solzhenitsyn for the City Journal, Catholic scholar and author Daniel Mahoney writes that “how one evaluates Solzhenitsyn tells us much about how one ultimately understands human liberty”—as a gift from God or a product of “irreligious humanism.” But, as Father Yakunin’s example shows, religion is not necessarily the dividing line. In the 2008 Front Page symposium on Solzhenitsyn, his harshest critic was another dissident priest, Father Yakov Krotov, who argued that Solzhenitsyn’s role in bringing about the fall of the Soviet Union had been exaggerated and that Solzhenitsyn rejected the evil of communism only to endorse “the evil of anti-humanism, militarism, [and] expansionism.” Other participants, conservative and liberal, argued that Solzhenitsyn’s contribution to the dismantling of totalitarian communism was paramount; moderator Jamie Glazov quoted French philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy, who wrote that the publication of The Gulag Archipelago caused “a worldwide earthquake” and that “[t]he Communist dream dissolved in the furnace of a book.”

Just how enduring Solzhenitsyn’s legacy will be, only time can tell—though any fair-minded observer would have to agree that this legacy is tainted by his support for Russia’s new authoritarianism and his failure to condemn neo-Stalinism. While Solzhenitsyn’s conservative nationalism is more current today than it was in 2008, it is also true that the defeat of the communist dream does not seem nearly as final now as it did then. Could it be that, in an era when anti-liberal movements are surging on both the Right and the Left, Solzhenitsyn’s journey should be seen primarily as a cautionary tale?

Cathy Young is a Russian-born American journalist and author. She is a columnist for Newsday and a contributing editor for Reason magazine and ArcDigital. Her work has appeared in numerous newspapers and magazines including the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, the Weekly Standard, Foreign Policy, and Slate. You can follow her on Twitter