I never made it through The Gulag Archipelago. After about 400 pages, I said to myself, “I get it. This is one kind of torture and abuse after another; it is just plain never, ever going to end.” But the book was a revelation, a very unpleasant one, to a great many people. Some people, it seems shocking to me, thought that the Soviet Union and the world of communism would be inherently moral and could not make themselves believe that a government could intentionally torture its own people for the crime of nonconformity.
I thought the book was a work of profound compassion and moral rectitude. Solzhenitsyn was continually offended by everything he saw done in Stalin’s name, both administered by the government and its sadistic jailers and by the prisoners who were probably not particularly nice people but were reduced to being little better than animals as they were shuttled from one “work camp” to another, ever further-east and ever colder as the Siberian winter set in to take the lives of the weak.
Periodically throughout its history, the Soviet Union experienced brief periods of relaxation in the degree of social control that its leaders exercised. Stalin kept a tight grip. His immediate successors loosened it up for a few years, and that’s when Solzhenitsyn’s works were circulated — probably in part to discredit Stalin, and in part to try to free up resources from social control for military competition with the West. But even in an early incarnation of glasnost, Solzhenitsyn was too much for the Soviets authorities to tolerate, and they exiled him rather than make a martyr of him again.
This was a wise decision. He was not really a great champion of individual freedom and liberty the way, for instance, Andrei Sakharov was. When he eventually came to the United States, he lived largely as a recluse in rural Vermont. And he couldn’t wait to get back home to Russia when the Soviet Union collapsed. The real power of Gulag Archipelago was Solzhenitsyn’s demand to his fellow Russians, “We are better than this! We are a moral people! Stalin has stolen our souls!”
He was well-positioned to make that claim; he fought with honor in the Red Army during World War II and could have risen far in the Party at a time when all he needed to do was go along in order to get along. Instead, he was critical of Stalin in a letter to a friend that wound up in the hands of the KGB, and he got sent off to Siberia for his indiscretion.
Upon his release, he could have gone back to work and kept his head down to get by. Instead, he stood up for what he thought was right and, in front of all the world, stuck a thumb in Stalin’s eye with his first book, One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich. Ivan Denisovich was captured by the Germans and returned to the Soviet Union after the war as a POW. By Stalin’s definition, then, he was a traitor because he did not die fighting the Nazis. Therefore, like all traitors, he was sent to a labor camp in Siberia, where he was forced to scheme for food, tobacco, and less grueling work assignments, and above all, for a way to survive the intense cold of the Siberian winter. His captors are cruel and heartless, and Ivan’s fellow prisoners not much better. The perversity of his punishment is stated as a simple matter of fact and the portrayal of life in the gulag is horrifying and heart-breaking. It won Solzhenitsyn the Nobel Prize. It also won him more time in the gulag himself.
Before his death, Alexsander Solzhenitsyn was reconciled with Vladmir Putin. He seemed to think that Putin brought the strong, decisive hand to ruling Russia that was needed, and he seemed to like that Putin did it wearing a velvet glove. Solzhenitsyn may have been willing to turn a blind eye to the civil liberties infractions and the occasional use of state power to keep control in Putin’s grasp. Like so many of his countrymen, as long as the money was being made and people were smart enough to not overtly challenge the ruling clique, Solzhenitsyn was content to not rock the boat but rather to push for change in a more subtle sort of way.
This is something of a letdown for me, as his criticism of Soviet leaders had been so harsh and direct, so shocking and gruesome, and ultimately so validating of the nobility of human nature, that it was easy for me as a young man to misunderstand him and see him as a crusader against totalitarianism. But unlike British anti-totalitarian George Orwell, it turns out that Solzhenitsyn was not capable of sustained idealism and gave in to compromise later in life; it also turns out that Orwell kept his flair for eloquence and metaphor but Solzhenitsyn’s later works were not of the same quality as those inflamed by the passion of his youth and middle age. In the end, he allowed himself to deteriorate into something of an Orthodox chauvanist; he decried the decadence of Western culture and became suspicious of Jews attempting to corrupt his beloved Rodina.
This does not mean he is unworthy of praise. Far from it. Writing and publishing One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich was an act of tremendous courage, for which he was severely punished; writing and publishing The Gulag Archipelago demonstrated that this was not a man to back down from the face of evil even after he had tasted its foul punishment. No, to truly appreciate Solzhenistyn, we must understand a degree of subtlety and a perspective different from our own. He wanted Russia to be a better place, a place where people could live without fear and without want. He did not bring down the Soviet Union himself. But he helped. And in so doing, he made the world better for all of us, not just his own beloved countrymen.
Alexandr Solzhenitsyn died today. He was ninety years old. A hero — flawed perhaps, but then who among us is free from flaws? Better, I say, to focus on his heroism than his flaws.