Oct 23, 2023
Solzhenitsyn, Russell Kirk, & the Moral Imagination ~ The Imaginative Conservative
Alexander Solzhenitsyn illuminates the distinctive character of our age by
Alexander Solzhenitsyn illuminates the distinctive character of our age by bringing to bear a religiously grounded moral vision, and he filters this vision through his literary imagination.
In the summer of 2003, I had to vacate my college office. With limited file-cabinet space at home, I had to lighten my files drastically. Reading and skimming my way along, I relived many episodes, including ones that I had quite forgotten. Also, I came upon old essays and reviews by various hands. One said in part, "Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn primarily is a man of moral imagination." The author was none other than Russell Amos Kirk, and the citation came from his review of my 1980 book Solzhenitsyn: The Moral Vision.
As I reread that review, I was happily put in mind once again of the important influence that Russell Kirk had exerted upon me. To be sure, influence does not yield xerox-copy duplication. Kirk's Gothic imagination, with its ghosts and gargoyles, has no deep hold on my affections. Nor has this Chicago native fallen under the sway of what I shall call his rural romanticism. But I did at that moment begin trying to articulate for myself the nature of my indebtedness to Kirk.Clearly Kirk's influence on me is best understood as that deep sort of influence that I lose track of consciously as my own mental activities continue apace. Gradually, I came to think of certain ideas learned from him as my own intellectual property. Even when my gestalt of these ideas resembles his, they get fitted together with other ideas of mine so that they are no longer his. As a simple example, when I say "tradition," the word does not have all the associations for me as a Protestant that it does for Kirk, a Catholic. I have of course, as a reading person, picked up strands of thought from many sources and worked them into the tapestry of my world view. What separates Kirk from other sources is that the ideas I gleaned from him are part of the foundation of my intellectual life. They are part of the filter through which ideas from other sources must pass before I integrate those ideas into my personal point of view. Imagine my intellectual life as a long train-ride. What I am not thinking about is the material comprising the tracks on which the train is riding. The tracks are just there, and taken for granted. If we think of the tracks as an alloy of multiple materials, then in my case some of the tracks’ strongest materials are Kirk's ideas. Thus he is an essential part of my intellectual journey even when I am not aware of it—and perhaps especially then. I was riding on those tracks when Solzhenitsyn first came into my view.
In that aforementioned review, Kirk writes, "The purpose or end of humane letters is ethical: a point forgotten by most writers and reviewers nowadays." And he specifies that "Solzhenitsyn's great concern is the moral state, rather than the political state." Then he aligns Solzhenitsyn with T. S. Eliot: "Like Eliot, Solzhenitsyn sets his face against both the dread tyranny of Communism and the ‘Western’ infatuation with sensual satisfactions, and trifling material possessions." This leads to Kirk's next observation: that "Solzhenitsyn's moral vision is what Eliot called the ‘high dream’—the vision of Dante, the Christian extrasensory perception of true reality. Even more than Dante, Solzhenitsyn passed through the Inferno, and was purged of dross."
These references demonstrate that Kirk, too, however seminal his thinking has been for many of us, absorbed influences from predecessors, as he readily acknowledged, and we also observe how he fit new material—here Solzhenitsyn—in with old—here Eliot and Dante. That is, in fact, exactly how Eliot himself explains that tradition and the individual talent fuse, as a new writer draws upon predecessors and then by his contribution enlarges and enriches the tradition by becoming part of it. But what is more striking to me, as the author of the book that Kirk was reviewing, is that rereading this review made even clearer than before how Kirk's influence prepared me for Solzhenitsyn. I have written little about Kirk, who has many expositors who get him right, and much about Solzhenitsyn, who has many expositors who get him wrong.
While engaged in the housekeeping chore of file-thinning, I realized that I would never have started writing about Solzhenitsyn if I had not first read my Kirk. I have not often used the formulation "moral imagination," but my first book on Solzhenitsyn was subtitled The Moral Vision, and in my second book on him the second, and perhaps best, chapter is entitled "The Moral Universe." One would not need to have read Kirk to see that Solzhenitsyn is a moral writer. But I had read Kirk, and he helped shape the mind that I brought to the reading, and then to the cherishing, of Solzhenitsyn. Indeed, I would say that in Solzhenitsyn I found literary renditions of the abiding, perennial values that Kirk had articulated for me.
The subject about which knowing my Kirk best prepared me to appreciate Solzhenitsyn was the subject of ideology. I recall an argument that raged among conservatives at one long-ago time about whether conservatism was an ideology or not. Kirk said not. As I followed the argument among my betters, with each side populated by writers whose ideas had helped me, I concluded that Kirk was right. Although time has dimmed my memory of the details of the argument because I came to a settled conviction on the matter, I agree with him that conservatism, far from being an ideology, is a negation of ideology. Then I came to Solzhenitsyn, and one confirmation of our consanguinity was his rejection of ideology—not just Marxist ideology but ideology per se. Both Kirk and Solzhenitsyn saw ideology as rooted in utopian thinking and avoided that loose usage common today that employs the term ideology to refer to any well-developed perspective, or world view.
One can imagine, then, how I shrink in mild horror when I hear people refer to "our" Christian ideology and "our" Reformed ideology. These are worse formulations than "conservative ideology." I want to tell them to read Kenneth Minogue's book Alien Powers: The Pure Theory of Ideology (1985), in which he defines ideology as "the propensity to construct structural explanations of the human world" and uses the word ideology "to denote any doctrine which presents the hidden and saving truth about the evils of the world in the form of social analysis." And so I brought Minogue into my writing to elucidate Solzhenitsyn's careful usage of the term ideology. Imagine my delight, then, to find on page four of Kirk's The Politics of Prudence (1993), that Kirk cites Minogue, too. In Kirk's words, ideology "usually has signified a dogmatic political theory which is an endeavor to substitute secular goals and doctrines for religious goals and doctrines." He adds, "Ideology, in short, is a political formula that promises mankind an earthly paradise." And so he calls ideology "inverted religion." It is precisely in that sense that Solzhenitsyn offers as his synonym for ideology the words "the lie."
The Politics of Prudence is Kirk's summation of his thinking pulled together mainly for students; and, among much else, it makes clear his awareness of kinship with Solzhenitsyn. When he lists ten modern events "in which the conservative cause retained or gained some ground," he includes Solzhenitsyn's forced relocation from the Soviet Union to the United States. Why did Kirk think this event was important? Because it made Solzhenitsyn a participant in America's cultural life, and his "denunciation of the tyranny of ideology did more to dispel illusions—although not from everybody's vision—than did any other writing of our time."
Kirk also cites a passage from Solzhenitsyn's most overtly religious statement, the address given on the 1983 occasion of his receiving the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, an award set up to fill a gap in the roster of Nobel prizes. Predictably, this speech has received little notice from critics, and I quote in full the passage that Kirk cited.
"Our life consists not in the pursuit of material success but in the quest of worthy spiritual growth. Our entire earthly existence is but a transition stage in the movement toward something higher, and we must not stumble or fall, nor must we linger fruitlessly on one rung of the ladder. . . . The laws of physics and physiology will never reveal the indisputable manner in which the Creator constantly, day in and day out, participates in the life of each of us, unfailingly granting us the energy of existence; when this assistance leaves us, we die. In the life of our entire planet, the Divine Spirit moves with no less force: this we must grasp in our dark and terrible hour."
Kirk describes this passage as "express-[ing] with high feeling the essence of the conservative impulse." What does that mean? The passage is, of course, not in the least political, and Kirk is too wise to be claiming the Russian author for a political position within the American context. On the contrary, Kirk is recognizing the congruity between Solzhenitsyn and him at the deepest levels of their thinking. For both of them, meaning in human life lies ultimately in the transcendent realm, and only by reference to this transcendent source of meaning can the nature of human beings and human society be properly understood. In this passage Solzhenitsyn is also asserting his faith in Providence. And it belies the ludicrous suggestion that he is a Deist. The God in whom Solzhenitsyn believes is not remote and removed from human affairs but is personally active in human history and in individual lives. This is what Kirk sees as lying at the heart of the conservative impulse.
Another chapter in The Politics of Prudence lists "Ten Conservative Principles." The one leading the list most readily brings Solzhenitsyn to mind. "First, the conservative believes that there exists an enduring moral order. That order is made for man, and man is made for it: human nature is a constant, and moral truths are permanent." Solzhenitsyn, too, emphasizes constancy and permanence: "Human nature, if it changes at all, changes not much faster than the geological face of the earth." As a writer he is fundamentally concerned with what he calls "the timeless essence of humanity," as well as with those "fixed universal concepts called good and justice."
Of all Kirk's formulations that put me in mind of Solzhenitsyn, my favorite one comes from before Kirk was aware of Solzhenitsyn. In the opening pages of The Conservative Mind (1953), Kirk asserts, "Conservatives believe that a divine intent rules society as well as conscience, forging an eternal chain of right and duty which links great and obscure, living and dead." Later in that seminal book, when enumerating the chief problems facing conservatives, Kirk mentions as the first one "the problem of spiritual and moral regeneration: the restoration of the ethical system and the religious sanction upon which any life worth living is founded." And he remarks, in words that I cherish, "This is conservatism at its highest." Not only would Solzhenitsyn resonate with these terms; the very words he chooses are often very close to Kirk's diction, though apparently without ever reading Kirk. Clearly, reading Kirk prepared me to appreciate Solzhenitsyn.
The concept of the moral imagination means more to Kirk than to Solzhenitsyn. Kirk puts the term right into the title of his memoirs, The Sword of Imagination (1995). I have counted the references to imagination in that book's index and come up with the number forty-one, ten of them referring specifically to the moral imagination. Imagination is mentioned more often than Catholicism, Communism, Liberalism, even Conservatism. The memoirs, too, help prepare us to apply the term "the moral imagination" to Solzhenitsyn. For example, when Kirk describes the purpose of The Conservative Mind, he says that "he meant to wake the moral imagination through the evocative power of humane letters" and thus that this book, though often approached as a political manifesto that gave rise to a whole movement, the American conservative movement, in fact belongs to the category of belles lettres. And so he describes himself as "more poet than professor." He is, in sum, a literary man—or, in an older term seldom used nowadays, a "Man of Letters." As a corollary, literature is the genre of writing best suited to convey the moral imagination. The memoirs also provide direct sanction for approaching the writer Solzhenitsyn as one who conveys it. In Kirk's exact words, " . . . through tribulations, Solzhenitsyn has developed that sort of political imagination urgently required in America near the end of the twentieth century—and that sort of moral imagination, too."
For Kirk's definition of the abstract term "the moral imagination," we turn to his book on T. S. Eliot, Eliot and His Age (1971). There, after noting that the phrase is originally Edmund Burke's, Kirk explains, "By it, Burke meant that power of ethical perception which strides beyond the barriers of private experience and events of the moment." Our age places a premium on the autonomous Self and the subjective insights that emerge from raw, indiscriminate experience; our age also devalues tradition and favors presentism, or present-mindedness. And when Kirk remarks that "[t]he moral imagination aspires to the apprehending of right order in the soul," our leading lights would reply that there is no such thing as soul and those who think there is should keep their religious gibberish to themselves as a private matter. Why, one may ask, does not Kirk just say right out that the moral imagination has "its roots in religious insights" and claim that, by possessing this vaunted faculty, "the civilized being is distinguished from the savage by his possession of the moral imagination"? Those things are exactly what he says, verbatim.
Of all the ways Kirk describes the moral imagination, the one I like best for approaching Solzhenitsyn is found in Enemies of the Permanent Things (1969):
The moral imagination is the principal possession that man does not share with the beasts. It is man's power to perceive ethical truth, abiding law, in the chaos of many events. Without the moral imagination, man would simply live day to day, or rather moment to moment, as dogs do. It is a strange faculty—inexplicable if men are assumed to have an animal nature only—of discerning greatness, justice, and order, beyond the bars of appetite and self-interest.
It is by means of the moral imagination, Kirk also explains, that "humane letters is returned to its normative purpose, telling us what it is to be truly human." The burden of Solzhenitsyn's mission as a writer is to show the dehumanization that ideology has inflicted upon all whom it has affected. He naturally starts with his fellow Russians, who fell under the jackboot of the Soviet form of ideology. Let us approach the matter this way. Solzhenitsyn came to be viewed as the world's foremost anti-Communist writer. It may surprise one to learn that he strongly dislikes the term anti-Communist. To use that "anti" term is implicitly to grant Communism positive status and thereby to make opposition to it essentially a negative reaction. Rather, in the proper order of things, it is Communism that is inherently a negation, as Solzhenitsyn explains:
"The primary, the eternal concept is humanity, and Communism is anti-humanity. Whoever says "anti-Communism" is saying, in effect, anti-anti-humanity. A poor construction. So we should say: That which is against Communism is for humanity. Not to accept, but to reject this inhuman Communist ideology is simply to be a human being. Such a rejection is more than a political act. It is a protest of our souls against those who would have us forget the concepts of good and evil."
Call Solzhenitsyn's position, then, not anti-Communism but pro-humanity. Call it, also, the moral imagination in operation.
Kirk tells us that the moral imagination is what distinguishes the human from the animal. One is no doubt aware how difficult it has become in our time to maintain this fundamental distinction. In our popular culture mere animal coupling is heralded as a great liberator, and pornography is mainstreamed to such a pervasive extent that children cannot grow up innocent of it. Animal-rights activists all too often deny that any dividing line exists between the human and the animal. Philosophers work to justify infanticide of offspring who are seen to be defective or in any other way displeasing to us. The traditional distinction between liberty and license falls by the wayside as an outmoded intellectual construct, and the only limit to our self-pleasuring is that the fun should not hurt others. Certainly we have moved away from the biblical notion that man is the acme of creation and has received from God the mandate of dominion over all of creation. And what a faint impression of self-limitation is left when the moral imagination is lost. I mention self-limitation here, because it is one of Solzhenitsyn's prominent themes, as in a luminous essay of his entitled "Repentance and Self-Limitation in the Life of Nations."
Given the setting in which Solzhenitsyn lived, however, he had other examples of blurring the line between human and animal with which to deal. In the political system that he entered at birth, those classes of people who did not adopt the dictates of the ruling ideology were to be treated as subhuman, while those who did accept the new order were inevitably dehumanized, too. In his novels, and most emphatically in The Gulag Archipelago (1973–1978), Solzhenitsyn repeatedly resorts to animal imagery to delineate the plight of those subject to Soviet dominion. He likens people to lambs, goats, beavers, dogs, worms. His favorite is rabbit imagery, which highlights the meek submission of the millions of innocents who are nonetheless imprisoned. He has other images for dehumanization, too. One of the longest chapters depicts human beings as the debris pulsing through the pipes of an enormous sewage disposal system. Solzhenitsyn employs his formidable literary skills to reveal the dehumanization suffered at the hands of an inhumane system. We see these revelations in work after work of his.
In One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1963) the emphasis is on the physical suffering endured by a simple peasant whose only "crime" was to have escaped from the Nazis after they took him prisoner of war and he made his way back to the Soviet side, at which time he was arrested on the possibility that the Nazis had trained him to be their spy. Inside the Gulag, Ivan Denisovich scrounges for food to supplement the insufficient daily ration, doing little errands for those blessed enough to receive food parcels from home. He yearns for a handful of oats that once he would have fed only to his horses. This is a picture of humanity in extremis. Yet Ivan Denisovich survives, with his humanity intact. Forced to lay bricks all day in sub-zero temperatures, he takes satisfaction in doing his work well, not to please the bosses but to please himself. Constructive work brings out in him the ennobling quality of self-validation through creative effort. He lays his bricks straight and fast. A day that seems to readers unbearably bad ends with his feeling contented and happy; for him it has been almost a good day. "There's nothing you can't do to a man," the author notes, except that you cannot do away with his humanity altogether.
The long novel The First Circle (1968) is set in a sharashka, an institution near Moscow set aside for research by scientists and technologists who have been imprisoned. These are people who, unlike Ivan Denisovich, can think abstractly and argue out their conflicting views of life. A prisoner who has newly arrived from one of the harsh prison camps sees bread and books out on a table and, marveling, asks if he has died and gone to heaven. No, a sharashka veteran replies, explicating the title that Solzhenitsyn drew from Dante, "you are, just as you were previously, in hell. But you have risen to its best and highest circle—the first circle." Another veteran explains the sharashka by using the animal imagery with which Solzhenitsyn's readers are familiar: "It has been proved that a high yield of wool from sheep depends on the animals’ care and feeding." The First Circle ends with similarly memorable imagery of dehumanization. Some prisoners are being transported from the relative comforts of the sharashka to those harsh camps that make up the lower circles of Gulag's hell. On the sides of the truck is printed the word Meat in four languages. A correspondent for a leftist French newspaper duly sends for back-home consumption this report: "On the streets of Moscow one often sees vans filled with foodstuffs, very neat and hygienically impeccable. One can only conclude that the provisioning of the capital is excellent." His willful blindness to Soviet evils comports with the black comedy of an uproarious chapter in the novel in which Eleanor Roosevelt visits a Gulag prison that has been prettied up to impress her. She is totally taken in by the stage management on a Potemkin village-like set. "You have a magnificent prison!" she purrs as she heads for home, eager to report the humaneness of America's wartime ally, the Soviet Union. Needless to say, some Western critics have squirmed at Solzhenitsyn's scorn for such easily duped Western liberals.
Were one to try to summarize the theme of this polyphonic novel with its many voices, one could circumscribe it no more narrowly than to say that The First Circle is about the making of a human being. Every character is judged by how well he does in that venture. And that includes Stalin himself, who is present in the panorama of characters who run from the highest-placed to the lowest. Gleb Nerzhin, the character who is the stand-in for the author, most clearly embodies the moral imagination that distinguishes the human from the animal. He takes imprisonment as the occasion to think things through for himself. After rejecting the totalitarian-excusing collectivism of one friend, Lev Rubin, and the elitist individualism of another, Dimitri Sologdin, he tries what he calls "going to the people." He observes that the peasants, often depicted in Russian literature as mute fonts of wisdom, are often susceptible to the tricks of informers and the blandishments of the camp bosses and in general have not shown themselves of superior firmness of spirit in resisting dehumanization. So his only alternative, Nerzhin concludes, is to "be himself," to develop his own "personal point of view," which he says is "more precious than life itself." The mature level of spiritual independence that he attains yields the insight that "[e]veryone forges his inner self year after year. One must try to temper, to cut, to polish one's soul so as to become a human being." It could be said that as Ivan Denisovich transcends physical suffering, so Gleb Nerzhin transcends psychological suffering. But it would be better to say that Nerzhin transcends spiritual suffering. It is the soul that, for Solzhenitsyn, is the unique faculty of human beings.
Cancer Ward (1969) is another long, polyphonic novel by Solzhenitsyn, the theme of which cannot be captured except in very broad terms. One of the patients at the oncology clinic is given Tolstoy's collection of stories What Men Live By (1881) to read. Astonished by Tolstoy's answer to the implied question, he asks other patients what they think men live by. One suggests rations. Another says air, then adds water—and food. The asker knows that formerly he would have answered in similarly mundane terms, though he would have added booze. Others’ answers, similarly inadequate, run to one's pay, one's professional skill, one's homeland. A cancer-stricken Communist proposes ideological principles. A mindless adolescent thinks in terms of sex—until she learns shortly thereafter that one of her breasts is cancerous and must be cut off. But no, it is none of these, says Tolstoy; men live by love. Or should, anyway.
The character who exhibits the most moral growth is Oleg Kostoglotov, a rough-hewn, thirty-five-year-old ex-soldier who also has spent time in the Gulag. His highest compliment for another is, "He was a good man. A human being." Although uneducated, he matches Gleb Nerzhin of The First Circle in thinking for himself and in exhibiting the moral imagination. He sarcastically scorns those Soviet materialists whose world view deprives man of his innate dignity: "After all, what does our philosophy of life boil down to? ‘Oh, life is so good! . . . Life, I love you. Life is for happiness!’ What profound sentiments. Any animal can say as much without our help, any hen, cat, or dog." The animal instinct for self-preservation is not enough; human life must have a higher purpose than that. The doctors want to treat his cancer by zapping him with X-rays. The side effect would be to eliminate his virility. So he rejects a doctor's "logical deduction" that he came to the clinic "to be saved at any price!" He insists on "my right to dispose of my own life." He carries into the clinic what he has learned in prison. "No sooner does a patient come to you," he tells the doctor, "than you begin to do all his thinking for him. . . . And once again I become a grain of sand, just as I was in the camp. Once again nothing depends on me." Kostoglotov understands what materialists, even the best-intentioned among them, do not: that there are some things worse than death itself. He has learned from prison what Solzhenitsyn himself has learned. One can grow through suffering, and so Solzhenitsyn is able to exclaim, "Bless you, prison!" Those words come from the great chapter in Gulag entitled "The Ascent." True, the Gulag corrupts the souls of most of its inhabitants, but spiritual ascent is possible, too.
The Gulag Archipelago is especially rich for elucidating Solzhenitsyn's moral imagination. In Gulag, Solzhenitsyn's exercise of that faculty yields unremitting enmity toward ideology, just as surely as it does with Kirk. The probably best-known passage in Gulag begins, "So let the reader who expects this book to be a political exposé slam its covers shut right now." For Solzhenitsyn has repeatedly insisted that politics is not his medium, despite the insistence of secular critics on viewing him through the prism of politics. As he writes elsewhere, we render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, "not because every Caesar deserves it, but because Caesar's concern is not with the most important thing in our lives." No, in Gulag we read that "the meaning of earthly existence lies . . . in the development of the soul." That is why the best-known part of Gulag's best-known passage says that "the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being." Next, we read,
"During the life of any heart this line keeps changing place; sometimes it is squeezed one way by exuberant evil and sometimes it shifts to allow enough space for good to flourish. One and the same human being is, at various ages, under various circumstances, a totally different human being. At times he is close to being a devil, at times to sainthood. But his name doesn't change, and to that name we ascribe the whole lot, good and evil."
Probably less well-known are Gulag's next couple of pages. They address how evildoers justify their bad actions. Villains in traditional literature know that what they are doing is evil, and so "[t]he imagination and the spiritual strength of Shakespeare's evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology." Evildoing on a grand scale requires some justification that would make the deeds seem good. Enter ideology.
Ideology—that is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination. That is the social theory which helps to make his acts seem good instead of bad. . . . Thanks to ideology, the twentieth century was fated to experience evildoing on a scale calculated in the millions. This cannot be denied, nor passed over, nor suppressed.
The most common reader reaction to The Gulag Archipelago is that it is a compendium of horror stories too depressing to stay with to the end. It is better read as a sustained argument against ideology, heavily seasoned with examples. And I think it is fair to say at this point in history that Solzhenitsyn and company have won that argument. Solzhenitsyn himself, in one of his letters, has written that "the main goal, the main sense of Archipelago [is] a moral uplifting and catharsis." Readers who persevere to the end of Gulag discover that its final note, as is always the case with Solzhenitsyn's works, is the note of hope.
And that note brings us to the collapse of Communism. A Russian proverb tells of a little calf that keeps butting its head against a big oak tree trying to knock it over. It is a pathetically futile endeavor—until, that is, the oak starts to wobble a bit and eventually topples. It is from this proverb that Solzhenitsyn draws the title for his memoirs about his years of conflict with the Soviet authorities as he went about his work as an underground dissident writer. The calf image was of course a piece of self-deprecation on Solzhenitsyn's part. Also, he was well aware that the oak of Soviet power was already rotten at the core. Nonetheless, as another Russian proverb used by Solzhenitsyn has it, "One word of truth outweighs the world." Perhaps at this particular point we can best formulate the question this way: Can the moral imagination affect actual events? Or, can the act of writing out of a moral vision have consequences in the realm of society and politics? Or, can a writer with a free mind, who mostly writes fiction, make a real contribution to bringing down a totalitarian government that disallows free expression? And the answer is yes. Yes, it is now widely acknowledged, Solzhenitsyn's writings had their effect. They played an undeniable role in delegitimizing Soviet Communism at home and discrediting it abroad.
It has been for some of us a privilege and great joy to have lived through one of history's great watershed moments. Can one forget the day when first the Berlin Wall fell and then the flag bearing the hammer and sickle came down from above the Kremlin for the last time. How many people have said that they never thought they would live to see that day? Kirk lived long enough to see the day, as also Solzhenitsyn did. And he was one of the few who were not surprised by it. One would think that our academic experts—I mean Sovietologists—who had not seen it coming, would do some major reconsidering to discern how and why they went so thoroughly wrong in their anticipations. But changing one's mind is the hardest thing in the world to do. And they have not done much of it at all.
Regarding Solzhenitsyn, they might have reevaluated their neglect of his insights. A little bit of this did occur. And the story at this point is very interesting. Did his writings contribute to the dissolution of the Soviet Union? In retrospect, I would say that One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich put the first crack into the Berlin Wall and The Gulag Archipelago was a blow to the very foundations of the Soviet edifice. It would be overstating to say that Solzhenitsyn brought the Soviet Union down, just as it would be overstating to say that President Ronald W. Reagan did it. But real credit is due to them both.
Here are a few samples of Western critical opinion after Soviet Communism went onto history's ash-heap. Alex Beam, an editorialist for the Boston Globe, conceded that The Gulag Archipelago "tolled the death knell for the Stalinist security state, and consequently for the Cold War." But then he cuts the author down to size: "To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln's famous appreciation of Harriet Beecher Stowe: Solzhenitsyn is the little man who ended the big war." This column was entitled "Shut Up, Solzhenitsyn." Norman Stone was to chime in with similar double-mindedness. "Nowadays, Solzhenitsyn seems to be rather a comical figure in Moscow—a sort of The End Is Nigh, sandwich-board old man." But then he also added the little, unelaborated concession that The Gulag Archipelago "must stand as the book of the 20th century, if you have to choose one." Dominic Lieven pigeonholed Solzhenitsyn as "unequivocally yesterday's man"; but he felt compelled to acknowledge "the monumental courage and commitment" that led Solzhenitsyn "to take on the might of the Soviet state in the name of conscience, truth, and freedom." Michael Specter viewed Solzhenitsyn as "a sort of biblical apparition, a joke clinging fiercely to a world that no longer exists." But, grudgingly, he also granted that "literature is not a popularity contest, and when it mattered most, Solzhenitsyn delivered the goods." Specifically, he "gave us two of the most essential documents of the 20th century," One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago, and is therefore "one of the century's most important writers." Last in this little list comes George Steiner, a well-known literary critic, who provides a before-and-after contrast. In the seventies, he openly preferred Khrushchev's understanding of Soviet history to Solzhenitsyn's, partly because in Solzhenitsyn's view, "Man's singular relation to Christ the Savior is the center, the justification of all politics," which means that "his notion of man and the state is, by liberal and rational standards, archaic and menacing." But in 1998, while not changing his mind entirely, Steiner was to admit, "What matters is the extent of our continued indebtedness to ‘Ivan Denisovich’" and to Solzhenitsyn's "mapping of the gulag. At so many moments, what our soiled age has had of conscience lay in this one man's angry keeping."
Some critics, nevertheless, gave Solzhenitsyn warm and wholehearted praise. Let a single sentence about Gulag by David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, and neither a Christian nor a conservative, represent this minority position. "It is impossible to name a book that had a greater effect on the political and moral consciousness of the late twentieth-century." The main lines of Solzhenitsyn's Western reception remain these: In the seventies, liberal critics coalesced into a negative consensus that singled out the author as misguided and wrongheaded. Even after history turned his way with the demise of the Soviet Union, the consensus considered him irrelevant, since the world about which he had written was now gone. Irrelevant—but also perhaps the twentieth-century writer who had the greatest influence of them all on the public events of his lifetime. Solzhenitsyn himself said, as The Gulag Archipelago was appearing in the 1970s, "Oh, yes, Gulag was destined to affect the course of history. I was sure of that. . . ." After the fact, his antagonistic critics, in their backhanded ways, turned out to agree with him. In writing the indispensable book about our time, Solzhenitsyn stands as our era's greatest example of the adage that "the pen is mightier than the sword."
In 2003, a new book appeared, Gulag: A History, written by Anne Applebaum, a wonderfully insightful journalist and scholar whose writings I have read avidly and appreciatively. She readily acknowledges her indebtedness to Solzhenitsyn, and her Gulag book presents heartrending anecdotes that rival his. She has assiduously studied newly released Soviet archives, and her massive, impeccable historical research richly supplements what was available to Solzhenitsyn. Yet, as I read her book, I wondered whether it could have had the powerful effect of Solzhenitsyn's, had it been published when his book was. And I concluded that it could not have. One cannot ask an author to write someone else's book, or a book other than the one that was written. Still, the question nagged. What sets Solzhenitsyn's Gulag over and above Applebaum's Gulag?
I concluded that the key could be located in Applebaum's own attitude toward Solzhenitsyn's book. She values it highly, but she values it according to the extent that it does the sort of thing that her book does. Is Solzhenitsyn's historical research good? Yes, she affirms, but it is limited mostly to oral sources—those stories that he picked up from other prisoners—and it lacks grounding in the statistics, lists, office memos, and financial records found in the archives that she used so well for background and overview. In short, she has employed rigorous scholarly methods, particularly those of social science. By her own standards, it would be fair to say that she has done better than Solzhenitsyn.
Yet Solzhenitsyn's book changed the world. Does Applebaum understand the genius that gives his book its power? I think not. What does she miss, then? Just two things: literature and religion. The subtitle of The Gulag Archipelago is An Experiment in Literary Investigation. Applebaum seems oblivious to the import of this subtitle, that is, to the literary character of Solzhenitsyn's book. She is strong on history, on politics, especially on economics; but she seems tone-deaf concerning literature. Social-science methodology simply is not designed to handle literature. A literature-loving social scientist may not be an oxymoron, but it comes close. Nor does Applebaum indicate that she realizes how foundational to all of Solzhenitsyn's writings, including Gulag, the motive force of religion is. She goes about as far as one can, just as Remnick does, in valuing Solzhenitsyn while leaving his Christian faith out of account. According to Solzhenitsyn, "the principal trait of the entire twentieth century" is that "men have forgotten God," and every calamity of the modern world stems from "the flaw of a consciousness lacking all divine dimension." To miss that point is to miss the genius of Solzhenitsyn's analysis of the age. And if one is Applebaum, one will undervalue the force of that inverted religion called ideology, too.
Solzhenitsyn illuminates the distinctive character of our age by bringing to bear a religiously grounded moral vision, and he filters this vision through his literary imagination. There is a term for what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn has and Anne Applebaum does not. And that term is "the moral imagination."
Republished with gracious permission from Modern Age (47:1, Winter 2005).
This essay was first published here in March 2012.
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The featured image is a photograph: "Russian writer and Nobel prize winner Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn looks out from a train, in Vladivostok, summer 1994, before departing on a journey across Russia. Photo by Mikhail Evstafiev. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
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Today (June 8) is the anniversary of Solzhenitsyn's Harvard commencement address. It wouldn't be the worst thing in the world if some commencement speaker — or all of them — told whatever graduates were in front of the, "I’m not going to give a speech. Please take the time to read Solzhenitsyn's." And then sat down.
"There, after noting that the phrase is originally Edmund Burke's, Kirk explains, "By it, Burke meant that power of ethical perception which strides beyond the barriers of private experience and events of the moment." Our age places a premium on the autonomous Self and the subjective insights that emerge from raw, indiscriminate experience.."
I have both of Kirk's major works, but I am going to break with both Kirk and Burke on this assessment. I am a graduate of 4 different Law Enforcement academies, in 3 different states, and what I noted after the first academy is that is it largely fit for no purpose other than making you ‘trainable’, if you are otherwise observant, fit, and competent.
One academy was a large municipal east-coast city, one was a midwest state trooper academy (which was the worst, only 1/3 of us completed it and you watched your classmates break down ‘Full Metal Jacket’ style daily), and two were Federal LE academies. The ‘finals’ at the state police academy were a literal fight club, and at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, it was a series of simulations around the campus, known as "Evolutions".
The encounters ‘evolve’ depending on how you interact with the actors, and are monitored by FLETC proctors. My very last evolution was a ‘call’ to respond to a bungalow on campus for a caller who asked for the police, and then disconnected the call. My ‘partner’ for the evolutions was was a girl from another federal agency in a different branch of govt, who had no LE background.
When we got there, the front door was standing open, and no lights were on inside. I grabbed my partners elbow, and pulled her behind me, because she was walking directly toward the front door, silhouetting herself to whoever was inside. I
I took a concealed position along the porch and shouted into the interior trying to make contact. Someone inside began moaning, and told me "please.. I need help", at which time my partner began to walk around me and to go inside. I caught her arm again, and continued to speak with the occupant ( a FLETC hired actor), who became more agitated.
By the 4th time I addressed him without entering, he responded "Get the F___ in here now, so I can kill you like everyone else".
At that point, the FLETC staff ended the evolution, and came over to congratulate us. They told us that we were the only team that did not "die" that night inside of what they termed the "kill house".
The FLETC staff added that most died without ever even unholstering a weapon, and that they had selected us as the last team for that evolution, because they knew that I had previous patrol experience in DC and Chicago, and they wanted to see what I would do.
My partner, who was ready to walk right in to the kill zone ambush, was a pretty girl, so I was thoroughly enjoying her constant questioning of "how did you know what was going to happen in that house?". I eventually told her that I had no idea what was going to happen in that evolution once we entered the house, but I did know from personal experience what the worst case scenario could be.
We were training in balmy Georgia, but years earlier in a near blizzard condition Chicago snowstorm, I responded to a real hang-up call at a townhouse, from a woman who asked for police before the call was disconnected. When I arrived, I found her corpse face down on the front porch with a kitchen knife sticking out of her back. No footprints other than my own existed in the heavy snowfall, so I knew her killer (her own child) was still inside, and a similar ‘siege’ ensued, attempting to make contact with the murderer.
So, it was only "private experience" that made my partner and I the lone survivors that night, and it was gleaned from Burke's "events of the moment".
I was also the lone member of that mixed-basic class without even a Bachelors Degree. Everyone who – on paper – had specialized or advanced education died that night. Only two of us lived, and that was because my partner followed my instructions.
Private experience can and will often trump accreditation and certification, provided you are an apt pupil, and and are learning and applying the right lessons.
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ΔAlbert Alioto Fastan