I grew up reading more works by Aleksandr Solzhenitzyn than by any other Russian author: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Cancer Ward, The First Circle, The Gulag Archipelago, August 1914. In fact, I’ve probably read as many pages of Solzhenitsyn (in English translation) as I have any of my other high page-count favorites: Barbara W. Tuchman, V. S. Naipaul, Robert D. Kaplan, and Tom Wolfe.
So I was pleased to come across a recent retrospective in First Things: The Journal of Religion, Culture, and Public Life entitled “Traducing Solzhenitsyn” by Daniel J. Mahoney, from which I’d like to quote a few excerpts.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is one of the great souls of the age. He is also among its most maligned and misunderstood figures. It is hard to think of another prominent writer whose thought and character have been subjected to as many willful distortions and vilifications over the past thirty years….
Some of his critics soon reasoned that if Solzhenitsyn was not a conventional liberal, then he must be an enemy of liberty. The legend grew that he was, at best, a “Slavophile” and a romantic critic of decadent Western political institutions, and that he was, at worst, an authoritarian and even, perhaps, an anti-Semite and a theocrat….
Serious, informed, and measured engagement with Solzhenitsyn’s writing is all too rare in America. Some of Solzhenitsyn’s critics are content to sneer at him without bothering to produce quotations that would support their characterizations of his thought….
Solzhenitsyn has meditated on this problem of conjugating Russia and the West, liberty and the moral contents of life, with great penetration and finesse in the various volumes of The Red Wheel. These books include profound reflections on the character of political moderation and the requirements of a statesmanship that would unite Christian attentiveness to the spiritual dignity of man with an appreciation of the need to respect the unceasing evolution of society. Solzhenitsyn takes aim at reactionaries who ignore the inexorability of human “progress,” at revolutionaries who take nihilistic delight in destroying the existing order, and at “false liberals” who refuse to explore prudently the necessarily difficult relations between order and liberty, progress and tradition.
In nearly all of his major writings, Solzhenitsyn appeals to the indispensability of the spiritual qualities of “repentance” and “self-limitation” for a truly balanced individual and collective life. But he never turns the classical or Christian virtues into an antimodern ideology that would escape the reality of living with the tensions inherent in a dynamic, modern society. He is not, however, unduly sanguine about the prospects for these virtues in the contemporary scene. As he writes in November 1916, “In the life of nations, even more than in private life, the rule is that concessions and self-limitation are ridiculed as naïve and stupid.” Solzhenitsyn thus has no illusions about repentance and self-limitation becoming the explicit and unchallenged foundation of free political life. His more modest hope is to claim a hearing for the Good amidst the cacophony of claims that vie for public notice. Neither genuflecting before progress nor irresponsibly rejecting it, Solzhenitsyn insists that we must “seek and expand ways of directing its might towards the perpetration of good.” Solzhenitsyn’s moral vision has too often been politicized in ways that mistake his rejection of progressivist illusions for a reactionary refusal to admit the possibility of progress.
Solzhenitsyn is, in truth, a conservative liberal who wants to temper the one-sided modern preoccupation with individual freedom with a salutary reminder of the moral ends that ought to inform responsible human choice. Like the best classical and Christian thinkers of the past, he believes that human beings should not “neglect their spiritual essence” or “show an exaggerated concern for man’s material needs.” Thus, while he displays a rich appreciation of the limits of politics, he also recognizes that “a Christian must … actively endeavor to improve the holders of power and the state system.” And when Solzhenitsyn addresses specifically political questions he does so as a principled advocate of political moderation. His portrait in August 1914 of Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin’s efforts to establish a constitutional order that would be consistent with Russia’s spiritual traditions and that would keep Russia from falling into the revolutionary abyss contains some of the wisest pages ever written about statesmanship.
The shamefully one-sided journalistic and critical reception too often accorded to Solzhenitsyn’s work thus serves as an unintended confirmation of the difficulty of pursuing what he has called the “middle line” in the service of human liberty and human dignity. Solzhenitsyn has used his literary gifts and moral witness to teach us, as he says in The Gulag Archipelago, “that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but through all human hearts.” Today, though he is eighty-five years old and has had some physical setbacks, he remains committed to his writing. Moreover, his stature and moral authority remain high where it most counts: in his native Russia. In response to the recent awarding of the Solzhenitsyn Prize to the actor and the director of the television series that brought Dostoevski’s The Idiot to the screen, the popular writer Darya Dontsova commented that “the great Solzhenitsyn is in reality a very modern man, and young of heart.” Most importantly, amidst the corruption and moral drift of the post-Communist transition, he has never ceased to remind his compatriots that they “must build a moral Russia or none at all.” He remains an intrepid defender of a freedom that is worthy of man and has thus maintained faith with the best in both Russian and Western traditions. He merits our continuing gratitude, respect, and admiration.