The Legacy of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

An American scholar talks about the famed Russian author.


Winner of the Nobel Prize in 1970, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who died August 3 at age 89, was an unknown Russian high-school science teacher when A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich appeared in 1963. Having received the prepublication approval of Premier Nikita Krushchev, that book drew on the author's own 11-year political imprisonment and "internal exile" and was seen as a stinging rebuke of the excesses of the Stalin era. But as the Soviet regime hardened again and, as other novels (The Cancer Ward, The First Circle, The Gulag Archipelago) were published abroad, it became clear that Solzhenitsyn's target was a deeply corrupt and corrupting political ideology. Arrested and deported in 1974, he eventually settled in rural Vermont, where for 18 years he continued work on his multivolume epic of the Russian Revolution, The Red Wheel, while producing occasional speeches and essays that some took as ungraciously scathing attacks on the West. Solzhenitsyn returned to post-Soviet Russia in 1994 and soon began to criticize its leaders for creating "not a democracy but an oligarchy."

In part because he later gave credit to Vladimir Putin for restoring hope to a demoralized Russian people, some commentators charged that Solzhenitsyn in his last years had become a reactionary—a religiously intolerant Russian chauvinist who quietly applauded the nation's drift toward illiberal, tsarist-style autocracy. Nothing could be further from the truth, says Daniel J. Mahoney, coeditor, with Edward E. Ericson, of The Solzhenitsyn Reader, New and Essential Writings, 1947-2005 and author of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The Ascent From Ideology. Mahoney, a professor of political science at Assumption College in Worcester, Mass., talked with U.S. News about the often misunderstood continuities in Solzhenitsyn's life and work—and the political and moral vision that underlay both.

Does Solzhenitsyn deserve at least as much credit as Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II for helping to bring down the Soviet Union and its communist system.

The answer is yes. Solzhenitsyn, and particularly his Gulag Archipelago, his great three-volume work and so-called experiment in literary investigation, as he subtitled it, more than any other book or intellectual or political act of the 20th century delegitimized the entire Soviet and communist enterprise. Solzhenitsyn identified the communist ideology as the "Lie," the illusion that men and societies could be transformed at a stroke. He exposed the inhuman consequences of that project. He showed that the origins of communist totalitarianism lay not in the pathological abuses of Josef Stalin but in the ideology itself and in the founding deeds of Vladimir Lenin. With this book, you saw the recovery of the age-old perspective of good and evil versus the communist distinction between progress and reaction. The communist enterprise could not survive that assault, and many people saw that. Vaclav Havel [the playwright and first president of post-communist Czechoslovakia] said that everything he wrote about the nature of communism and the nature of the "Lie" is fundamentally a footnote to Solzhenitsyn. How does Solzhenitsyn fit into the great Russian literary tradition?

In the West, comparisons are readily made to both Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, and of course I think Solzhenitsyn belongs to that tradition—one, by the way, that is less concerned with creating fictional worlds out of nothing than with elucidating questions about the human soul and the ethical dilemmas of modern society, a tradition that makes no fundamental distinction between nonfiction and fiction. But there are real differences between Solzhenitsyn and Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. All of The Red Wheel, Solzhenitsyn's cycle of books on the sources of the Russian Revolution, is a response to Tolstoy. Tolstoy in War and Peace believed in historical fatalism, where things happen beyond human control. Solzhenitsyn really believed that human beings could make a difference, that there was nothing inevitable or inexorable about the Bolshevik Revolution, that human action, agency, and statesmanship could have made a difference.