The Legacy of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

An American scholar talks about the famed Russian author.

By + More

What are Solzhenitsyn's best works from the period after his return to Russia?

Solzhenitsyn wrote a series of prose poems, which he titled Miniatures, that are kind of elegiac meditations on death, life, suffering. They are not explicitly political, though they sometimes have a political backdrop. He wrote a group of them many years before his exile, in the late Fifties and early Sixties, and he wrote quite a few upon his return to Russia. It's just a different Solzhenitsyn, not the one of legend but a powerful poet and writer, spiritually sensitive, reflecting on the mysteries of life. One of my favorites is "A Prayer for Russia," where he simply prays that Russia can come out of her time of troubles and find some decent, normal existence. There is also a little-known early work that we published in The Solzhenitsyn Reader, a work called The Trail. It's an autobiographical narrative poem that Solzhenitsyn wrote without pen and paper in the camps. He memorized it on rosary beads. And it's the account of how Solzhenitsyn became Solzhenitsyn. From the young, dogmatic Marxist getting up early in the morning to read [Marx's] Das Kapital on his honeymoon to his arrest, incarceration, and spiritual rediscovery, it's a kind of deep self-criticism, very moving, very beautiful.

One of my hopes is that some of those writings—the early writings from the camps and some of the later writings after his return to Russia—become more available in the United States. They are in France and Germany, but less so here.

But they are in your book.

Some of them are—the M iniatures and The Tra il and others. We tried to make some of the new and old Solzhenitsyn available. I've noticed since Solzhenitsyn's death that a lot of the discussions and characterizations have a very dated quality. Friends and foes alike speak as though it's the summer of 1975. People's judgments of Solzhenitsyn are based on old texts or old prejudices rather than the totality of his writings and the remarkable consistency of his thought over a 60-year period. So the conception of Solzhenitsyn as an increasingly embittered Slavophile, an intolerant Orthodox believer, and a champion of growing autocracy is a gross misrepresentation of the man in the last chapter of his life?

Absolutely. And it's held by people who have never read any of his books or other writings for the last 30 years. It's a kind of mantra, a kind of ideological slogan. Furthermore, people hurl that label Slavophile at him as though it's a bad thing. Slavophiles were liberal, humane, and antidespotic. Solzhenitsyn was a Christian, and he was a patriot. He was also a kind of an isolationist, a kind of a Green, a small-is-beautiful guy. That's his model, not modern, technocratic capitalism, and it has nothing to do with imperialism or any intrinsic hostility to the West.