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.
He was probably closer to Dostoyevsky in his great themes, although I'd say, contrary to a certain legend that developed in the West, Solzhenitsyn was much friendlier to the West and the cause of political liberty than Dostoyevsky.
Can you elaborate on that misconception? When he came to the United States after being expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974, many Americans and others were taken aback by what they thought were harsh criticisms of the West—and these coming from a man who had been such a brilliant exposer of the Soviet system and the communist lie.
You know, I've always been struck when people characterize something like the Harvard address, delivered at the Harvard University commencement on June 8, 1978, as anti-western jeremiad. Solzhenitsyn began that speech by saying that he spoke as a friend but not as a flatterer of the West. He had great admiration for its people and its institutions, but he also worried about its capacity to defend itself. He worried about a diminution of civic courage. He worried about the indulgence of some intellectuals toward communist totalitarianism. He worried about hasty, superficial judgments made by journalists—and that really rankled some of the commentators.
But the speech was fundamentally a call for the strengthening of the moral and intellectual resources of the West. For example, he said that the American Founders understood that liberty could never be severed from what he called the great reserves of mercy and sacrifice in the western religious and philosophical traditions. He criticized what he called "anthropocentricity," the worship of man, the forgetting of the older spiritual, political roots of the West. So I think a lot of the reaction to the Harvard address was knee-jerk. He received tens of thousands of appreciative letter from Americans for whom the speech resonated, but I think it's fair to say that he was criticized roundly by intellectuals, particularly on the left. In a piece he wrote in Foreign Affairs around that time, Solzhenitsyn said, "I thought Americans welcomed criticism, and now I realize American intellectuals only welcome criticism from the Left."
When he went back to Russia in the 1990s, many observers in the West thought he might be encouraging some of the worst Russian tendencies toward autocracy, a typical Russian Orthodox intolerance of other religions, even anti-Semitism. Some charged that he was pushing Russia in the direction of what it became under [former president] Vladimir Putin, a Russia in which liberty and democracy were endangered and imperial tendencies were reawakened.
Almost none of that is true. The fact is Solzhenitsyn's fundamental message to Russia upon his return was the importance of repentance and self-limitation. One of his great essays from the 1970s was called "Repentance and Self-Limitations in the Life of Nations." Solzhenitsyn was a patriot, but for him patriotism meant turning inward and renouncing all mad designs of conquest and expansion. Repentance meant repenting for people's personal participation in the "Lie," for the collaboration with and support of the lies and crimes of the communist regime.
He was the first one in Russia to denounce the oligarchy, the pseudo-democracy that arose after 1991. Nothing in his texts and speeches from that time gives support to the caricature. His principal political point, beginning in a series of books from 1991 on, was the importance of local self-government and building such government from below. In his very last speech to the people of Cavendish, Vt., where he lived for 18 years in American exile, he spoke about the American example of local self-government as a model for Russia. He concluded that talk in 1994 by saying, "Unfortunately, we do not have this in Russia, and that is still our greatest shortcoming."
It is true that he was troubled by a corrupt, oligarchic, kleptocratic pseudo-democracy, and it is true that he welcomed a certain social restoration after 2000 and 2001. But he always made clear, most recently in an interview with German television, that what Russia has today is no democracy and that the task of building political self-government is yet to come.
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 Miniatures and The Trail 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.