Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is almost a forgotten man, as much a relic of the Cold War as a broken bit of the Berlin Wall. He is also one of the most important writers of the twentieth century, and has had more direct influence on politics than any other author since Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
When I was in college in the 1960s, Marxism was considered a viable, even worthy, successor to liberal democracy. Che Guevara and Mao Tse-tung were heroes to many of my peers. I recall one weekend seminar when the political union at my university discussed what would happen “after the revolution.” We all took it for granted that the overthrow of capitalism was inevitable. But the publication of The Gulag Archipelago in the early 1970s sounded Marxism’s death knell. Solzhenitsyn showed with stunning clarity how Marx’s ideas would cause Communism to slide inevitably into totalitarianism. It is no coincidence that after Solzhenitsyn’s revelations were published, the once-powerful Communist Parties of Western Europe lost their rank and file; intellectuals, especially in France, abandoned hope of radically reforming political life and moved on to literary criticism; and voters in Germany, France, Great Britain, and the United States elected the most fiercely anti-Communist leaders of the Cold War era.
Solzhenitsyn gets almost no credit for these achievements, either in the popular press or in intellectual circles. He has been called a religious fanatic similar to the Ayatollah Khomeini, an anti-Semite, and a Russian nationalist blind to the merits of the West. And since the collapse of Communism, which Solzhenitsyn helped engineer, the world’s most controversial writer has suffered another kind of ignominy: neglect. His writings have largely been ignored as Russia—along with the rest of the world—plunged headlong into an exuberant materialism to reap the profits made available by the opening of global markets.
Joseph Pearce’s Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile and Daniel J. Mahoney’s Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The Ascent from Ideology prompt us neither to neglect nor misconstrue Solzhenitsyn’s ideas even in the post-Communist world.
Pearce’s biography is not as comprehensive as Michael Scammell’s out-of-print 1984 opus, Solzhenitsyn: A Biography. But it is more probing, largely because Pearce, a writer whose previous work includes biographies of J.R.R. Tolkien and G.K. Chesteron, was able to interview Solzhenitsyn and his sons. A Soul in Exile highlights the extraordinary genius of Solzhenitsyn, recounting how he committed huge sections of The Gulag Archipelago to memory, fearing that a written version could be seized by the secret police. Pearce describes Solzhenitsyn’s superhuman stamina—he often wrote for two eight-hour stretches per day, sleeping only a few hours between sessions. Solzhenitsyn’s vast literary output seems to have been aimed not only at destroying the Soviet Union but also at rewriting Russian history in order to counter the widely accepted scholarly view that Soviet totalitarianism was more the result of the Russian national character than of Communist ideology.
Pearce demonstrates how many of Solzhenitsyn’s much-derided predictions prior to the fall of Communism have come true. Solzhenitsyn anticipated that Communism would disintegrate, that the criminal element nurtured in the Gulag would take control of Russia’s economy, that members of the KGB and the criminal elements were actually the same people, and that it would take 100 years for Russia to recover from Communism. Soviet experts in the West scoffed at these prognostications. Who’s laughing now?
Most important of all, Pearce argues that Solzhenitsyn’s highest goal in his writing was not political, but spiritual. Solzhenitsyn provokes people to consider their moral responsibilities to others and their personal responsibility for the development of their souls.
The Pearce biography includes lovely prose poems that Solzhenitsyn wrote after his return to Russia. The poems give us a glimpse of old age and of a personal reconciliation with death. It is almost as if Solzhenitsyn’s body is in this world, but his spirit is reaching to experience the next.
Pearce argues that Solzhenitsyn’s views derive almost exclusively from Christianity. Yet, in The First Circle, Solzhenitsyn portrays himself—in the character of Gleb Nerzhin—not as a Christian, but as a Socratic. Nerzhin even calls himself a student of Socrates. He asks everybody “What is…?” questions. Although he admires people of faith, Nerzhin does not seem to share their views. Furthermore, in the central part of the central book of the Gulag, Solzhenitsyn tells the story of a camp inmate who pretends to be a religious fanatic because it frightens Communist authorities. Solzhenitsyn then asks rhetorically if this is not the proper way to combat Communism. What would a Socratic do when confronted with the evil of the 20th century? In his one public appearance, Socrates regularly makes reference to religion and religious symbols. He swears by Zeus within the first few lines of the Apology. Solzhenitsyn’s “philosophic” writings refer to Machiavelli, Hobbes, Rousseau, Marx, and Nietzsche, but nowhere does he rest his political analysis on the authority of the Bible.
Daniel Mahoney’s Ascent from Ideology gives a broader view of Solzhenitsyn’s principles and places them somewhere, as it were, between Athens and Jerusalem. Mahoney shows that although Solzhenitsyn may be a Russian nationalist, his views derive from a deep understanding of the philosophic roots of Western culture. Mahoney demonstrates that Solzhenitsyn’s most forceful criticisms of the West—made not long after America’s defeat in Vietnam—were not meant to undermine but rather to strengthen its resolve to defend its highest aspirations.
The scholarship in Ascent From Ideology is meticulous and superb. A professor of political philosophy at Assumption College whose previous books include studies of Pierre Manent and Charles de Gaulle, Mahoney is well versed in what might be called “the Solzhenitsyn debate,” carried out in French- and English-language academic journals. With the help of Alexis Klimoff—Solzhenitsyn’s confidant and translator—he displays an impressive command of the intricacies of contemporary Russian intellectual thought. Mahoney argues that Solzhenitsyn’s writings have continuing and universal relevance in the contemporary world. Far from being a vestige of the Cold War, Solzhenitsyn’s work is a reminder of all that is moral, prudent, and noble in the human spirit.
Of particular merit is Mahoney’s chapter on Pyotr Stolypin, prime minister of Russia from 1906 until 1911, who might be called the “hero” of Solzhenitsyn’s Red Wheel. Stolypin, a liberal who nevertheless admired Russia’s ancient culture, attempted to reform his nation’s semi-feudal political and economic practices while at the same time preserving the old customs and habits that were the bonds tying Russian society together. Stolypin was the only Russian statesman who understood the delicate balance between the old and the new—between conservation and change. His assassination led to the fall of the Tsar, the victory of Bolshevism, and the murder of millions of innocent people crushed under the relentless and inhuman Red Wheel.
Had Solzhenitsyn been the kind of man who cherished popularity, he would have paid a heavy price for insisting that human beings have souls and that the soul is more valuable than any material possessions. He certainly has been excoriated for attacking Western materialism, and for urging the proper use of freedom. Not long after the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, however, the media reported that stores were empty; Americans just did not feel like shopping. Yet churches were full; people claimed that they had been confronted with their own mortality, some for the first time. Within a short time after the attack, all the people I know called their loved ones. Perhaps they called because, as Socrates once argued, love is one of the soul’s connections to the eternal.