It would not be possible to stare down the Soviet Union for as long as Alexander Solzhenitsyn had without deep personal courage. When he died in August this year, he had out-lived the regime that imprisoned him by nearly two decades.
For nearly thirty years, Solzhenitsyn was Russian communism’s most prominent dissident – in the meantime becoming a target of both Soviet propaganda and the KGB. But at the same time, Solzhenitsyn was no classical liberal. His reputation has been tainted by accusations – some accurate, and some overblown – of anti-Semitism and Russian nationalism.
Solzhenitsyn’s career as a dissident began in 1945, when, as a captain of artillery serving in World War II, he was arrested for the terrible crime of belittling Stalin. He spent the subsequent eight years in labour and prison camps, followed by a forced exile in southern Kazakhstan, the standard fate for released gulag prisoners.
It was during this period in Kazakhstan that Solzhenitsyn wrote the book for which is his most famous – One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. One Day, published in 1962, is a short novel describing a prisoner’s struggle for survival in the Soviet gulag during a single day.
The book had an enormous impact in Russia and the West. After reading One Day, Nikita Khrushchev was moved to say ‘There’s a Stalinist in each of you; there’s even a Stalinist in me. We must root out this evil’. In the modestly liberal and politically complicated environment of the Khrushchev thaw, One Day was even assigned as a school textbook.
But the Khrushchev Thaw was short-lived – One Day ended up being the only book published in the Soviet Union that defied the official party line about the labour camps. Solzhenitsyn quickly fell out of favour with the regime when he tried to publish two further works – Cancer Ward, which chronicled his battle with cancer during his exile, and the monumental Gulag Archipelago, which chronicles his experience in the labour camps and the experience of others. In 1974, Solzhenitsyn was exiled again, this time entirely from the Soviet Union, four years after he had been awarded a Nobel Prize for Literature.
Despite his staunch anti-communism, it would not be possible to describe Solzhenitsyn’s political view as ‘liberal’-rather, his conception of the ideal nation was based on a romantic conservatism. After having been granted asylum in the United States, he famously criticised Western culture for being too legalistic, too materialistic, and obsessed with a ‘destructive and irresponsible freedom’.
But much more critically, he was dogged in the last few decades of his life by accusations of anti-Semitism – accusations which his Two Hundred Years Together, published in Russia in 2003, that purported to chronicle the complicity of Jews in Soviet repression, did nothing to dispel. And in his final years, Solzhenitsyn was conspicuously silent on the state of human rights under Putin, neglecting to criticise the same sort of transgressions of the new regime that he had opposed so vehemently a few decades before.
But none of this diminishes the courage and importance of Solzhenitsyn’s Soviet-era writing. The following passage from the Gulag Archipelago, where he demands his former captors face up to their crimes, could just as easily work as his epitaph:
But let us be generous. We will not shoot them. We will not pour salt water into them, nor bury them in bedbugs, nor bridle them up into a ‘swan dive,’ nor keep them on sleepless ‘stand-up’ for a week, nor kick them with jackboots, nor beat them with rubber truncheons, nor squeeze their skulls with iron rings, nor push them into a cell so that they lie atop one another like pieces of baggage-we will not do any of the things they did! But for the sake of our country and our children we have the duty to seek them all out and bring them all to trial! Not to put them on trial so much as their crimes. And to compel each one of them to announce loudly: ‘Yes, I was an executioner and a murderer.’