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Disturbing, Fanatical, and Heroic

The Gulag Archipelago Two 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, Parts III-IV

by Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, translated by Thomas P. Whitney
Harper & Row, 712 pp., $2.50 (paper)

I

There are times, in my opinion, when one has to lower the tone, take the whip into one’s hands not just to defend oneself, but in order to go into the attack in a much cruder manner”—so wrote Dostoevsky to Strakhov, over a hundred years ago, when embarking on The Possessed. I am not here concerned with the relative literary stature of Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn, though the comparison between the two writers is made from time to time. Nor am I concerned with comparing the monumental Gulag Archipelago, of which the second volume has now appeared in English translation, with The Possessed, by considering the relative achievement of each work in teaching us to realize the evil that men do to each other in the name of ideals, or obsessions, such as “socialism” or “revolution.”

But there is one striking parallel between the two works which is very relevant to my discussion: neither is concerned with economics or with the class struggle or with “social forces” (whatever these may be), which have become the accepted language of so many of us who have written about revolutions since Feuerbach and Marx created a new language for us. Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn are concerned with unfashionable matters, so embarrassing to modern man, like sin and God and repentance. They see problems in terms of what goes on inside men, not in the environment outside them. Small wonder that Solzhenitsyn has aroused such indignation not only in the ranks of the KGB and its numerous allies, which was to be expected; but, more surprisingly, among many of those who disapprove of the evils of communist rule as much as he does, and have themselves suffered as much from it, but who use a different language when they attempt to describe it.

In many ways the present episode in Russian intellectual history takes us back to the year 1909, and the publication of a short volume of essays entitled Landmarks (Vekhi). The seven authors of this volume included former Marxists, like P. B. Struve and S. L. Frank, and other leading intellectuals and historians. The theme that bound these disparate thinkers together was their merciless exposure of the failure of the Russian intelligentsia, of whom, of course, the authors were leading members, to realize that in their pursuit of false and abstract materialistic political aims, they were leading the country to a disaster for which they would all be to blame.

Although the views of the seven authors are widely different in many respects (a fact which makes this volume of essays, nearly seventy years later, still one of the most stimulating products of the Russian intellect), the basic thought common to all of them was well defined in the preface by M. Gershenzon. This was, he wrote, “the recognition of the primacy both in theory and in practice of spiritual life over the outward forms of society, in the sense that the inner life of the individual…and not the self-sufficing elements of some political order is the only solid basis for every social structure.”

The scandal caused by the publication of Landmarks will scarcely seem credible to those unfamiliar with the intellectual life of pre-revolutionary Russia. The volume ran into five editions in a short time. It provoked violent attacks from the Kadets, from the socialist revolutionaries, and from innumerable individuals. The leader of the Kadets, P. N. Miliukov, toured Russia in order to denounce Vekhi at a series of public meetings. Lenin wrote a particularly obtuse attack on the volume, which probably in part explains the book’s popularity today among the unofficial Soviet intelligentsia as well as the regular attacks on it by the Soviet establishment.1

This account of the past is not merely of historical interest. It is very relevant to understanding the intellectual position of Solzhenitsyn. Indeed, in a recently published essay Solzhenitsyn draws explicitly, and with approval, on the position enunciated so dramatically by the authors of Vekhi. This essay, entitled “The Smatterers,” has recently been published in English in a volume entitled From Under the Rubble.2 As Max Hayward points out in an illuminating introduction (which one could have wished a good deal longer), the very title suggests a reminiscence of a second volume published in Moscow by some of the Vekhi authors in 1918, and immediately suppressed (it was called De Profundis, of which the Russian is “Iz glubiny,” which echoes “Iz pod glyb,” the Russian title of the recent volume). In his essay “The Smatterers” (one of his three contributions to the volume), Solzhenitsyn analyzes Vekhi with praise and understanding, and indeed the central theme of Vekhi—that solutions to man’s problems do not lie in systems or in the elimination of enemies, but in the moral position of individuals—is the core of Solzhenitsyn’s faith. Without understanding this one cannot appreciate the significance of Gulag Archipelago.

His faith is summed up by Solzhenitsyn when, toward the end of the second volume (pp. 615-616), he records the lesson which he learned from his life in camp:

Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts….

Since then I have come to understand the truth of all the religions of the world: they struggle with the evil inside a human being (inside every human being). It is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it within each person.

And since that time I have come to understand the falsehood of all the revolutions in history: they destroy only those carriers of evil contemporary with them (and also fail, out of haste, to discriminate the carriers of good as well). And they then take to themselves as their heritage the actual evil itself, magnified still more.

This is, incidentally, also the faith of a whole group of samizdat intellectuals inside Russia for whom Solzhenitsyn is now the free spokesman, notably G. Pomerants, who writes in a fairly recent essay: “The most important movement now is within the system, from the letter to the spirit, and not just a simple change of symbols—such as, ‘we have exchanged Marxism for Christian orthodoxy, so now we need worry no more.’ “3

Indeed the importance of the second volume of Gulag Archipelago is that one of its main objects is to reveal how Solzhenitsyn’s present faith evolved during his sojourn in the concentration camps.

An enormous intellectual era separates the publication of the two volumes in English. Volume 1 appeared very soon after Solzhenitsyn’s dramatic expulsion from his native Russia, from which he had never contemplated voluntary emigration (slanderous rumors to the contrary, spread by the KGB, notwithstanding). It was written and hidden in Russia, but copies were safely preserved abroad. Publication was only authorized by Solzhenitsyn after the KGB had managed to secure the copy hidden in Russia, driving an innocent woman to suicide in the process. Volume 1, which dealt with Solzhenitsyn’s original arrest and confinement in the camps of the Soviet Far East, was—as everyone knows—one of the most harrowing and vivid accounts ever written of human suffering and degradation. It destroyed once and for all, if only by the white heat of its sincerity, any lingering suspicion that any honest person might have had (I ignore the intellectual streetwalkers who only believe what they consider it profitable to believe) that the many accounts already available of Stalin’s regime might have been exaggerated.

In the interval between English volumes 1 and 2 a vast literature has grown up on the subject of one of the most extraordinary geniuses of our time. He himself has published extensively—lectures, interviews, broadcasts, an autobiography. He has become the most vocal opponent of the United States policy called “détente,” and his activity culminated with a visit to the US on the eve of the Helsinki Conference during which Dr. Kissinger’s advice to the president not to receive Solzhenitsyn for fear of offending the Soviet authorities may yet prove to have done more to expose the more humiliating and illusory aspects of so-called “détente” than the millions of words spoken and written on this policy of the Nixon era which has survived the downfall of Nixon.

However, the influence of Solzhenitsyn on United States policy is a separate and fascinating issue on which it would not be right to digress here, but which will, I very much hope, be the subject of serious study before very long. What concerns us here is the new illumination which volume 2 of Gulag throws on the political philosophy of Solzhenitsyn, in the context of the enormous amount of new material which has seen the light of day since volume 1 became known to the world at large.4 And, closely connected with this question, the importance of Solzhenitsyn in modern Russian intellectual history—meaning, of course, the storm of discussion which Solzhenitsyn has raised both among émigré intellectuals and among samizdat writers inside Russia. The reactions of the KGB hacks are predictable and of no particular interest, except as a source of disinformation spread by numerous KGB agents in the noncommunist world.

Let me remind readers that the term “second volume” is somewhat misleading. There are in fact seven volumes in the Russian text. The first two of these were published in English translation as volume 1 last year. The present volume 2 consists of volumes three and four of the Russian text, published in Paris last year. The last three volumes, due to appear in Russian in Paris very shortly, will eventually form volume 3 of a forthcoming English edition.

Volume 2 of Gulag is in only a limited sense a sequel to volume 1: it is rather a continuation of the main purposes of the whole work—to tell the awful story of an epoch in Russian history which must never be forgotten, and to pay the moral debt owed to the great majority who did not survive by one who did. Readers of volume 1 will not require to be told that it is written with the same white heat of emotion, that its harrowing descriptions achieve heights of the descriptive writer’s art which have rarely been equaled, let alone excelled. Much of the work is necessarily historical, since one of its main objectives is to show that the concentration camp and its horrors, the brutality, the cynical exploitation of human misery, and the trampling on the elements of justice, stem from Lenin and were only developed on a larger scale by Stalin. The exposure of Lenin as the true author of “Stalinism,” though by no means new to those familiar with the works of Western historians of the past thirty years, has proved a sensitive and controversial issue among Solzhenitsyn’s Soviet and émigré critics.

  1. 1

    For a full discussion of the contents and impact of Vekhi see my “The Vekhi Group and the Mystique of Revolution,” The Slavonic & East European Review, London, December 1955 (Vol. 34, No. 82). Most of the essays have been published in an English translation during the last few years in the Canadian Review of Slavic Studies.

  2. 2

    A. Solzhenitsyn and others, From Under the Rubble, (Little, Brown, 1975).

  3. 3

    G. Pomerants, Neopublikovannoe, (Frankfurt, 1972), p. 333, footnote.

  4. 4

    For an excellent anthology of critical essays on Solzhenitsyn and his work, and much bibliographical detail, see Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: Critical Essays and Documentary Materials, edited by John B. Dunlop, Richard Haugh, Alexis Klimoff, second edition (Collier Books, 1974).

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