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)


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.

The historical first quarter of the book deals with the origins of the system, the first major concentration camp of Solovki, and the extension of the system of extracting at minimum cost their labor from expendable human beings in the construction of the White Sea-Baltic Canal. One hundred thousand perished in this enterprise: when Solzhenitsyn visited the canal in 1962 it was virtually deserted. Such is the perfection of “socialist planning.”

The major part of the book deals with the camp system itself and, more widely and analytically than volume 1, with the interrelation between the forced labor system and the corrupt nature of Soviet life and government as a whole. It discusses life in the camp—the openly encouraged tyrannization of the “politicals” by the criminals, the particular problems faced by women, the “trusties,” meaning those “who managed not to share the common, foredoomed lot,” the punishment discipline, the hardships, the inhumanity. Chapter 19, “The Zeks as a Nation,” is a specially brilliant thirty-page essay, in the guise of an account by an imaginary explorer in a strange land, of the style of life and speech of the “zek,” or concentration camp inmate, in which Solzhenitsyn displays his irony and his insight at their best.

Solzhenitsyn is throughout preoccupied with the human side—the problem of adaptation, of survival, of those who struggled to preserve their integrity in the midst of the sordid, the corrupt, the brutal, and the vile. He is, indeed, throughout conscious of his mission to tell the truth on behalf of the millions who did not survive to do so. Hence the scrupulous respect for accuracy, the avoidance of overstatement, the citing of evidence (including much forgotten early Soviet evidence), the description of cases which he has himself investigated—all of which renders any doubt about the authenticity of the material assembled in this book unthinkable.

Toward the end he reflects over the significance of the entire horror of the Gulag experience both for those who suffered it and for those who remained outside. His own religious conversion has already been referred to. But not many had the strength of spirit to survive and to emerge spiritually enriched like Solzhenitsyn. For the country as a whole the epic of Gulag, swept under the carpet by officialdom, is much more than a shameful episode from the past (and far from over, as the efforts of Sakharov and the other brave voices from inside the Soviet Union now remind us). It is a living reality, a memory for some, a story for others; but ever-present and kept alive in the daily hypocrisy, deception, corruption, and moral depravity of so much of contemporary Soviet life. From first to last the work breathes moral indignation—at Lenin, at the sycophantic and dishonest authors (headed, of course, by the most venal writer in the history of Soviet literature, Maxim Gorky) who wrote down the official account of the White Sea Canal project knowing it to be all lies, and at the officials who carried out monstrous instructions.

But Solzhenitsyn also has high praise for those who succeeded in preserving their integrity to the end (normally their death) even in the camp—and indeed gets very near to stating that only those were corrupted inside who were already corrupt when they came in. This is hard to believe, but who are we to argue with him?

Not all of Gulag Two’s facts by any means will be familiar to Western historians, since many of them have been culled by meticulous and detailed questioning of survivors inside the USSR and by some archival material. (How did he get access to it?) Besides, even such facts as are familiar from the considerable concentration camp literature which exists take on a new vitality when put through the prism of Solzhenitsyn’s style—much as Gibbon’s prose will never be superseded by whole libraries of lesser writers’ accounts of the late Roman Empire. (It should, perhaps, be observed that Solzhenitsyn is not entirely free from the irritating tendency of so many Russian émigrés to dismiss all the work of Western historians of Soviet Russia—which, on the whole, has been one of the major achievements of modern historical scholarship—as little more than a regurgitation of Soviet propaganda.)

Solzhenitsyn has not been too well served in the past by the translators of his major works—on this subject readers may wish to refer to the meticulous analysis by Alexis Klimoff which will be found on pages 611-649 of the invaluable reference volume cited in footnote 4.

Of course, those who can read Gulag in the original will sympathize with the difficulties which face the translator—the irony, the superb use of words with mathematical precision, the slang. The use of camp slang, and of current Russian phrases which derive from camp slang, is not merely a device to add verisimilitude. It is Solzhenitsyn’s belief that the Russian language has been completely defiled by official expressions which are demanded of the Soviet writer, and which are false. This form of literature is quaintly called “socialist realism.” Hence, he writes (p. 489), “From the Thirties on, everything that is called our prose is merely the foam from a lake which has vanished underground. It is foam and not prose because it detached itself from everything that was fundamental in those decades.” Only camp slang can get back to those “fundamentals.”

Mr. Whitney’s translation certainly preserves the irony. He has taken most meticulous care over the slang, searching out the exact meanings which in numerous cases Solzhenitsyn leaves unexplained for his readers. If it sounds somewhat inappropriate at times (at any rate to an English reader), this may well be due to the fact that prison slang in the US or Britain does not fulfill the same role in the development of language as in the Soviet Union.

It is, I think, as a stylist that Mr. Whitney is least successful, and we would certainly not suspect from his version that we are discovering a writer of Russian prose of quite outstanding distinction. My impression throughout was that the translation is extremely accurate. The one chapter which I checked against the original confirmed this view. I found five mistranslations or inaccuracies, but only one is of any importance. This is the use of the term “vermin” for the Russian “tvarei” on page 601. “If these millions of helpless and pitiful vermin still did not put an end to themselves” etc.—whereas in the Russian Solzhenitsyn clearly writes “helpless and pitiful creatures,” the normal meaning of “tvar” in Russian, in which no (singularly inappropriate) tone of contempt is implied as it is implied by the word “vermin.” I repeat, this is an impression only. A much more detailed analysis, based on a complete comparison of texts, will no doubt be made in due course.


It is perhaps natural that some of those who were, or still are, devoted followers of the theories of Marx, and who are fully aware of the atrocities which have been committed in Russia and elsewhere in their name, should look to “betrayal” by Stalin as an answer, and idealize Lenin. Trotsky was a good example of this approach, though one need have no illusions about the kind of atrocities that Trotsky would have committed had he and not Stalin won in the contest for power in which he was so pitifully outwitted.

The case for Lenin is perhaps stronger. No historian who knows any of the facts could disagree with the view, now almost universally accepted, that Lenin created the instruments of rule (or misrule) which enabled Stalin to carry out his purposes. (Roy Medvedev in Let History Judge got very near to ignoring even this, which to my mind much reduces the value of a work which has many points of merit.) But it has sometimes been argued that Lenin had certain built-in moral restraints which would have stopped him from going to the lengths to which Stalin went. Not having observed these moral restraints during Lenin’s active life, I incline slightly more favorably to the argument that Lenin would not have needed to use so much violence as Stalin because he had moral authority, and Stalin had none.

The most convincing argument in Lenin’s favor is the one which is supported by Bukharin’s political credo. This is that Lenin toward the end of his life, when already disabled by his illness, virtually turned away from the system which he had created, though maintaining that “historical circumstances” had forced the Bolsheviks in 1917 into the un-Marxist policy of trying to build socialism before social conditions in the country were ripe for it. Lenin now, in 1922 and 1923, foresaw a long period of social peace and relaxation of force in order to build, by persuasion, not compulsion, the social conditions without which socialism could only end in tyranny. This view, if it is the correct interpretation of Lenin’s last thoughts, as Bukharin believed, was a complete reversal of his practice while he remained in full control of affairs up to the spring of 1922.

Roy Medvedev in his latest book, excellently translated and sensibly annotated, still seems to maintain the view (shared by Trotsky and his followers) that Lenin’s rule retained (while he was in power) the elements of “democracy” without which socialism is for Medvedev unthinkable.5 It is a view that I find difficult to reconcile with the known facts, before 1917 as well as after.

To Solzhenitsyn this entire discussion would, no doubt, appear pointless, since his whole approach to the problem of the just society is based not on the existence or absence of this or that safeguard or law or practice but on the moral beliefs and behavior of the individuals who make up that society. Let me try to summarize, as I see it, Solzhenitsyn’s faith, as it is now discernible from Gulag Two, as well as from such writings as his essays in the volume entitled From Under the Rubble, from his well-known “Letter to the Soviet Leaders,” and from a less well-known, only recently published omitted chapter of The First Circle.6

In the first place, it is central to Solzhenitsyn’s view that the evils associated with Stalin’s period of rule were inherent in the materialist doctrines associated with Marx and Lenin, and therefore were inherent from the start in the revolution of 1917. This was so for at least two reasons: first, that the doctrines of both Marx and Lenin were based on the false premise that the good society was prevented from coming into being only by the malevolence of certain individuals and classes who were the implacable enemies of the earthly Utopia, whose elimination was therefore the first essential step toward progress, and whose continued survival impeded that ever-elusive progress. (Although, so far as I know, Solzhenitsyn does not say so in his writings, the same premise underlay the Jacobin reign of terror.) And secondly, the fallacious belief that the nature of human life is determined wholly by external social and material factors. This message runs like a thread of scarlet through the terrifying pages of Gulag Two.

In truth, Solzhenitsyn argues (closely echoing Vekhi), the determining factor lies always within the individual; without his regeneration no improvement is ever possible in any society. In Russia this must take the form of “Repentance and Self-Limitation,” which is the substance of the title of one of the essays by Solzhenitsyn in From Under the Rubble—repentance for the past and self-limitation of future ambitions. The call for “repentance” has offended some of Solzhenitsyn’s Russian critics, who argue that the Russians have not necessarily inflicted more misery and suffering on others than, say, Germany or the great empires of the past. Solzhenitsyn does not dispute this, but argues that repentance is the necessary preliminary to moral regeneration.

The second call, for “self-limitation,” lies at the core of the much-criticized “Letter to the Soviet Leaders.” The idea that a nation should seek to improve the quality of its life by accepting voluntary limitations on economic growth and territorial expansion may well be criticized as idealistic rather than practical. But Solzhenitsyn might well retort that the more “practical” view has led to a threat of the destruction of our natural environment and indeed of life on our planet, thanks to the “marvels” of modern science.

Solzhenitsyn attaches the greatest importance of all to the rejection of the “rubble” of over fifty years of lies and falsehood, from under which some spiritual life is only now beginning here and there to emerge in Soviet Russia. The late Boris Pasternak was, in my opinion, the first to venture into the Herculean labor of what Confucius once called “the rectification of names”—the purification of the Russian language from the generations of abuse with which the propagandists and the literary hacks had polluted it. Dr. Zhivago was such an act of purification: the Soviet thought-policemen were quick to recognize its danger, even though, unlike Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn, Pasternak never attempted “whip in hand” to go over from defense to the attack.

The conclusion, in practical terms, which Solzhenitsyn draws for his fellow Soviet citizens is that the time has come for them to resist acceptance of official lies, to refuse cooperation with the authorities, and to struggle for the truth by all means open to them. This, he maintains in Gulag Two, was virtually impossible under Stalin, but is possible now. Solzhenitsyn does not call for martyrdom—our Greek word, which embodies the idea of “witness” by self-sacrifice, and which in the Russian equivalent is derived from the notion of “intense sufferings.” I think his call is far nearer to the traditional orthodox idea of podvizhnichestvo, the valiant and open performance of acts of faith, for the glory of the faith. He also contends that Russians should resist the temptation to emigrate and should stay on in order to carry on the good fight inside. (It will be recalled that Solzhenitsyn did not “emigrate,” but was arrested and forcibly put on the plane by seven KGB stalwarts.)

Solzhenitsyn’s fanatical demand for the podvizhnichestvo, which completely rejects emigration, has led him to criticize severely many Soviet émigrés who feel that their emigration was as much forced upon them by the repressions and threats of the Soviet authorities, which left them with no alternative, as Solzhenitsyn’s own departure from the Soviet Union. In the case of Soviet Jews, Solzhenitsyn has expressed sympathy with those who genuinely seek a new home in Israel and wish to be associated with Israel. But he has not concealed the fact that he regards the Soviet Jew who has no intention of settling in Israel, but uses his ostensible Zionism as a means of escaping from the Soviet Union to the United States or Europe, as one who has betrayed his duty as a Russian.

Solzhenitsyn’s counsel of uncompromising perfection has aroused a storm of hostile criticism both among the Russian émigrés and inside Russia. He has been accused of setting a standard which the ordinary Soviet citizen cannot reasonably be expected to follow; and he has been accused of hypocrisy in that, it is alleged, the standard which he demands of others is not the one which he strictly followed while he was in Russia. I regard it as well nigh indecent presumption for those of us who still live under the protection of the rule of law to discuss what those who live under arbitrary tyranny may or may not be expected to do in resisting it. I admire beyond measure the courage of those who do resist: I would never presume to condemn those who find that they are unable to do so.

But the allegation of hypocrisy seems to me, on the evidence, to be unfair. Nowhere does Solzhenitsyn suggest that he has not at times been subject to the weakness or lack of resistance which he condemns in others. In chapter 12 of part 3 in Gulag Two the reader will find a full and frank account of how the author was persuaded or outwitted into acting as an informer while in camp, though in fact he never did inform; and how he was saved from pressure to continue in KGB employment after he had left camp—since the KGB seldom, if ever, releases an agent once recruited—only by the genuine plea that he was in the throes of a dread disease (the cancer from which he, miraculously, recovered). In his autobiography recently published (in Russian) in Paris he does not spare himself in discussing the occasions when, in spite of his beliefs, he displayed a weakness toward the authorities which he later regretted.7

We shall understand nothing of Solzhenitsyn and of the Russian tradition to which he belongs if we persist in seeing him as a straightforward anti-communist for whom the destruction of communist rule would be the solution of all Russia’s problems. To go back to Vekhi again, a leading theme of these essays was the “apostasy”—as Struve called it (otshchepenstvo)—of the radical and socialist intellectuals who saw the destruction of the autocracy as the be all and end all of their aim. They had become “apostates” or “heretics,” living within a sick body which it was their duty to seek to heal and not merely to destroy. The tradition goes back much further, to Vladimir Soloviev, whose writings had a profound influence on the Vekhi authors. Writing in 1884 (on “Judaism and the Christian Question”) he stressed that the true prophet, both in the Jewish and in the Christian traditions, does not rise up in revolt against the spiritual and secular powers, but pursues these powers with his expositions and exhortations, and thereby carries out his true calling not by separating himself from his society, but by identifying with it.

Is it surprising that this strange and disturbing genius, who falls into none of the familiar twentieth-century patterns—anticommunist, democrat, even saint, who if a rare figure is still a recognizable one—should have aroused controversy and misunderstanding? For many he can be summed up as a “Slavophile”—but only for those whose sense of history is weak. Certainly, like the authors of Vekhi, Solzhenitsyn shares some beliefs with the Slavophiles of the mid-nineteenth century: orthodoxy, a belief in the importance of the Russian tradition, a critical attitude to the devoted materialism of Western civilization. Like the Slavophiles, he has been critical of the suitability of a democratic form of government for Russia—debating on this subject with Academician Sakharov, for whom, in spite of their quite different approaches to Russian problems, he entertains, or entertained when From Under the Rubble was published, the highest respect.

But there were two characteristics of the nineteenth-century Slavophiles which seem to me to be quite alien to Solzhenitsyn. While recognizing the importance of the distinctive nature of the Russian tradition, he does not display the Slavophile romantic and unhistorical veneration for the supposed virtues of the pre-Petrine tsars of Muscovy (as an article by Boris Shragin in a recent issue of this review somewhat unfairly, in my view, suggested).8 And secondly, while it is true that stress on the importance of legality, rule of law, and the like is a comparatively rare feature in his writings, it is certainly not the case that, like, say, K. S. Aksakov, he dismisses all law as something formal, Germanic, alien to the Russian soul, as something which would destroy the mutual trust which should exist between tsar and people. This was an important part of Slavophile faith.

Solzhenitsyn, in his autobiography, expresses something bordering on contempt for the importance which Valery Chalidze attaches to the exercise of constant pressure on the Soviet authorities to force them to observe their own law.9 Besides, whatever admiration he may ever have felt for this courageous young man has been finally extinguished by Chalidze’s emigration to the US, which for Solzhenitsyn is the sin that cannot be forgiven. This extreme intolerance toward some of those who genuinely try to work for improvement in the Soviet regime has made Solzhenitsyn many enemies both within and outside the Soviet Union. As one who is not involved, I cannot but regret it. But not having been through the experiences which Solzhenitsyn has been through I find it impossible to judge, let alone condemn, him when he seems, at times, unable to concede that there may be ways of resisting the evils of communist rule which are not his ways.

Yet on occasions Solzhenitsyn has openly recognized the vital importance of the rule of law in any society. In “The Law Today,” an extract from the forthcoming third volume of Gulag Archipelago of which he authorized advance publication, he strongly criticizes the hypocritical façade of laws, courts, and decrees behind which the Soviet authorities exercise their completely arbitrary rule.10 If he stresses this theme much less than such authors as Sakharov or Chalidze, it is because for him the primary emphasis always remains the moral regeneration of the individuals who form a society, in the first instance, by the rejection of the lie which Soviet life tries to force upon its citizens at all times.

A recent perceptive essay on the “neo-Slavophile” movement among Russian dissenters includes Solzhenitsyn in this group, without, of course, identifying him with its many and varied manifestations—such as often extreme anti-Semitism.11 This is not the place to refute in detail the slanderous and totally untrue allegation, which I have occasionally met with in addressing Jewish audiences, that Solzhenitsyn is “an anti-Semite.” Suffice it to say that the charge is not borne out by the evidence; and that Solzhenitsyn is fully alive both to the sufferings that Russians have inflicted on Jews and to the contribution which Jews have made to Russian culture.12 But Solzhenitsyn has in this respect suffered both from the ignorance of his accusers and from the sin by association, in certain respects, with some of the “neo-Slavophiles.”

Those who are determined to see Solzhenitsyn as an anti-Semite will no doubt be reinforced in their prejudices by the fact that in his rogues’ gallery of Gulag torturers Jews play a very prominent part. Is he to be blamed for recording a fact of history, when the evidence shows that a very disproportionately large number of Jews, until the Great Terror of the Thirties, did indeed serve in the ranks of the Soviet secret police? Incidentally, the single camp commandant whom Solzhenitsyn praises in this book is a Jew. I doubt whether Solzhenitsyn is more concerned with a man’s nationality than he is with his qualities as a human being. But then neither is he inhibited from asserting what he believes to be the case—that a Jewish Russian is different from an orthodox Russian, with centuries of Russian tradition behind him. But that is a long way from anti-Semitism.

It should be obvious by now that Solzhenitsyn’s philosophy is not easy to summarize, and is even harder to label. Undoubtedly, much of the difficulty of understanding him is accounted for by the fact that the language and terminology of his writing are usually quite out of harmony with the materialistic jargon of modern social analysis. Nor, as recent American audiences will have realized, is he much given to compromise or tact where principles which he believes in are involved. Not for him, therefore, the hypocrisies of Helsinki or the delusions of “détente” as they appear to him. At present his disillusionment with what he sees as the failure of the Western democratic systems to stand up for freedom and against tyranny is profound. As he wrote recently in reply to Western critics who accused him of lack of enthusiasm for the Western democratic system: “Thus, I have not only ‘not’ spoken out against Western freedom: I repeat, we prayed to it as our only hope. But now we see that for thirty years freedom itself has voluntarily yielded position after position to violence.”13

It is also true that his fanaticism often leads him to exaggeration, to overstressing communist gains since the end of the war, to an inability or unwillingness to recognize that there have been some gains in the cause of freedom, some resistance to creeping tyranny. Take, for example, his statement in the US in June on the Portuguese situation: “…these events are irreparable. Very shortly Portugal will be considered a member of the Warsaw pact.” Those who do not wish to see Portugal fall under communist rule are, understandably, apprehensive about the future of that country. But for Solzhenitsyn a communist victory is a foregone conclusion.

An uncomfortable man? Of course. But one whom we can ignore only at our peril, for his message is of vital relevance to our age, and he has suffered for the right to proclaim it. Clearly the time has not yet come to assess the importance and influence of a man who, I venture to predict, is destined to rank as one of the most remarkable human spirits of this generation, and certainly one of the few men of such stature who was born and has lived entirely within the Soviet period of Russia’s troubled history.


Before and After Solzhenitsyn January 22, 1976

Before & After Solzhenitsyn January 22, 1976

  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).

  5. 5

    Roy A. Medvedev, On Socialist Democracy, translated and edited by Ellen de Kadt (Knopf, 1975).

  6. 6

    The Russian text was published in Vestnik Russkogo Khristianskogo Dvizheniia, Paris, New York, Moscow, No. 114, 1974, p. 203.

  7. 7

    A. Solzhenitsyn, Bodalsia telenok s dubom (“How the calf butted against the oak tree”) (YMCA Press, Paris, 1975). It is much to be hoped that this work will be translated into English before long. Meanwhile, readers can refer to a long and full review of it by John B. Dunlop, in The Times Literary Supplement, London, April 11, 1975.

  8. 8

    New York Review, June 26, 1975.

  9. 9

    Valery Chalidze, To Defend These Rights: Human Rights and the Soviet Union (Random House, 1974).

  10. 10

    See The Times (London), February 13, 1974.

  11. 11

    John B. Dunlop, “The Eleventh Hour,” Frontier (London), Vol. 18, No. 2, 1975.

  12. 12

    For a well-documented discussion of the attitude to Jews in Solzhenitsyn’s writings, see Roman Rutman, “The Solzhenitsyn Question,” in Soviet Jewish Affairs (London), Vol. 4, No. 2, 1974.

  13. 13

    A. Solzhenitsyn, “The Artist as Witness,” Times Literary Supplement (London), May 23, 1975.