Solzhenitsyn: A Biography
by Michael Scammell
Norton, 1051 pp., $29.95
A century and a half ago the Russian thinker Piotr Chaadayev, reflecting on the contrast between his backward, despotic country and the flourishing cultures of its European neighbors, suggested that the entire purpose of Russian history might be to provide the world with some important lesson yet to be deciphered. Since then, successive generations of messianically inclined Russian thinkers and writers have discovered compensating virtues in their country’s anomalous development; but Western Europe has had far too many messiahs of its own to be impressed by the claims of Russian Christianity or Russian socialism to be the future inspiration for mankind. Yet when Alexander Solzhenitsyn arrived in Europe in 1974 with a new version of the lessons of Russian history, he was greeted with rapt attention: his apocalyptic tone expressed the spirit of the times. Homegrown messiahs were scarce, and none had Solzhenitsyn’s combination of artistic genius and moral stature. For these and other less honorable reasons the press and television throughout Europe and North America seized on his message of repentance with uncharacteristic reverence, and without inquiring too closely into its sources.
The pendulum soon swung the other way: it became obvious, even to his more devoted admirers, that Solzhenitsyn’s diagnosis of the diseases of modern societies was short on facts and strong on denunciation, and that his knowledge of politics and history was weak. There is now increasing agreement among the European and American intelligentsia that his preaching has done his reputation great harm and that he would be better advised to devote his energies to the one field in which he is incontestably a master—literature. We may need prophets, but we like them to have a reassuring grasp of complex problems: we are extremely wary of being taken in by cranks.
Unfortunately for Solzhenitsyn, the kinds of specialists we recognize do not include the variety to which he belongs, which has a respectable tradition behind it in Russia: the artist as preacher. Had Dostoevsky arrived in the West with his diagnosis of the malaise of modern culture, the advice currently being offered to Solzhenitsyn would no doubt have been offered to him. But Dostoevsky was writing for an audience which, in the absence of a free press or any other public forum for the discussion of social issues, believed that it was the duty of the artist to comment on the state of society and provide moral guidance for the future. While the social and political ideas expressed in his novels and in Diary of a Writer were often denounced, his critics never argued that he had exceeded his brief as a writer, or that his personal political views disqualified him from his role as a moralist.
Solzhenitsyn’s involuntary exile has provided him with an audience that, after its initial adulation, has made it clear that it regards what he sees as his central function as peripheral, superfluous, or even irreconcilable with his art. At a historical remove, Dostoevsky’s achievement in …