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The Path of a Prophet

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 explaining modern European man to himself is not questioned; but if Solzhenitsyn’s gloomier predictions are right, there will be no distant future to judge him. Angered and frustrated by his reception, Solzhenitsyn is clearly not going to adapt his message to European or American sensibilities. If the present dialogue of the deaf is to be replaced by something more constructive, it is the intelligentsia of the West who will have to make the first move: to approach Solzhenitsyn with a greater understanding of the tradition of thought and writing, as well as the personal experiences, which gave him his sense of mission and his claim to moral authority. Michael Scammell’s biography—the first work on Solzhenitsyn likely to reach substantially beyond the tiny minority of Russian specialists—is perhaps a first sign of a more general tendency in that direction.

Numerous biographical fragments on Solzhenitsyn have appeared since his arrival in the West, but their intention has been polemical rather than informative. His own memoir The Oak and the Calf, dealing with his battles with the Soviet authorities over the decade preceding his expulsion, was conceived partly as a counterblast to official attempts to discredit him, partly to provide a model of action for his compatriots, and presents an idealized hero whose cunning, courage, and foresight in dealing with his opponents are contrasted with the ideological and personal deficiencies of his allies among the intelligentsia. Not surprisingly it has been followed by a stream of countermemoirs which have painted a picture of Solzhenitsyn with a distinct resemblance to the hero of his Lenin in Zurich; inflexible and self-centered, with a supreme contempt for feelings and aspirations which he does not share. The debate about Solzhenitsyn’s personality and ideas is also a debate about the nature and origins of the Soviet regime, and, as sectarian squabbles proliferate, stereotypes are reinforced and reality is increasingly overlaid by myth.

In the preface to his biography, Scammell predicts that his book will antagonize all parties in the debate through its demythologizing approach, whose emphasis is on explanation rather than judgment. He appears to have alienated his subject at an early stage: he reports without comment that he had Solzhenitsyn’s collaboration and support only on those chapters dealing with his early life. But this has no obvious negative effects on the later part of the work, which draws heavily on Solzhenitsyn’s documentation, in The Gulag Archipelago, of the crucial events in his life. The absence of Solzhenitsyn’s guiding hand contributes to the book’s main strength—the multiplicity of perspectives which are brought to bear on his personality.

The fervor of Solzhenitsyn’s belief in his moral mission was the fervor of a convert. Unlike Pasternak or Akhmatova, who had learned their craft when Russian writers universally believed themselves to be the conscience of their society, Solzhenitsyn, born in 1918, was reared in the belief that the state was the sole guardian of morality and that conformity was the highest virtue. His widowed mother had to conceal the stigma of her origins as the daughter of a rich landowner in order to scratch a living for herself and her only child, and the smattering of Christian ritual together with stories about the old regime which he acquired from relatives could not compete with the revolutionary optimism of the 1920s. By the time that Solzhenitsyn entered the university of Ryazan to study mathematics, he was by his own account “enthralled” by Marxism. Lenin was his hero, the Party his father, and his main ambition (he had decided to become a writer at the age of ten) was to write a novel of the October Revolution. When he married a fellow student, Natalia Reshetovskaya, he read Das Kapital on his honeymoon.

Although Solzhenitsyn claims that he and his friends were oblivious, at the height of Stalin’s terror, to the plague around them, he began to sense himself out of step with the spirit of bureaucratic conservatism that characterized Stalin’s rule. Discussions on this subject with a university friend were resumed when the two met on the battlefront in 1943 and resulted in a secret manifesto in which they expressed their dissatisfaction with the stifling effects of Stalinism and called for the foundation of a new party on pure Leninist principles. Though they kept their manifesto to themselves, the pair took the hopelessly naive step of expressing their views in their private correspondence. The result was Solzhenitsyn’s arrest in 1945, followed by eleven years of prison and exile.

In The Gulag Archipelago Solzhenitsyn describes the strange feeling of reluctance that overcame him on his release from camp: “I came almost to love that monstrous world.” It gave him two things denied to the citizens on the other side of the barbed wire: a sense of his national roots and a consciousness of personal autonomy. The first he acquired in the transit camps and in the prison institute where he spent three years of his sentence, in conversations with members of the pre-Revolutionary intelligentsia or former émigrés who told him of currents in Russian literature, art, and thought, of which he had known nothing. His interest in pre-Revolutionary Russian history, and his study of traditional popular speech, dated from those years. The second acquisition was made at the point when, abandoning the desire to survive at any price, he lost his sense of fear. This process began with a feeling of self-disgust after the instinct for survival had made him agree to act as an informer. The awareness began to dawn that he had committed acts no less despicable in the years when, convinced of his infallibility as an instrument in the class war, he had come perilously close to being recruited into the secret police.

With this came the discovery that “the line separating good from evil passes not through states or between political parties but through each human heart.” Solzhenitsyn adopted the Christian ethic, with its emphasis on repentance, and began to formulate the “mission” that would inspire all his mature works: to document the history of the camps as a monument to those who died there and as an indictment of the system that had created them, and to explore the origin and nature of the Russian revolution—all with the aim of provoking the self-examination through which alone, he believed, the nation could purify itself.

Solzhenitsyn’s sentence was followed by three years of exile in Kazakhstan, where he lived austerely, teaching science in a local school and writing. His recovery from cancer was interpreted by him as a miracle, and as a sign that the life restored to him was built around a purpose. He was released in 1956, and left in the following year with Reshetovskaya to settle in Ryazan, where again he worked as a science teacher and, with enormous self-discipline and elaborate secrecy, devoted every free moment to writing the works he had committed to memory in the camps, while laying the groundwork for the two novels based on his prison experiences, his ambitious series of novels starting from the First World War, and The Gulag Archipelago. In November 1962 the obscure provincial schoolmaster became, in the words of Anna Akhmatova, “the most famous man on earth” when the journal Novy Mir published A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

As Scammell observes, the story of the publication of Ivan Denisovich has acquired new embellishments with each retelling. Scammell’s attempt to disentangle fact from fiction in these events, and their even more extraordinary sequel ending with Solzhenitsyn’s expulsion twelve years later, is scrupulously detailed and takes up more than half of this very long book; but it was well worth the effort. His lucid account places Solzhenitsyn’s personal duel with the Soviet regime in its essential context: the seesawing fortunes of writers and intelligentsia in the era which began with the euphoria after Khrushchev’s celebrated speech in 1956 and was finally buried with the invasion of Czechoslovakia. Solzhenitsyn’s own story of his battle of wits with the authorities has some of the features of a protean myth. Scammell shows the interdependence of the turns in his fortunes and such processes and events as the struggle between conservatives and liberalizing factions in the government, the emergence of what became known as the “democratic” or Human Rights movement, and the halt to de-Stalinization that reversed the process of liberalization in the arts and was marked by the show trial of Sinyavsky and Daniel in 1966 and the mass roundups of dissidents that followed.

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