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The Solzhenitsyn Archipelago

In June 1978, some twenty-two thousand people sat or stood in the rain at Harvard’s commencement ceremonies to listen to a keynote speaker denounce them as lacking in courage, morally adrift, and self-deluded. The speaker, whose identity had been kept secret until just two days beforehand, was the celebrated Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and the title he chose for his impassioned lecture was “A World Split Apart.”

Solzhenitsyn’s themes were the decline of the West, the moral emptiness of modern society, the excesses of liberal democracy, and the mortal threat to the world of Communist domination. His target was not just modernism but the Enlightenment values that had spawned it, and behind those values the heritage of the Renaissance. Echoing Tocqueville’s misgivings at the birth of the American republic, Solzhenitsyn scorned the idea that a government’s first duty is to serve the people. “The pursuit of happiness,” he argued, had led only to a soulless materialism, a cold and mechanical reliance on the law, and unpardonable license on the part of the citizenry. “In today’s Western society, there has opened up a disequilibrium between the freedom to do good deeds and the freedom to do bad.”

The ruling classes of the West, according to Solzhenitsyn, had lost their moral bearings and were guilty of a collapse of courage. Eastern Europe was spiritually far in advance of the decadent West. The “complex and deadly pressures” there had developed characters that were “stronger, more profound, and more interesting” than those in the “prosperous, ordered life of the West.” For the East to become like the West, he argued, would be for it to lose more than it gained.

I watched Solzhenitsyn’s speech on television with a group of friends in a summer house in Connecticut. The people around me had all admired Solzhenitsyn’s novels and been immensely impressed by his courage in publishing The Gulag Archipelago. They had been outraged by his forcible expulsion from the Soviet Union in 1974. They were also used to having their society excoriated by visitors from other parts of the world, and inclined to agree with them that Americans should be doing more to improve their society.

So they were not surprised when the Harvard audience honored Solzhenitsyn with a tumultuous ovation, acknowledging the Russian’s personal magnetism, his literary achievements, and his civic courage. The entire occasion was a kind of public apotheosis, covered extensively in the press and on television afterward. James Reston, George Will, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Archibald MacLeish were among those who commented immediately on Solzhenitsyn’s message, and a book of their responses was published later, with additional reflections by Sidney Hook, Richard Pipes, and Michael Novak, among others.1

From the immediate reaction Solzhenitsyn might have been forgiven for thinking that he had influenced American thinking. But most commentators held that although he was an inspiring figure who deserved a hearing, his judgments were too sweeping to bear close examination. His knowledge of American life seemed superficial at best. His claims for Russian spiritual superiority sounded preposterous in the light of what was actually happening in the Soviet Union; his claim of Soviet military superiority flatly contradicted what was known of American arms. As for reversing the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, what did Solzhenitsyn want—a return to the Middle Ages? His speech seemed to express superpatriotism in a new guise, born of the conviction that Russia had to be better than America at something.

The intellectual shortcomings of the speech were all too apparent, and Solzhenitsyn’s reputation in the US was badly damaged. He had given similar speeches before, but to less prestigious audiences and with less attention, and he had somehow been given the benefit of the doubt. No longer. Solzhenitsyn, who, despite his expressed contempt for the press and television, paid close attention to what they were saying about him, attributed the precipitous drop in his popularity to American (and Western) resentment of his criticisms. Concluding that their very accuracy had made him unpopular, he withdrew to his Vermont retreat and into silence.

Public silence, that is, for he was heavily engaged in working on his sequence of historical novels collectively entitled The Red Wheel. Planned as an epic chronicle of the events leading from World War I to the October Revolution, the series had been inaugurated by August 1914, published while Solzhenitsyn was still in the Soviet Union. Since his exile he had returned to the series with renewed energy. The historical archives of the West were now open to him and contained a wealth of material inaccessible inside the Soviet Union. His notebooks were bursting with his research, and he set out to incorporate the new material into his grand scheme.

The work went very slowly. Ten years after the appearance of the original August 1914, he brought out an enlarged and revised edition twice the length. A year later he published October 1916, also in two volumes. Between 1986 and 1988 he brought out March 1917, in four volumes, and then in 1991, April 1917 in two volumes. His original intention had been to complete the series in twenty volumes covering the period from 1914 to 1922, but after finishing half this number, each running to between 500 and 750 pages, he was on the brink of exhaustion. In an epilogue to April 1917 he stated that he was stopping the series six months short of the October Revolution, partly because of lack of time, but also because it was now clear to him that after the February Revolution in 1917, the Bolsheviks were the “only decisive force” left in the country. But even then he couldn’t resist summarizing the remaining volumes planned to take the story to the spring of 1922, and adding the titles of five epilogues continuing to 1945.

One reason for Solzhenitsyn’s reluctance to continue The Red Wheel must have been his realization that the Russian present was rapidly becoming more interesting than the Russian past. The ill-fated experiment whose beginnings Solzhenitsyn was exploring in such detail was about to disintegrate. Gorbachev had tried to stave off collapse with the reform policies of perestroika and glasnost, but after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 it was all over. The attempted coup by Soviet generals in 1991 was the last gasp of a dying regime. Yeltsin rode to power on the back of the tanks that shelled the Russian parliament; but he also stepped into a political vacuum, much as Lenin had done in 1917. The vaunted Soviet system collapsed without a whimper.

The parallel with Lenin was probably not lost on Solzhenitsyn. More to the point, for all his laborious study of Russian history, his political prophesies had been proven wrong. The “decadent West” had triumphed over the “evil empire,” and neither Soviet military might nor Russian spirituality seemed much in evidence in his country’s defeat. On the other hand, Solzhenitsyn could justly claim credit for having shaken up the Soviet system himself, and in the aftermath of communism’s demise, nobody was disposed to remind him of his recent speeches. He now had enormous authority inside Russia, and when his books began to be published there in 1989 and 1990 (while Gorbachev was still in power), some seven million copies were sold.

Friends and admirers pleaded with him to come back and take his rightful place in the life of the country. His enormous reputation would give him considerable influence. But Solzhenitsyn hesitated. Technically there was still a charge of treason against him, and The Red Wheel was unfinished. While Gorbachev was in power Solzhenitsyn published a long political essay, “Rebuilding Russia,” in response to perestroika (which also means “rebuilding”), in which he again attacked America’s “cultural imperialism” and warned that “the more energetic the political activity in a country, the greater is the loss to spiritual life.”

This was not what most Russians wanted to hear, especially after 1991, when they were given their first chance in seventy years to take an active part in politics. Far from abhorring the West, they were dazzled by it and couldn’t get enough of its consumer economy. Yet Solzhenitsyn’s reputation remained high. On a state visit to Washington, Yeltsin called him in Vermont to invite him to return to Russia, but still the great man dawdled. In 1992 he dispatched his wife, Natalya, to prepare the way for his return, but it was another two years before he finally went back himself, choosing to do so by way of Vladivostok and a two-month train journey across Russia.

By the time he arrived in Moscow, on July 21, 1994, only a small crowd braved the rain to meet him at the station—some twenty thousand fewer than at Harvard all those years earlier. He addressed them with conviction. He had met students and farmers and factory workers across the country, people living in slums and working without pay, and he hoped to “bring their message to the ears of the leaders in Moscow.” But it was too late. When he addressed the Russian Duma a few months later, the deputies stifled their yawns. He became the host of a fifteen-minute talk show on despised television, but it was canceled after a year for lack of interest.

Solzhenitsyn’s stock had sunk precipitously. A new edition of his collected works had only fifteen thousand subscribers. For many Russian writers he became a subject of mockery. Tat-yana Tolstaya pilloried him in these pages as an angry misanthrope and pious hypocrite.2 One critic, Grigori Amelin, likened the “Voltaire from Vermont” to “a hat-rack in an entrance hall.” Another wrote that Solzhenitsyn’s “humanistic pathos” was just as comic and outdated as socialist realism, while the writer Dmitri Prigov held he was as much an icon of the Communist period as Lenin.

He retired behind a new stockade in the exclusive district of Troitse Lykovo, on the outskirts of Moscow, building a new dacha with his Western royalties. That it was in a district much favored by Kremlin grandees and on the site of an earlier dacha belonging to Stalin’s crony, Lazar Kaganovich, was not lost on his critics. More important to Solzhenitsyn was its proximity to the seventeenth-century baroque Church of the Dormition on the site of a former convent. A favored spot for Solzhenitsyn’s strolls, it is a melancholy reminder of Russia’s once splendid religious life.

How are we to account for the speed of Solzhenitsyn’s descent from revered sage and prophet, from “great writer” in the grand Russian tradition, to irrelevant political dinosaur and target of jokes? And what are we now to think of the novels, stories, plays, and that great hybrid of memoir and nonfiction, The Gulag Archipelago, that rocked the world with the stark truthfulness of its testimony when Soviet power seemed unstoppable? What, for that matter, are we to make of the ten lengthy tomes of The Red Wheel, which Solzhenitsyn himself thought of as his life’s work?

  1. 1

    Ronald Berman, editor, Solzhenitsyn at Harvard: The Address, Twelve Early Responses, and Six Later Reflections (Washington, D.C.: Ethics and Public Policy Center, 1980).

  2. 2

    The New York Review, October 19, 1995.

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