In Answer to Solzhenitsyn

Letter to the Soviet Leaders

by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, translated by Hilary Sternberg
Harper & Row, 59 pp., $3.50

Solzhenitsyn sent his letter to the Soviet leaders on September 5, 1973. Soon after he was deported from the USSR, it was published abroad,1 and excerpts were read over the radio. I believe it to be very important that this statement by an author of such indisputable world-wide prestige—a statement which he undoubtedly considered carefully and which reflects his essential views on many basic social questions—be subjected to serious analysis, especially by representatives of independent thought in our country. For me, it is doubly necessary to offer a critique of Solzhenitsyn’s letter because it contains several parallels to, and a covert debate with, certain of my previous statements on social questions—statements which I have since partially revised but which mostly still seem to me correct. But most of all, it is my disagreement with certain of the letter’s substantive ideas that compels me to speak out.

Solzhenitsyn is one of the pre-eminent writers and publicists of our day. The dramatic conflicts, striking images, and original language of his works convey his position—arrived at through much suffering—on the most important social, moral, and philosophical problems. Solzhenitsyn’s special and exceptional role in the spiritual history of our nation is associated with an uncompromising, accurate, and profound exposition of human misery and the crimes of the regime, crimes that were unprecedented in their harshness and secrecy. This role of Solzhenitsyn’s was already clearly evident in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich; now it recurs in the great book The Gulag Archipelago, which I deeply respect. Whatever one’s attitude toward Solzhenitsyn’s positions, his own work must be regarded highly; and his influence will continue in the years ahead.

In his letter Solzhenitsyn again speaks of the sufferings and sacrifices which have been the fate of our people in the past sixty years. With particular conviction and a heavy heart he writes of the lot of women who, because of inadequate family budgets, must so often combine household duties and the bringing up of children with the heaviest kind of work to earn money; of the consequent deterioration in child rearing and the disintegration of the family; of the general drunkenness which has become a national scandal; of the theft, mismanagement, and featherbedding in government work; of the ruin of cities, villages, rivers, forests, and the soil. Like Solzhenitsyn, I consider those achievements which our propaganda so loves to boast about to be insignificant compared with the consequences of overstrain, disillusionment, and the depression of the human spirit.

However, even in the first part of Solzhenitsyn’s letter, which is devoted to critical fact-finding, there are certain peculiarities in his position which provoke in me uneasiness and a feeling of dissatisfaction, both of which are intensified with further reading. What strikes me in particular is that Solzhenitsyn singles out the sufferings and sacrifices of the Russian people. Of course everyone is entitled to write, and be concerned, about what he knows best—what disturbs him more personally, more concretely. And yet we all…

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