Leonid Brezhnev
Leonid Brezhnev; drawing by David Levine

Unlike the West, where people openly discuss problems in their search for solutions, Soviet Russia merely boasts of its achievements and triumphs. Symptoms of economic, social, and moral decline and obvious stagnation are ignored officially, because they cannot be explained away. Everyone must pretend that everything is in good order and proceeding according to the “Leninist” plan, carefully laid out in advance. Society thus submits itself, will-lessly and thoughtlessly, to arbitrary, destructive forces, like a sick man who pretends he is well for fear of treatment.

The few thinking people in the Soviet Union who take the risk of speaking out about general, central problems become victims of hatred and persecution. They fill the prisons, concentration camps, and mental hospitals. The all-powerful and uncontrolled state machine uses every possible means to drive them out of the country or to force them to fall silent, persuaded that any constructive effort is futile.

These people—described in the West as dissidents—are known here chiefly for their suffering, not for their ideas. There is more information on their treatment by the government than on the meaning and goals of their activities. Indeed, circumstances have compelled them to spend more energy in defending their right to freedom of thought and speech than in theoretical and scholarly elaboration of their positions. An impression has thus been created that the dissidents are united in their aspirations—an impression resulting not so much from their positive ideals as from their shared critical attitude toward the dominant regime.

This is one reason why the publication of From Under the Rubble, a collection of theoretical essays which appeared in a Russian edition in France several months ago and has just appeared in English translation, is in many respects an important event. To begin with, the book opens a discussion of general problems among the dissidents themselves. Second, it acquaints the Western reader with at least one of the lines of dissident thought in the Soviet Union.

The editor and one of the contributors to the collection is Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who appears in it as both a theoretician and a publicist. The book began to take shape while he was still in Moscow, but was completed after his expulsion from the Soviet Union. It represents an effort to elucidate a number of questions, some specifically Soviet and Russian, others of international and general historical importance.

To contribute to From Under the Rubble was by no means a purely literary matter. For those who did so and who remain in Russia it was a civic action—a choice and a challenge. Regardless of the substance of the ideas expressed in it, the book speaks of the authors’ determination to confront the state, which is accustomed to treating all independent opinion with insults and violence, not with discussion. The authors’ readiness to sacrifice themselves must be kept in mind if their writing is to be understood. It commands respect.

From Under the Rubble contains eleven essays by seven authors. Six of the essays—more than half the book—were written by Alexander Solzhenitsyn or the mathematician Igor Shafarevich, whose views coincide most closely with Solzhenitsyn’s. Essays by them begin and end the collection and occur throughout it. The others can easily escape the reader’s attention, especially because of the greater expressiveness of Solzhenitsyn’s writing and the tantalizingly paradoxical quality of the ideas expounded by him and by Shafarevich.

Nevertheless, a careful reading of the collection reveals that the other authors frequently disagree with the position taken by Solzhenitsyn and Shafarevich—and not merely in details, but in central and decisive matters. Thus, despite the religious, and specifically Russian Orthodox, approach shared by all the contributors to From Under the Rubble, the book displays a pluralism rather than unanimity in the views of dissidents.

Solzhenitsyn expects nothing good to come from Soviet-Western détente. “If we are concerned with solving mankind’s moral problems,” he writes, “the prospect of convergence is a somewhat dismal one: if two societies, each afflicted with its own vices, gradually draw together and merge into one, what will they produce? A society immoral in the warp and the woof.” Solzhenitsyn says here, even more sharply than in his “Letter to the Soviet Leaders” published several years ago, that Russia must segregate herself, geographically, politically, and morally, from the rest of the civilized world. Russia, in the opinion of the Nobel laureate, needs to “spend most of its time alone with itself, without neighbors and guests.”

An authoritarian regime, Solzhenitsyn says repeatedly, answers more closely the demands of truth and justice than Western democracy, which rests on the formal principles of law, interparty compromise, and competition of economic interests. Justice, like truth, in his view is one and indivisible. It comes not from people, but from God. Hence, Solzhenitsyn goes on to say, even an authoritarian government which practices physical coercion upon its subjects is not so bad, if only it compels men to speak the truth rather than lie, to believe in God rather than deny him. The Christian conscience of an autocratic tsar is a more reliable guarantee of freedom and life than legal and constitutional norms. “And Ivan the Terrible’s terror never became so all-embracing or systematic as Stalin’s, largely because the tsar repented and came to his senses.”


Mikhail Agursky takes an altogether different approach in his article “Contemporary Socioeconomic Systems and Their Future Prospects.” There is no trace here of nationalistic counterposing of Russia to the Western world. Agursky compares the currently existing capitalist and socialist states and finds more similarities than differences. He asserts, however, that “the defects of totalitarianism are of a completely different order” from those of modern democratic societies. He feels that “totalitarianism, which lays claim to total control of the human spirit,” is a passing phenomenon that cannot last.

The way out of the universal impasse arising from the confrontation of the two halves of the modern world lies, as Agursky sees it, precisely in increasing closeness between them. Totalitarianism must be abolished, while democratic societies require only greater organization and self-discipline. “The society of the future,” Agursky concludes, “must be democratic, but first, it will need a high degree of self-discipline capable of warding off many conflicts, and second, in order to avoid the mistakes of the past, some key aspects of social life will have to be controlled, though the control must not be of a totalitarian nature.”

All the contributors to From Under the Rubble are Christians, and all regard the revival of religion as an essential condition, which alone is capable of curing the moral ills of the present. Yet even in their interpretation of what Christianity must be and do for contemporary Russia and for mankind, they turn out to be far from unanimous.

Two articles deal with specifically religious questions—F. Korsakov’s “Russian Destinies” and Evgeny Barabanov’s “The Schism Between the Church and the World.” The former appears to be closer to the position of Solzhenitsyn and Shafarevich, treating Christianity itself in a nationalist spirit, equating Christianity with the Russian Orthodox Church. But that is only at first glance. Korsakov’s article expresses, with much temperament and talent, the conviction that an Orthodox Christian must have nothing to do with the affairs of the secular world, that even criticizing the church for its collaboration with the atheistic government which rules Russia is a grave sin.

The Soviet reader, skilled in reading between the lines, will easily discern direct allusions to Solzhenitsyn himself in Korsakov’s statements that “pride of spirit is one of the worst sins” and that “all that stirs us is our unquenchable thirst for instant justice, we continue to nurse our own heroism, knowing nothing of true suffering.” For it was Solzhenitsyn who wrote an open letter to the patriarch of Moscow, criticizing the church for subservience to the government. And it is he, together with Shafarevich, who calls for heroism and sacrifice in the hope that universal devotion to “life not according to falsehood” will speedily establish justice not only in Russia but in the entire world. Korsakov, on the other hand, feels that a Christian’s duty lies in humility and prayer: “You plow your own furrow, carry your cross, and no one can know the end of his journey.”

From Barabanov’s article, we learn that part of the Orthodox intelligentsia regards Solzhenitsyn’s letter to the patriarch as a manifestation of “spiritual pride” and a yielding to “temptation of the devil.” Barabanov takes Solzhenitsyn’s side in this debate, but feels that the political conformism of Orthodox Christianity during the Soviet period has its roots deep in its history. He argues against the tendency of some newly converted Christians to withdraw into prayer from the social evils they encounter beyond the walls of the church. In his polemic Barabanov gives a precise characterization of the ascetic ideal proposed by Korsakov. But at the same time he stresses that “Christianity…is not about power and coercive authoritarianism, but spiritual initiative and daring.”

“Is not the failure of attempts to establish theocracies,” writes Barabanov, “due to the fact that they were based on contempt for and renunciation of that world which they simultaneously wanted to subjugate and harness? It was there that the ideology and practice of theocratic sovereignty and spiritual despotism originated, the desire to fix life in lasting forms.”

Christianity, as Barabanov understands it, entails love of freedom and tolerance. He feels that the tendency of some Christians to create division among men and peoples, to indulge themselves in self-righteousness, to justify authoritarianism and coercion over thought and conscience, is rooted in the desire to revive a past which does not deserve to be idealized. He links the destiny of Christianity with democracy: “The Church will only be able to have an impact on society when society itself grows sufficiently free and democratic to liberate the Church from the political fetters imposed by the state.”


In Barabanov’s article the reader will also find a well-reasoned argument against the idea, repeatedly put forward by Solzhenitsyn and Shafarevich, that it is enough for a man to feel inwardly free, since external tyranny is then no longer oppressive. The “external lack of liberty” of the Russian Church, writes Barabanov, “is paralyzing its life and being internalized, it is taking root in its consciousness.” His article is especially valuable in showing the Western reader that the renewed concern of the intelligentsia with Orthodox Christianity in present-day Russia is not necessarily linked with the nationalism, authoritarianism, and idealization of the tsarist past that we see in Solzhenitsyn; it can also go hand in hand with the ideals of democracy and the struggle for freedom.

The diversity, indeed the logical incompatibility, of the positions taken by the contributors to From Under the Rubble must unquestionably be regarded as a virtue of the collection. For the book represents an attempt to discuss, without censorship, questions of vital importance to the thinking man in the Soviet Union. It is good that the variety of viewpoints represented here will help such people to examine different religious, philosophic, political, cultural, and even existential positions. From Under the Rubble is thus in itself a persuasive testament to how anachronistic and—to speak plainly—how impossible in practice is the authoritarian approach to culture for the unofficial tendencies in contemporary Russian thought.

Moreover, read carefully, the pieces by Solzhenitsyn and Shafarevich also betray a lack of consistency. Let us take, for instance, Solzhenitsyn’s reproval of Academician Sakharov for giving too much attention to the international problems of other countries, when he should be devoting himself above all to the grave situation at home. Yet Solzhenitsyn does not deny himself the right to criticize the multiparty systems in the West, or even to chide Great Britain for permitting immigration of colored peoples from her former colonies.

Solzhenitsyn devotes an entire article to the urgent and troubling problem of national penitence for complicity, witting or unwitting, in the crimes of Soviet history, a problem that is on the minds of the Russian intelligentsia today. The Germans went through something similar after Hitler’s fall. But Solzhenitsyn turns the entire concept around, saying that other nations must also acknowledge their guilt toward the Russians. Thus he invites the Crimean Tatars, expelled from their land by Stalin for alleged sympathies with the Nazis, to feel guilty for the Mongol invasion in the thirteenth century! What remains of penitence when even the Crimean Tatars are expected to feel guilty toward us instead of our feeling guilty toward them? Solzhenitsyn’s nationalism obviously clashes here with the Christian idea of guilt.

Similarly, Shafarevich argues in his article, “Socialism,” that the secret source of socialism’s appeal lies in mankind’s death wish. Yet he cites, as examples of the earliest socialist societies, ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, which lasted longest of all the states known to historians. Even more illogical is Shafarevich’s praise, in the closing pages of the book, of sacrifice as an “irresistible weapon and a source of unlimited power.” “Few social forces,” he writes, “act so powerfully on people as the drive for self-sacrifice in pursuit of higher ideals.” But why is this desire for sacrifice in the name of a bright future a manifestation of the will to live, and not of a death wish?

Contradictions, inconsistencies, poor logic, assertions without proof, and crude polemical methods set the tone of much of the book (just as sharp conservatism in judgment characterizes its contents). A good deal of this, particularly in Solzhenitsyn’s case, can be attributed to the difference between literary and theoretical talent. The power and particularity of perception which are so impressive in Solzhenitsyn’s fiction and his writings in The Gulag Archipelago vanish when he turns to programmatic statements. Deprived of narrative flesh, stripped of their multidimensional fictional expression, the writer’s moral judgments lose their power to convince. They are the same, yet different, so that it is always possible to refute Solzhenitsyn’s onesided public pronouncements by examples from his own fictional works.

Nevertheless, even in the weaknesses of From Under the Rubble there is something that compels attention and softens the reader’s initial negative response. The book was born under truly tragic circumstances. A foreboding of Russia’s coming disintegration forms its setting. Igor Shafarevich writes in the closing article that “if you look at history as the product of the interaction of economic factors, or from the point of view of the interplay of the interests of different social groups and individuals, and the rights that guarantee these interests, then Russia indeed has no future.” Evidently, then, the disillusioning results of rational analysis have led some of the contributors to the collection to seek another approach.

From Under the Rubble is not a beginning, but a continuation. Many of the articles in it bear the stamp of disillusionment with the methods and goals of the dissidents’ struggle during the past decade. It is not by chance that the collection opens with a polemical article by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, rejecting not only the ideas but also, in effect, the values of Academician Sakharov. “Among Soviet people whose opinions do not conform to the official stereotype,” Solzhenitsyn admits, “there is a well-nigh general view that what our society needs, what it must aspire to and strive for, is Freedom and the multiparty parliamentary system.” It is precisely against this idea that Solzhenitsyn, Shafarevich, and some other contributors to the collection (but not all, as we have seen) direct their critical attacks.

The protests of the dissidents have usually been based on the principles of freedom, intellectual tolerance, the sacredness and inviolability of man’s right to freedom of thought and speech. In criticizing the order that has come into being in Soviet Russia, the dissidents applied criteria that are inherent in modern civilization. This was meaningful, to begin with, because it helped in judging the Soviet regime in accordance with the ideals it hypocritically proclaimed as its own. For example, dissidents have demanded adherence to the Soviet constitution, which supposedly governs Soviet life. On the other hand, they have found a common language with the liberal and democratic forces of the West, seeking support for their ideas and demands from Western public opinion—since there was no such thing as public opinion at home.

Yet it must be admitted that this approach has only partly justified itself. True, it proved effective enough to dispel the most stubbornly prejudiced views, both at home and abroad, regarding the real nature of Soviet society. Employed at times more openly, at times less so, and often defiantly, it compelled the Soviet regime to discard the mask of democracy. It showed that Soviet society is not as monolithic as propaganda would have it, that pluralism of ideas is possible even there.

The fate of Solzhenitsyn himself is an excellent illustration of the relative success of the movement for human rights in the Soviet Union. His books would not have been published if the demand for freedom of expression in the Soviet Union had not found an echo throughout the democratic world. Solzhenitsyn’s books were published abroad, and it was there that they found their deserved appreciation. His fame internationally has far outstripped that in his native country, where his writings are still inaccessible to the general public, and has served as a shield against the blind hatred of Soviet officialdom.

The world renown of the dissidents, however, has not saved them from isolation in their own homeland. Beneath the thin layer of the intelligentsia, who have a European mentality and a democratic orientation, the dissident movement has struck a dense mass of permafrost. It is this, and not fear of persecution, that made the emigration of dissidents inevitable.

On the other hand, Solzhenitsyn and the small circle of men and women who agree with him chose to reject democratic principles, their ties to the democratic intelligentsia at home, and the support of Western public opinion in order to retain their inner ties to their own people. Solzhenitsyn declares in From Under the Rubble, “the demand for ‘freedom’ and the concept of ‘freedom’ had not established themselves at all firmly among our people.” “And today,” he says, “more than at any time in the past century, it ill becomes us to see our country’s only way out in the Western parliamentary system. Especially since Russia’s readiness for such a system, which was very doubtful in 1917, can only have declined still further in the half century since.”

Indeed, it is difficult to refute this judgment. Solzhenitsyn, Shafarevich, and others are seeking positive ideals capable of stimulating the spiritual rebirth of the Russian people even without freedom. In essence, however, they are merely grasping at the romantic dreams of the Orthodox-leavened nationalism which was discarded in 1917. In their search for a future they have turned to the past—and a greatly idealized past at that.

“There is absolutely no other way I can envisage for Russia,” Solzhenitsyn writes.

Well, even if this is an error, it is an error that bears the mark of tragedy.

(Translated by Mirra Ginsburg)

This Issue

June 26, 1975