Disturbing, Fanatical, and Heroic

The Gulag Archipelago Two 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, Parts III-IV

by Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, translated by Thomas P. Whitney
Harper & Row, 712 pp., $2.50 (paper)


“There are times, in my opinion, when one has to lower the tone, take the whip into one’s hands not just to defend oneself, but in order to go into the attack in a much cruder manner”—so wrote Dostoevsky to Strakhov, over a hundred years ago, when embarking on The Possessed. I am not here concerned with the relative literary stature of Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn, though the comparison between the two writers is made from time to time. Nor am I concerned with comparing the monumental Gulag Archipelago, of which the second volume has now appeared in English translation, with The Possessed, by considering the relative achievement of each work in teaching us to realize the evil that men do to each other in the name of ideals, or obsessions, such as “socialism” or “revolution.”

But there is one striking parallel between the two works which is very relevant to my discussion: neither is concerned with economics or with the class struggle or with “social forces” (whatever these may be), which have become the accepted language of so many of us who have written about revolutions since Feuerbach and Marx created a new language for us. Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn are concerned with unfashionable matters, so embarrassing to modern man, like sin and God and repentance. They see problems in terms of what goes on inside men, not in the environment outside them. Small wonder that Solzhenitsyn has aroused such indignation not only in the ranks of the KGB and its numerous allies, which was to be expected; but, more surprisingly, among many of those who disapprove of the evils of communist rule as much as he does, and have themselves suffered as much from it, but who use a different language when they attempt to describe it.

In many ways the present episode in Russian intellectual history takes us back to the year 1909, and the publication of a short volume of essays entitled Landmarks (Vekhi). The seven authors of this volume included former Marxists, like P. B. Struve and S. L. Frank, and other leading intellectuals and historians. The theme that bound these disparate thinkers together was their merciless exposure of the failure of the Russian intelligentsia, of whom, of course, the authors were leading members, to realize that in their pursuit of false and abstract materialistic political aims, they were leading the country to a disaster for which they would all be to blame.

Although the views of the seven authors are widely different in many respects (a fact which makes this volume of essays, nearly seventy years later, still one of the most stimulating products of the Russian intellect), the basic thought common to all of them was well defined in the preface by M. Gershenzon. This was, he wrote, “the recognition of the primacy both in theory and in practice of spiritual life over the outward forms of society, in the sense that the inner life of the individual…and not the self-sufficing elements of…

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