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.
Scammell shows, too, that Solzhenitsyn’s fate was dependent to a far greater degree than he has ever cared to admit on people who were not always in sympathy with his views or his methods of action, notably Tvardovsky, the editor of Novy Mir and the hero of many of these pages, a member of the Soviet establishment whose instinct for literary excellence and uncompromisingly high editorial standards had made him a master of the technique of getting work past the censor. Convinced that Ivan Denisovich was a masterpiece, Tvardovsky arranged that it should find its way directly to Khrushchev’s desk, on the correct assumption that he would seize on it as a weapon against the Stalinists. Tvardovsky continued to struggle for publication of Solzhenitsyn’s works even after some of them were in the hands of the KGB and his protégé had compromised him by allowing others to circulate in samizdat.
Scammell’s sensitive portrayal of this complex and enormously attractive personality is a necessary corrective to Solzhenitsyn’s patronizing presentation of him in The Oak and the Calf as a Party loyalist at the mercy of his superiors. It reminds us that moral courage takes many different forms in the Soviet Union and that Solzhenitsyn’s form of heroism was not the only way in which decent human beings could express their opposition to tyranny.
However, in its symbolic power, Solzhenitsyn’s personal stand against the Soviet government had an effect on Soviet society which surpassed even that of Ivan Denisovich, after whose publication, in the words of one critic, “We shall never again be able to write as we wrote before.” As Solzhenitsyn was informed by thousands of letters from former prisoners, the integrity of his peasant hero had returned to them the conviction of their own human worth. Solzhenitsyn’s actions were to provide them with an even more potent image of integrity. His work on the history of the camps had become part of a wider strategy: to expose the workings at every level of private and public life of the “obligatory ideological lie” to which every Russian had to pay his dues; to demonstrate with a Tolstoyan simplicity that the lie could not exist without the active complicity of those whom it oppressed, and that they could bring it crashing down by following his example and withholding their dues.
The extraordinary immunity that Solzhenitsyn enjoyed for so long in the Soviet Union owed much to the fact that for a few months after the publication of Ivan Denisovich he became an establishment figure. Taking their cue from Khrushchev, the critics declared that Solzhenitsyn’s portrayal of the iniquities of Stalinism showed him to be “a true helper of the Party in a sacred and vital cause.” The bureaucracy opened its doors to him: he was invited to address a group of members of the Soviet supreme Military Tribunal (under whose auspices he had been sentenced) and was consulted by a commission engaged in reforming the corrective labor code.
Some critics deplored the fact that Ivan Denisovich did not have a happier ending. Meanwhile Solzhenitsyn was using his fragile immunity to gain time as he prepared his answer to them: two novels and a vast history of the camps—a clandestine operation on an epic scale, compiled from the testimony of hundreds of informants and documents from obscure libraries. These were all designed to show that Stalin’s excesses were not an aberration but an expression of the essential nature of the Soviet system.
This double life ended in September 1965 when a police raid on the apartment of a friend in Moscow uncovered Solzhenitsyn’s archive, including the only copy of his novel The First Circle. As Solzhenitsyn comments in The Gulag Archipelago, the natural reaction of a Soviet citizen to such a blow would have been despair and a passive acceptance of disaster, a state of mind immensely facilitating the task of the police. Solzhenitsyn’s reaction (after an initial panic) was one calculated to catch them off balance: he put up a pugnacious verbal resistance and combined this with a shrewd exploitation of public opinion to expose the illegality of the police procedures even by the relaxed standards of the Soviet constitution. He fired off letters to Brezhnev, Mikhail Suslov, and Andropov (then head of the KGB) protesting against the confiscation of his archive, and began the systematic use of samizdat to promote the circulation and discussion of works (including the novel Cancer Ward) which Novy Mir could not now hope to print. In interviews with foreign journalists broadcast back to the Soviet Union, he proclaimed his belief in the artist’s duty to fight for justice and the strengthening of spiritual values in his compatriots, and drew the world’s attention to the growing campaign of harassment and defamation designed to silence him.
His major coups were planned with enormous care and precision to produce the greatest possible embarrassment for the government and the most publicity for himself. Delegates to the 1967 Writers’ Congress, planned as a public demonstration of the unanimity of writers and Party on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the Revolution, were sent an open letter whose text was published around the world and relayed back to the Soviet Union for days, in which Solzhenitsyn pointed to the damage censorship had done to Soviet literature, cited his own experiences with regard to it, and concluded with a declaration of his intention to fulfill his duty as a writer in defiance of all attempts to muzzle him. When the secretariat of the Writers’ Union summoned him to charge him with damaging his country’s image in the West, he advised them to avoid further embarrassment from that quarter by authorizing the publication of Cancer Ward before copies of it reached the West; and in response to their demand that he publish a statement dissociating himself from Western propaganda about him, he demanded an edition of his collected works and the return of his archive as an essential preliminary to negotiations on that point.
The publication abroad in 1968 of Russian-language editions of The First Circle and Cancer Ward ended the possibility, always remote, of their publication in the Soviet Union, and Solzhenitsyn’s expulsion from the Writers’ Union in the following year deprived him of the only public platform he had had. He responded with a ferociously worded attack on the servile majority who had acquiesced in his expulsion and the “grievously sick” society that had spawned them. Although now much more vulnerable, he continued his policy of returning blow for blow. The proceedings of each meeting held to discipline or intimidate him were fully transcribed and released into samizdat. An important propaganda stroke was his appearance in December 1971 at the funeral of Tvardovsky (who had been forced to resign from Novy Mir). The government’s attempt to make the funeral a non-event was defeated by Solzhenitsyn’s appearance and by the elegy, reproduced in samizdat, in which he compared Tvardovsky’s fate with the untimely deaths of those poets who had dared to criticize the czars.
Every move by the authorities against him was answered by a show of strength on the grounds that “they understand that language and no other,” and it certainly produced some uncharacteristic reactions. When in August 1971 a friend collecting something for him from his summer cabin was beaten up by KGB agents whom he had surprised in a search, Solzhenitsyn’s savage protest to Andropov drew an apologetic admission from the Ministry of the Interior that the police had “exceeded their duties.” The interception of his letters ended after he threatened to make a public protest about it. When the police attempted to evict him from Rostropovich’s dacha near Moscow, with the justification that he did not have the residence permit required by the internal passport laws, he wrote to the Ministry of the Interior reminding the government that serfdom had been abolished in 1861. The eviction attempts ceased.
The publicity generated by Solzhenitsyn’s activity contributed to the growing revulsion in the West against the treatment of Russian dissidents. Writers, artists, and academics bombarded the press and Soviet embassies with protests, and a substantial body of public opinion questioned the policy of détente and called for sanctions against the Soviet government. Solzhenitsyn contributed all that he could to its embarrassment, describing in detail to Western correspondents all the incidents of harassment against him, the slanders being circulated about his acrimonious divorce and remarriage, and the anonymous threats made against his family and himself, and announcing that, if he were to be killed, they could safely conclude that it was through the agency of the KGB.
The last of Solzhenitsyn’s blows was more than the Soviet regime could take. In December 1973, the first volume of The Gulag Archipelago was published in Paris, creating shock waves throughout the Communist parties of Europe. Summoned to appear before the public prosecutor, Solzhenitsyn fired his last shot, refusing to recognize the legality of the summons: “Before requiring citizens to obey the law, you must learn to carry it out yourselves.” Two days later he was deported.
The tactics Solzhenitsyn used in his duel with the Soviet government were not regarded with unqualified admiration by other dissidents. Tvardovsky and the liberals grouped around Novy Mir believed that his refusal to compromise on any issue was damaging to their journal and the cause of Soviet literature, while the dissident movement as a whole resented his refusal to involve himself in public demonstrations and the signing of petitions, and condemned the ruthlessness, self-righteousness, and duplicity he displayed even toward those who helped and trusted him. Scammell points out in his defense that, given the nature of the enemy, these ambiguous elements in his character were essential to his survival, and that his tactics were dictated by his dedication to the overriding purpose of his life. His epic history of the camps was a solitary, secret, and dangerous undertaking, and he could not afford to divert his energies to battles which others could fight; while his refusal to compromise, based on the realistic calculation that there was an unbridgeable chasm between what he stood for and what the regime would allow, was his greatest asset, making him a symbol of freedom and moral purity even for those whom his works would never reach.
Behind the arguments about tactics there were much more important differences of principle. The goals of the human rights movement—the “democratization” of society, the decentralization of the economy, and the observance of basic human rights—need no explaining to a Western audience, but Solzhenitsyn’s do. Rooted in a tradition of thought that has no direct analogue in the West, they are open to a wide variety of misinterpretations, Unfortunately, the sympathy and balance of Scammell’s approach to Solzhenitsyn’s personality is not matched in his treatment of his ideas, which are conveyed by means of brief summaries which seem calculated to reinforce all the prejudices of liberal-minded readers whose information about Solzhenitsyn over the last ten years has mainly come from the press and television.
The moral discoveries that Solzhenitsyn made in prison were, as Scammell mentions, shaped into a coherent vision with the help of the symposium Landmarks, published in 1909, which he came across in 1969. Its seven authors (all exMarxists) accused the intelligentsia of uncritically applying the ideas of the Enlightenment in their nineteenth-century forms—materialism, positivism, and scientific socialism—to Russian problems, in the expectation that a social miracle would result from the destruction of the external forms of society. The contributors to Landmarks argued that the primary condition for the nation’s social and political health was the regeneration of the inner life of the individual with the aid of traditional cultural and religious values. Solzhenitsyn drew heavily on the ideas of Landmarks in a response to Sakharov’s memorandum Progress, Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom, a response that was published with two other essays, after Solzhenitsyn’s arrival in the West, in a symposium entitled From Under the Rubble.
As some of Solzhenitsyn’s most considered statements of his ideological position, these essays deserve close analysis. Instead, Scammell gives only a bald enumeration of what he considers their “most interesting” points, including Solzhenitsyn’s criticism of Sakharov’s belief in intellectual freedom and the multi-party system, on the grounds that neither of these has done much for the West, which is spiritually racked and dejected; and the proposal that both Soviet socialism and Western democracy be rejected in favor of a form of authoritarian rule founded on national and religious traditions, suspicious of modern technology and working on the principle that small is beautiful. Any residual doubts the reader may have about where to place Solzhenitsyn on the political spectrum will vanish when he learns from Scammell that Solzhenitsyn shared his repugnance for the West and nostalgia for Russian village life and culture with the officially sponsored nationalism represented by such Soviet figures as Victor Chalmayev, whose ideas were strongly reminiscent of those of the pre-Revolutionary Black Hundreds, “Ku Klux Klan–type societies” specializing in programs.
Scammell does not attempt to identify Solzhenitsyn’s outlook with this line of thought (he points out that charges of anti-Semitism leveled at him have never been made to stick). But he fails to make it clear that Solzhenitsyn’s nationalism draws on a tradition fundamentally distinct from the type favored by the czarist and Soviet governments, whose primary function was (and is) justification of the political status quo. The romantic conservatism of the Slavophiles with which Solzhenitsyn has close affinities is distinctly subversive in its criticism of the social atomization and spiritual disintegration of modern societies held together by formalized, coercive bonds, its ideal of a human community bound “internally” by freely shared moral convictions, and its belief that political forms are of relative and conditional value. What mattered for the Slavophiles was the quality of social relations: a view shared by Solzhenitsyn.
The central theme of his three essays (and of most of his other polemical writing) is not a discussion of political forms but an attempt to transpose the debate about the future of Russia from what he describes as “‘the inexpressive language of politics” to the plane of ethics. Defining the goal of society as the “triumph of inwardness over outwardness,” he argues that a society as polluted as the Soviet Union cannot be redeemed by a multi-party system which, as the vehicle for the battle of sectional interests, has served no discernible moral function in the West. Privilege and corruption have never been eliminated by decree: they will cease only when society as a whole finds them repulsive. To achieve this is a moral, not a political, task. Soviet society must pass through the spiritual filter of personal sacrifice by means of individual decisions, made in “chilling isolation,” to follow the dictates of conscience at whatever personal cost and refuse every demand to support the ideological lie. The form of revolution produced by an aggregate of such acts could not be predicted: moral revolutions of this sort had no historical precedent, but Soviet society in Solzhenitsyn’s ideal future would acknowledge culpability for its historical crimes, renounce its external conquests, and cease to participate in the drive for political and economic expansion which threatens the survival of mankind. It would adopt instead a policy of “self-limitation” based on the Christian ethic of love.
The political system under which this revolution would be accomplished was of secondary importance to Solzhenitsyn: its main function would be to ensure continuity and stability. In his view the brief and disastrous history of Russian constitutional democracy did not commend it for this role; hence his notorious recommendation, at least for the immediate transitional period, of a form of authoritarianism founded on national religious and cultural tradition.
Like the Slavophiles, who were a constant irritation to the czars, Solzhenitsyn cannot be located easily on any political spectrum. He has often argued that he does not oppose democratic freedoms, but only the use that is currently made of them, and has refuted attempts to identify some of his ideas with tendencies to messianic nationalism within the Soviet establishment, pointing out that the results of a policy of Russian “self-limitation” and repudiation of empire would surpass the wildest dreams of Western proponents of détente. Nor does he share the cultural messianism of the official nationalists. As he remarks in From Under the Rubble, the Russian people are not traversing the heavens in a blaze of glory, but sitting forlornly on a heap of spiritual cinders. His belief is that only the specific minority that escapes the general moral catastrophe by renewing contact with traditional spiritual values can offer a lesson in survival to the West.
Solzhenitsyn is not a political thinker, but a Russian moralist in the utopian tradition of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, whose longing for a kingdom of God on earth led them to use the precept “live not by lies” as an absolute measure for judging political systems and social relations. But Scammell has chosen to approach his ideas from the narrow and distorting perspective of the political debate among Russian dissidents about the direction of future reforms. When the “democratic” dissidents and their sympathizers in the West found that Solzhenitsyn was not with them, he was declared to be against them. The parallels that Sakharov (in an essay published in The New York Review in June 1974) drew between Solzhenitsyn’s views and those of official Russian nationalism helped to confirm a hostility to Solzhenitsyn’s ideas which, for all its intended objectivity, Scammell’s book will increase.
Of course, Solzhenitsyn bears much of the responsibility for the fact that his desire to alert the Western democracies to the holes in their moral armor has been received as a statement of a political position. In a country where the “moral majority” is synonymous with the political right wing, the one-sidedness of Solzhenitsyn’s moral message, his apparent insensitivity to right-wing manifestations of the political “lie” and to the role of established churches (in particular, the Russian) in supporting them in the past, and his hawkish attitude to détente, seem to indicate a clear-cut political alignment. But Solzhenitsyn has never become identified with any political party and right-wing political groups have found him an unreliable ally. The inconsistencies and the wild generalizations in his judgments on current affairs indicate not the political fanatic but the visionary for whom the political dimension is of secondary importance.
However, as Scammell’s wide-ranging survey of the reactions to Solzhenitsyn’s speeches, statements, and publications shows, there is still a general determination to place him unambiguously within the political spectrum; he is only occasionally accused of preaching theocracy, but there is general agreement that, as one magazine said in a headline, his main allegiance is “not to democracy but to God and Mother Russia.”
Scammell notes that Solzhenitsyn has frequently denied the charges of political extremism, and points to the way in which the press has distorted his statements to reinforce the stereotype that they have created; when, for example, on a visit to Franco’s Spain he warned the Spanish reformists of the dangers of going too fast, he was reported as having exalted fascism. Despite these caveats, Scammell’s conclusion echoes the consensus: though he is still listened to out of respect for the magnitude of his past achievement, Solzhenitsyn’s polemical writing, like a fatal addiction, is slowly killing his reputation, and it is a personal disaster that he has chosen not to appear before his Western public “only as a writer.”
Solzhenitsyn’s reply to his Western critics is to be found in his Nobel Prize lecture, written while he was still in the Soviet Union. He reaffirms his allegiance to the tradition of Russian literature and its demand that the writer be an active moral force in the fight against cruelty and violence and criticize his country’s leaders whenever necessary. By communicating the distilled experience of a people across national barriers “so that we no longer see double,” he can help to provide that common scale for distinguishing the endurable from the unendurable without which mankind is devoid of hope.
Solzhenitsyn himself has the misfortune to be a victim of our double vision. When his epic struggle with the Soviet version of the ideological lie became known in the West, his belief in his destiny and his faith in his mission were viewed with unquestioning respect, and romantic images of the poet as seer and tribune of his people were used frequently with regard to him. Yet when, after his expulsion from the Soviet Union, he turned his attention to the spiritual state of Western man, his fate was to be told firmly that he had overreached himself by making unjustified pronouncements on matters on which he was not properly informed.
He is not the first Russian writer to have addressed himself to a spiritual malaise of Western culture: Alexander Herzen’s critique of the idolatry of progress and the worship of political forms in nineteenth-century Europe, Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, and Tolstoy’s reflections about the role of violence in maintaining social institutions all questioned fundamental assumptions on which Western democracies operate. Like Solzhenitsyn’s criticism, they were based on an imperfect understanding of European history, a naively simplistic view of how societies work, and an overly general ideal of how men should live. And yet at a historical remove these defects strike us much less than the kind of holy innocence with which they pointed to the Emperor’s lack of clothes. Like Dostoevsky’s, Solzhenitsyn’s view of essentials was formed by firsthand experience which has no need of innocence to protect it: “Life behind bars has given us a new measure for men and things, wiped from our eyes the grimy film of habit which always clogs the vision of the man who has escaped shocks.”
Solzhenitsyn’s confrontation with Sakharov is a twentieth-century version of those same writers’ encounters with the faith of the West (and of Russian westernizers) in science, representative institutions, and material progress. With the hindsight provided by these examples and an understanding of the way in which time has filtered out some of the shortcomings in their arguments, we are better placed to look for the essentials of his case. With regard to Sakharov, we have no difficulty in seeing the essentials: his luminous personality, his decency and bravery in the face of his tormentors make him the most formidable representative to date of the tradition of the westernizers. It is therefore tempting to believe (as he does) that his vision of the convergence of communist and capitalist systems is a sober new view of a way out for humanity; yet its ultimate goal—a mankind that has outgrown nationalism and formed itself into a single demographic unit, regulating politics, the economy, education, the arts, and international affairs by “scientific methodology and a democratic spirit”—is surely quite as utopian as Solzhenitsyn’s vision of mankind after a period of moral revolution and repentance. The difference is that Sakharov is using the familiar currency of everyday Western political discourse, while Solzhenitsyn is not.
The choice between these two utopias is the choice between one that attempts to solve twentieth-century problems in the language of nineteenth-century optimism, where the inbuilt defects of this optimism have helped create many of the problems themselves, and one that proposes a direction which, for all its apparent negative associations, is largely unknown in our present situation. To indicate a direction, as Solzhenitsyn has done, is not to argue that the destination is certain. He says as much in his Nobel lecture, stressing that his goal is not to be stated in political language: “It is like that small looking-glass in the fairy stories: you glance into it and…you see the Inaccessible. You will never be able to ride there or fly there. But the soul cries out for it.”
For the present it is enough to appreciate that the direction he believes in can itself produce unpredictable but positive results. Who, when Solzhenitsyn began to advocate it publicly after 1962, would have given anything for his chances of survival?
October 11, 1984