Alexander Solzhenitsyn is the man who put the writing on the wall for Leninist totalitarianism

Alexander Solzhenitsyn is the man who put the writing on the wall for Leninist totalitarianism

07 Aug 2008

Dr Robert Horvath
La Trobe Scholar, Politics
Email: r.horvath@latrobe.edu.au

First published in The Age on 7 August 2008.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn was one of those rare heretics who troubled the conscience of humanity. As a survivor of eight years in forced labour camps, he bore witness to the brutality lurking behind the banners of Soviet socialism. As a persecuted opponent of a police state, he became the world's exemplary dissident. As a writer, he rescued language and basic moral categories from the corrosion of ideology.

No other intellectual rivals his contribution to the eclipse of totalitarianism and revolutionary violence.

Solzhenitsyn's impact was magnified by the circumstances of his ascent during the post-Stalin thaw. His novella One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the first account of life in a Stalinist labour camp to appear in a Soviet journal, owed its publication to the personal intervention of the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev.

A masterpiece of restraint, it records the routine ordeals endured on a "good day" by camp inmates as they labour to build a wall in freezing conditions.

Official endorsement and the novella's lack of clear political statements encouraged many to celebrate Solzhenitsyn as proof of the regeneration of the Soviet experiment after the "accident" of Stalinism.

His admirers included apologists for revolutionary violence such as Jean-Paul Sartre, who was bewildered by Solzhenitsyn's refusal to meet him during a visit to Moscow.

Even after the award of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970, when Solzhenitsyn became the target of a siege of hate in the Soviet press, a spokesman for the Nobel committee defended the laureate as "a son of the Russian revolution, the revolution of Lenin".

Such illusions were shattered in late 1973, when the KGB seized a hidden hoard of Solzhenitsyn's manuscripts and triggered the publication of The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn's literary monument to the generations devastated by Soviet forced labour camps.

A compendium of fantastic and horrific tales gathered from the testimony of 227 survivors, it challenged its readers, according to a perestroika-era reviewer, "to take in the pain of millions, concentrated in this book, and not to fall into anaesthetised cynicism".

It was also an indictment of the October Revolution as the source of the Gulag. As Leonid Brezhnev complained to the Politburo, Solzhenitsyn had attacked "what is most sacred - Lenin, our Soviet system, Soviet power". In retribution for this blasphemy, the author was arrested, charged with treason and deported to West Germany in February 1974.

The dramatic climax of Solzhenitsyn's epic struggle with the Soviet regime magnified the global impact of The Gulag Archipelago. In Paris, world capital of revolutionary myths, its publication ignited "The Solzhenitsyn Effect", an insurgency led by Andre Glucksmann and Bernard-Henri Levy against the hegemony of Marxism in French intellectual life.

The controversy inspired the historian Francois Furet to discredit the Jacobino-Marxist orthodoxy about the necessity of the French revolutionary terror, which for decades had fortified the Western left's indifference towards repression unleashed by communist states and third world dictatorships in the name of social revolution.

When the dust had settled in the early 1980s, the "dissident" had displaced the guerilla as a model of the heroic, engaged public activist.

No less influential was Solzhenitsyn's criticism of the timidity of Western diplomacy. In Nobel Address (1972), he lambasted the pervasiveness of "the spirit of Munich" and proclaimed that "there is no such thing as internal affairs on this crowded earth". When he visited Washington in the summer of 1975, he was more outspoken, exhorting his audience to "interfere as much as you can!". This incitement marked a watershed for idealists such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who influenced both the Carter administration's human rights diplomacy and the neo-conservatives' democracy-promotion agenda.

By calling into question the revolutionary illusions of the left and the cold realism of the right, Solzhenitsyn played an important role in the emergence of human rights as a factor in international relations during the late 1970s. No longer did the conditions of revolution serve as an excuse for repression. No longer did diplomatic propriety require indifference to the pleas of the persecuted.

Solzhenitsyn's contribution to the demise of Leninist totalitarianism is difficult to exaggerate. During the decade after his banishment, The Gulag Archipelago silently proliferated, casting a vast shadow over Soviet intellectual life. One prominent writer likened the experience of reading it in secret to "a trumpet calling to the terrible court of history".

When Gorbachev launched perestroika as a return to Leninist ideals, much of the intelligentsia had already heard that summons. As the walls of censorship crumbled, Solzhenitsyn's ideas defined the terms of a national debate that linked the horrors of the Soviet past to the imperative for democracy.

Despite the invective of critics who branded him a "Russian Khomeini", Solzhenitsyn was neither an apologist for tsarist autocracy nor an anti-Semitic nationalist. He was a true conservative who discovered humane and liberal possibilities in Russian traditions. In particular, he campaigned for the revival of zemstvos, the organs of local self-government that had been crucibles of civic activism in pre-revolutionary Russia.

Increasingly, this concern for indigenous customs turned him into a critic of the universalist interventionism that he had once incited. In 1999, he likened NATO's Kosovo war to Nazi aggression.

Solzhenitsyn's periodic outbursts against the West were welcomed by the Putin regime, which awarded him the State Prize and deployed his critique of revolution against domestic opponents who aspired to emulate Ukraine's Orange Revolution.

But the caste of secret policemen who rule Russia rejected the core of Solzhenitsyn's message as they subordinated local government to the Kremlin and imposed on Russian schools a history textbook that vindicates Stalin's mass repressions. In the process, they have guaranteed that Solzhenitsyn's writings and example will continue to be cherished by those Russians who aspire to live in a free society.

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