Solzhenitsyn: Notes from the Underground That Changed the World

It is difficult for me to write about — or think about — Aleksander Isayevich Solzhenitsyn without resorting to superlatives and clichés. He was a giant who stood astride the second half of the 20th century bellowing his uncompromising warning. I believe that Whittaker Chambers’ “Witness” gave the anti-Communist movement its birth and vigorous youth. Sozhenitsyn was its maturity, and Ronald Reagan its climax. The Russian author was also a shockingly colossal ingrate and a scold.

He was born in Kislovodsk, Russia, in December 1918, a benighted time in that historically wretched country. He had memories of his widowed mother burying his father’s Czarist decorations during the civil war of 1930. He studied mathematics at Rostov State University while taking correspondence courses from the Moscow Institute of Philosophy, Literature, and History. During World War II, he saw action as an artillery officer and was twice decorated. In an exchange of correspondence with a friend, they criticized Stalin, calling him “the whiskered one” and “the mustachioed devil,” but this lame subterfuge failed, some letters were intercepted, and he was sentenced to 10 years. His friend got 25 years; he was a Party member, which Solzhenitsyn was not.

His first prison was the “sharashka” described in The First Circle – a scientific prison where the inmates were housed and fed decently and put to work on government projects. It was still hell, but it was only the first circle. When Solzhenitsyn realized that he was working on advanced eavesdropping equipment for Stalin’s secret police, he pretended to be in over his head, incapable of such highly technical work. Obvious sabotage would have meant death. His keepers decided that the work was beyond him and he was shipped to a Siberian labor camp where he served out his sentence. His experiences there formed the basis for One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the only consequential work of his that was published in the USSR. This autobiographical novel won the 1970 Nobel Prize in Literature. He was told that he could go to Stockholm to accept the prize, but without his family. He accepted it in absentia because he feared he would not be allowed to return. In a way, that was an improvement over 1960, when Boris Pasternak was refused permission to travel to Sweden to accept his prize for Dr. Zhivago.

Despite his blacklisting in the post-Khrushchev era, Solzhenitsyn continued to write at great risk to himself and his supporters, especially those who laboriously typed and retyped his works and distributed them via the Soviet underground samizdat. In January 1974, the first volume of The Gulag Archipelago was published in Paris. Brezhnev and his gorilla cohort in the Kremlin had had enough of him. With no notice and unaware of his destination – prison? exile? – he was hustled onto a plane and landed in West Germany. He had been stripped of his Soviet citizenship. At first, he talked of settling in Switzerland but decided on Cavendish, Vermont, where the climate reminded him of his homeland and from which he held forth in splendid isolation and at great length on the moral stupor of the West, its cultural vapidity, television, spiritual weakness, intolerable music, and lack of moral fiber. These venomous effusions came after Bill Buckley called him “the noblest man alive.” It is sad that we’ll never know how one of Bill’s brilliant RIPs would have reconciled these matters.

But he came down from his lofty perch from time to time. A passage from his commencement address at Harvard in 1978 was the inspiration for an article on the POW-MIA issue from the Vietnam War that I coauthored for National Review and which George F. Will called in one of his columns “the best thing ever written on the issue.”

A security fence he erected around his Vermont property caused consternation among the locals. Solzhenitsyn actually attended a town hall meeting and explained through an interpreter that it was necessary for his family’s safety and his own. He said that he hoped to live long enough to return home, and they would then be welcome to tear the fence down, with his thanks for having been “my neighbors and my friends.”

I confess to being slow on the uptake at times, and it was only about a year ago that I figured something out when I saw a photograph of a smiling Solzhenitsyn shaking hands with and being presented with an award for humanitarian service by Vladimir Putin. Putin has been for me another tough nut to crack: a KGB colonel, a member of the Orthodox Russian Church who has a personal confessor, and the man who said not long ago that “[t]he collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century.”

Huh? But these two men were not oil and water. Not democrats or believers in representative government or its institutions, they believe in autocracy in a benign or even benevolent form of authoritarian, but not totalitarian, dictatorship. For a time after his return home, Solzhenitsyn actually had his own TV show. He used it as a bully pulpit to continue his excoriation of moral decay and decline, materialism, lack of spirituality, and all those other ol’ debbils. It wasn’t the stuff of Emmy Awards; it was apparently more like Sunday morning Evangelical television services here in “The Buckle on the Bible Belt.” Discouraged, he eventually shut it down. I was reminded of Ayn Rand’s comment when she discontinued The Objectivist newsletter in the 1970s: she had become weary of swatting flies with an elephant gun.

The poor dears – both of them; they should have known that there has never been a more futile pastime than casting pearls before us multitudinous swine.