Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The Zek Who Changed the World

In 1962 the Soviet literary journal Novyi Mir published Alexander Solzhenitsyn's short novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch. The editor, Alexander Tvardovsky, knew he had discovered an astonishing new writing talent with a courageous moral vision, something that hadn't appeared in print in Russia since the days of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. But then how could Tvardovsky have read such authentic Russian literature? Such writers were not only refused publication under the Communist regime, they were refused the permission to live.

But there was something new in the wind that gave Tvardovsky enough confidence to take this daring manuscript to the authorities and ask for permission to publish it. Stalin was dead, the butcher who in his monomaniac savagery had murdered millions of his own people, and his eventual successor, Nikita Khrushchev, had his hands full trying to wrest control from Stalin's hard-line comrades in the Politburo. Khrushchev had already launched (within the private domains of the Soviet elite) his attack on the "cult of personality," a campaign to present Stalin as a paranoid dictator whose excesses had actually undermined the Glorious Revolution.

In so doing, Khrushchev was anything but the liberated, enlightened soul that liberals in the West originally praised him as being. He was just another Communist thug, anxious to develop his own power. Discrediting Stalin, even it meant exposing some of the ugliness of Soviet history, was his means to get a tighter grip on the Kremlin. And One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch with its heart-rending portrayal of the senselessness and brutality of a Stalinist-era forced labor camp in Siberia written by a former zek who experienced it? Well, Khrushchev thought that the novel would make an effective opening move in the next stage of his campaign; namely, taking his attack on Stalin's "cult of personality" to the Soviet public and even to the peering journalists of the West.

But what Khrushchev, in his own spiritual blindness, could not foresee was how powerful a bomb he had set off when he gave Tvardovsky the permission to publish One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch. The Stalinists around him proved harder to defeat than he imagined. Indeed, their rage in his allowing just a few of the crimes of the Soviet Union to be published was vicious. Instead of securing power, Khrushchev began to lose it. And, on the other side, even the little scent of freedom that arose from the publication of the novel (and especially Solzhenitsyn's emergence as a respected dissident voice by the West) had an intoxicating effect on the Russian populace. Khrushchev had desired only a little light to shine...just enough to expose Stalin's treachery to the ideals of the Communist Revolution. What he got was a light that grew more brilliant and hot than he ever imagined, a light that revealed the utter wickedness and absurdity of Communism itself.

Khrushchev saw the monumental failure of his tolerance quickly and he tried to reverse it with a complete suppression of Solzhenitsyn's work and reputation. Too late. The comparatively mild light of Ivan Denisovitch would blaze up into the more detailed, more searing revelations of the Gulag Archipelago, Cancer Ward, The First Circle, and more. Published in Western editions, Alexander Solzhenitsyn's work would become the single most reason behind the destruction of the Soviet Union's claims of a moral foundation. And when that began to weaken, other heroes of freedom (Ronald Reagan, Lech Walesa, John Paul II, et al) would follow up to eventually destroy, if not Communism in Russia, the huge threat of the Communist tyranny over Eastern Europe.

Re-reading One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch recently (as well as discussing it with the students of the 20th Century Christian Writers course I'm teaching for Grace University this semester) was as thrilling as ever as I contemplated how God had used this small novel as a big voice for freedom.

The soaring of the human spirit represented in that book is inspirational on many levels -- the clever sarcasm the author uses to engage the foolishness of the Soviet schemes is superb; the introduction of Alyosha presented the strongest Christian character that Russian literature had seen for three generations; and the passion for a detailed history of how the camps were run strongly foreshadows the full exposure Solzhenitsyn would produce in his later works. All these elements of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch (and more) show the spiritual genius as well as the bold courage of Alexander Solzhenitsyn -- a zek who quite literally and splendidly, changed the world.