Friday, December 26, 2008

Assessing Solzhenitsyn

Frontpage Symposium (directed by Jamie Glazov of Frontpage Magazine) has collected a most distinguished panel to discuss the significance of the life and work of Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

Those panelists include Natan Sharansky, a former Soviet dissident and political prisoner and winner of the Congressional Gold Medal of Freedom; Harvard Professor Emeritus Richard Pipes, one of the world's leading authorities on Soviet history; Pavel Litvinov, a Russian physicist, writer, human rights activist and former Soviet-era disisdent; Russian Orthodox priest Yakov Krotov; former Russian dissident Dr. Natalia Sadomskaya; Lt. Gen. Ion Mihai Pacepa, the highest official ever to have defected from the Soviet bloc; David Satter, a senior fellow of the Hudson Institute; former leading Russian dissident Yuri Yarim-Agaev; and Dr. Theodore Dalrymple, retired physician who is a contributing editor to City Journal and the author of the new book, Not With a Bang But a Whimper: The Politics and Culture of Decline.

The descriptions provided by this impressive group of Solzhenitsyn's work, philosophy and legacy are truly incomparable, covering as they do both Solzhenitsyn's heroic stand against Stalinism and, in his later years, a seemingly incongruous defense of Vladimir Putin.

Excellent, provocative reading. I print below just a few samples:

On learning of Solzhenitsyn’s death I had a sense of the end of an era. I grew up politically with Solzhenitsyn. As a teenager in the 1960s, I once asked my father whether it was true that there were slave labor camps in the Soviet Union. He said that if they had existed, we would have the accounts of survivors. After Solzhenitsyn and the publication of “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” it was no longer possible to say that there were no first hand accounts.

Many people, including millions of Soviet citizens, were deceived about the atrocities of the communist regime. More than anyone else, Solzhenitsyn dispelled those fatal illusions. His contribution to literature and to truth is indelible. I also, however, on learning of Solzhenitsyn’s death felt a sense of sadness that in his later years, he strayed from the path of universal values and supported the Putin regime. In this, he demonstrated spiritual weaknesses that were not so evident in the years when he valiantly resisted Soviet totalitarianism.

Solzhenitsyn made a monumental contribution to the destruction of Soviet communism. Many episodes from his books are simply unforgettable – the telephone call in the opening scene in The First Circle, Eleanor Roosevelt’s visit to the Butyrka Prison, the discovery of a prehistoric salamander in an ice lens by starving prisoners in The Archipelago Gulag. This rare artistic talent was used to bear witness to some of the greatest crimes of the century. In this way, Solzhenitsyn combined great art and riveting political relevance...

As to the ‘rapprochement’ between Solzhenitsyn and Putin, the mystery is easily solved if one reads “The Letter to the Leaders” written in 1973 and published by ‘Samizdat’ in 1974. It was the same year that Solzhenitsyn was exiled from the USSR.

His views, which he brought with him to the West, were like these: addressing Brezhnev and the others, he emphasized his national homogeny with the communist leaders, saying, “I am trying to say here the main thing: that I regard as salvation and good for our people, with whom all of us – both you and myself surely belong by birth.”

It’s not a slip of tongue. His meaning was: “I wish good for all the nations, and the closer to us, the more dependent on us, the warmer the wish. Yet primarily I care for the good of namely the Russian and the Ukranian peoples because of our incomparable sufferings.”...

Solzhenitsyn’s negative attitude to the pre-revolutionary opposition intelligentsia very soon turned into irritation against dissident emigrants. He saw that in the West, having attained freedom, they supported those very forms of democracy and parliamentarism he considered premature and dangerous for Russia. And when the dissidents tried to talk to him politically, he accused them of Russophobia...

When I was active in the Soviet dissident movement in the beginning of the 1970s, there were two clear camps. The first was led by Andrei Sakharov and was focused on fighting for universal human rights. The other, led by Solzhenitsyn, was fueled by a strong Russian identity. In a sense, this was a continuation of the classic divide among the Russian intelligentsia between “Westerners” and Slavophiles.

I was fully in the Sakharov camp. I was also part of the Soviet Jewry/Zionist movement, which had serious disagreements with Solzhenitsyn. For instance, he was critical of the Jackson amendment, which was so important for our movement. Whereas Sakharov understood that any expansion of freedom inside the USSR was a victory for the human rights struggle and should therefore be embraced, Solzhenitsyn thought too much energy was being wasted on ensuring freedom of emigration when the entire regime had to go.

But while the differences between the camps were real and would later, as many of the previous writers correctly mentioned, result in profound disagreements, those differences paled in comparison to our common struggle against Soviet totalitarianism.

The main challenge for all dissidents – democrats, Zionists, nationalists, etc. – was to convince the West that the Soviet regime was evil and that there was no place for appeasement. In this effort, Solzhenitsyn contributed more than anyone to unmasking that evil. His widely read books had a huge impact, and as a spokesman for the dissident movement, I can tell you that when I mentioned “The Gulag Archipelago,” everyone knew what I was talking about. By painting such a vivid and powerful picture of evil, he gave all dissidents an indispensable reference point for our struggle.

When the Iron Curtain fell, the differences between the camps came to the surface again. On one side were the democrats, heirs to the legacy of Sakharov. On the other was Solzhenitsyn, who put Russian identity first. Against the KGB, the forces of identity and freedom stood on the same side of the barricades. Today, unfortunately they often find themselves on different sides. And Solzhenitsyn was always a champion of identity more than a champion of freedom.

In a sense, Solzhenitsyn believed that one had to choose between being a man of his people and a man of the world. As I argue in my latest book, Defending Identity, this is a false choice. We can be both, as long as our commitment to our own unique history, people and faith is coupled with a firm commitment to freedom and democracy. For all his great insight, this was something that Solzhenitsyn never saw...

I would not call Solzhenitsyn controversial. The fact that I do not agree with a man does not make in itself him controversial. And though I disagree with Solzhenitsyn on many important issues, I must give him credit for the comprehensive and consistent position to which he adhered for most of his life... Accepting KGB officer Putin was not an inconsistency...That was a retreat from his position, the weakness of an old man who wanted to believe that he would see the light at the end of the tunnel before he died.

I feel it somehow wrong to start talking about one of the greatest men of the 20th century by discussing a rather inconsequential mistake of his old age. We should define first the broader context of his life and achievements. We should judge him first and foremost by his deeds, which had a great effect on our history and civilization, not by the quotes from his little known works, which had barely any influence.

To me Solzhenitsyn’s main legacy is the exposure of communism with such precision and power that that totalitarian ideology could never recover from the heavy blow. The Gulag Archipelago influenced not only liberal-minded intellectuals, but the Soviet ruling elite as well.

Solzhenitsyn also had a great impact on Western intellectual life and politics. He may be considered the godfather of neo-conservatism, which played a decisive role in dismantling Soviet communism and disarming that terrible ideology...

..Something that was so critical in unmasking such a horrific evil will always be much more than a blip.

Reading the remarks of this distinguished panel, one might get the impression that the demise of the Soviet Union was inevitable. But few in the free world believed this at the time.

We dissidents knew that the regime was weak, that it could be toppled, but that it needed a West that believed in the power of its own ideals -- a West that would abandon the course of appeasement, embrace moral clarity and confront the regime.

There were so many who wanted to understand, to sympathize, to find common ground, and there were so few who were really prepared to confront the regime.

If before it was politically correct to sympathize and draw a moral equivalence with the Soviet Union, the Gulag Archipelago made support for this regime something of an embarrassment. That was a critical stage in the struggle.

As to the argument that there were people like Shalamov who were both more talented and who suffered more, this is true. What differentiated Solzhenitsyn was not his towering literary talent or the extent of his suffering but the fact that he succeeded where so many others had fallen short. In secret, he meticulously collected and prepared material over many years and he became a voice for all those who dreamed to unmask the truth, who tried to unmask the truth, but who were unable to tell the world the true story of the horrors they were subject to. That is why his name will remain the symbol of the unmasking of Soviet evil even though so many others contributed to it.

A catalog of all previous Frontpage Symposiums can be found here.