Examining Solzhenitsyn’s Legacy
by Josh Katz
Since Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s death, many op-eds and obituaries have tried to explain the controversial figure famed for unmasking Soviet injustice to the world.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn died August 3 from heart failure at the age of 89 at his home in Moscow. He was buried Wednesday at a 16th-century monastery, in a grandiose religious ceremony attended by President Dmitry Medvedev.
Solzhenitsyn earned a Nobel Prize for literature in 1970, but his most famous work, “The Gulag Archipelago,” which exposed the horrors of the Soviet labor-camp system, was smuggled out of the country and published in 1973.
Since his death, there has been no shortage of obituaries and opinion pieces commenting on the life and legacy of the man. They reveal a complicated figure who was at one point larger than life, but who then appeared to fade in the minds of the general populace as his life wore on.
Michael Nicholson of the BBC paints Solzhenitsyn as a “tortured patriot” who was thrust onto the Russian political and literary scene with his novel, “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.” Nicholson says that, “Solzhenitsyn stands in a thoroughly Russian tradition, which imposes upon the writer a duty not simply to write well, but to voice the pains and aspirations of his society.”
As Zinovy Zinik wrote in the Times of London in 2007, Solzhenitsyn was not the first person to write about the harsh life experienced by those in the Soviet penal system. But he was the first to truly get the world to notice, and that was because he went further and “exposed the mechanism of state oppression from top to bottom, the overall complicity of the whole population in a criminal enterprise of dimensions that had until then been associated only with the Nazi regime.”
The Wall Street Journal notes that Solzhenitsyn’s impact was felt worldwide, not just in Russia. “Solzhenitsyn fortified the West with the truth and will to triumph in the Cold War.”
In the Dallas Morning News, Wiliam Murchison, the author of the upcoming book “Mortal Follies: Episcopalians and the Crisis of Mainline Christianity,” said that Solzhenitsyn’s greatness came from his desire not only for political change but for a “renewal of the human spirit.”
In 1974, Solzhenitsyn was expelled from the Soviet Union and ended up living in Vermont. It was in America where many learned that Solzhenitsyn’s strong criticisms were not limited to Russia.
Serge Schmemann met Solzhenitsyn when the writer came to Canada following his exile to speak with Schmemann’s father. According to Schmemann, Solzhenitsyn tended to become immersed in Russian affairs and lived in exclusion: “he rarely ventured out into the Western world, and when he did, it was to inveigh against Western immorality, consumerism and decadence in terms that showed little first-hand knowledge.”
He gave the 1978 commencement address at Harvard, censuring the West for its lack of “civic courage,” and “blindness of superiority.”
Many were also surprised that Solzhenitsyn’s exasperation grew as Russia began to shed its Communist past. In the Boston Globe, Cathy Young argued that he stopped living up to the beliefs he espoused when he wrote “The Gulag Archipelago” and other critiques of the Soviet government.
According to Young, Solzhenitsyn castigated the policies of Boris Yeltsin, saying the leader stripped Russia of prestige, while embracing President Vladimir Putin. “This was the sad paradox of Solzhenitsyn's final years,” Young writes. “The man who used his Nobel Prize to start a fund for political prisoners kept quiet about the new political prisoners of Putin's regime.”
In the Moscow Times, Yevgeny Kiselyov expresses a similar opinion. “Solzhenitsyn's proposals for how to improve conditions in Russia were naive, at best,” according to Kiselyov. “And how can we regard him as ‘the conscience of the people’ when he remained silent during Russia’s greatest tragedies, at times when the people needed moral support from an authoritative figure the most?” he said, citing instances like the start of the war in Chechnya and the Beslan hostage crisis.
Dr. Robert Horvath, a research fellow at La Trobe University, attempts to clear up the seeming inconsistencies in Solzhenitsyn's beliefs. “Despite the invective of critics who branded him a ‘Russian Khomeini’, Solzhenitsyn was neither an apologist for tsarist autocracy nor an anti-Semitic nationalist,” Horvath argues. “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.”
And, although Kiselyov lambasted Solzhenitsyn for his opinions later on in life, he admitted that Solzhenitsyn's impact on the course of history is monumental and undeniable. “In all truth, it was ‘The Gulag Archipelago’ that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, that lifted the Iron Curtain and that brought an end to the Soviet Communist regime.”