We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s war of words against the USSR

We have of course already alluded here to the passing of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Here is another tribute to this great man, from Theodore Dalrymple twelve days ago, which I think is spot on:

Contrary to popular belief, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who died last week at 89, told the world nothing that it did not already know, or could not already have known, about the Soviet Union and the Communist system. Information about their true nature was available from the very first, including photographic evidence of massacre and famine. Bertrand Russell, no apologist of conservatism, spotted Lenin’s appalling inhumanity and its consequences for Russia and humanity as early as 1920. The problem was that this information was not believed; or if believed, it was explained away and rendered innocuous by various mental subterfuges, such as false comparison with others’ misdeeds, historical rationalizations, reference to the supposed grandeur of the social ideals behind the apparent horrors, and so forth. Anything other than admission of the obvious.

Solzhenitsyn’s achievement was to render such illusion about the Soviet Union impossible, even for its most die-hard defenders: he made illusion not merely stupid but wicked. With a mixture of literary talent, iron integrity, bravery, and determination of a kind very rarely encountered, he made it impossible to deny the world-historical scale of the Soviet evil. After Solzhenitsyn, not to recognize Soviet Communism for what it was and what it had always been was to join those who denied that the earth was round or who believed in abduction by aliens. Because of his clear-sightedness about Lenin’s true nature, it was no longer permissible for intellectuals who had been pro-Soviet to hide behind the myth that Stalin perverted the noble ideal that Lenin had started to put into practice. Lenin was, if such a thing be possible, more of a monster than Stalin, not so much inhumane as anti-human. Solzhenitsyn was always uncompromising – and, of course, quite right – on this point: no Lenin, no Stalin. Insofar as Solzhenitsyn finally destroyed the possibility in the West of intellectual sympathy for the Soviet Union (which inhibited the prosecution of the Cold War), he helped bring about the demise of the revolutionary, ideological state, and for that he will be remembered as long as history is written.

But I suspect that this may also be right:

The problem for Solzhenitsyn’s literary reputation is that the subjects his books address no longer seem so compelling to younger readers. Astonishing as it may seem to people who lived through the time when Solzhenitsyn appeared as a colossus, many people younger than 30 – not only in America and Western Europe but in Russia itself – have never heard of him or do not know what he did. Of course, literary reputations wax and wane; but his disappearance from the consciousness of young people at least raises the question of whether his achievement was more political and moral than literary.

Ever since I read A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (out loud on the University of Essex radio station as it transpired), I always had Solzhenitsyn clocked as: Great Writer? – not sure; propagandist – all time great. In this respect, I particular recommend his memoir called The Oak and the Calf, which is about how he did his propagandising, which was all mixed up with how he managed to keep himself alive to go on propagandising, which was a mighty achievement in itself under the murderous circumstances that he described and publicised so well.

Quite aside from the fact that I don’t read Russian, this judgement of mine surely has much to do with the fact that I have no very definite idea what a great writer is in any language (although I know very approximately what I like) and am myself scarcely a published writer at all. I’m not saying he was a great writer of literary fiction, and I’m not saying he wasn’t. On the other hand, I know quite a lot about propaganda and have myself done it with some glimmerings of success. In rather the same way that if you actually play football in some very lowly division you are an order of magnitude better than I am at knowing just how good Pele was or Ronaldo is, I can tell you that Solzhenitsyn was, when it came to spreading ideas, awesomely good, and that this was no accident. He brought skills like those of a chess grandmaster to the ideological struggle between him (and all his Samizdat allies) and the USSR. and his industry and attention to detail (to say nothing of his sheer courage) was extraordinary. The notion that he won his ideological battle without any hard graft besides the hard graft of just writing it down in some isolated dacha is quite wrong. He was the spokesman for an entire generation of other writers and record keepers. He was the leader of an entire underground movement. He created a fact-shifting machine as surely as any Western press magnate. He quite consciously set himself the task of destroying the USSR using only the power of the written and published word, and more than any other man – with the possible exception of Ronald Reagan, who also had the awesome military clout of the USA at his disposal – he succeeded.

Not that Solzhenitsyn was himself indifferent to or ignorant of military affairs. Towards the end of his life he wrote several novels about the First World War. He was in the artillery before being swallowed up by the monster that he named the Gulag, and he thought of all the truths that he gathered about the Gulag as ammunition, and the publishing of them as the launching of artillery barrages. If Dalrymple is right, it will be for the war of words that Solzhenitsyn conducted against the USSR, and for the fact that it succeeded so brilliantly, that he will be most admiringly remembered. But now that he is gone, fresh looks will surely be taken from the purely literary point of view at Solzhenitsyn’s achievement, and posterity may arrive, as Dalrymple says, at a somewhat different conclusion.

18 comments to Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s war of words against the USSR

  • RKV

    Well put, and yet missing a couple of points. First, AS was an Orthodox Christian, and not a western liberal. His cultural and religious instincts are not ours, even though he may reference the Renaissance in an idealistic way, Orthodoxy never had a Reformation. Second he was a Russian nationalist. In light of recent events in Georgia (and quite a bit of history for that matter), this is problematic at best. Third, he was NOT as some would assert, an anti-Semite – I’ve read a large enough fraction of his writings to be quite certain. The fact that he criticizes some Jews and some tendencies of Jewish culture, is enough for some to make the accusation, but they are wrong, since he is quite critical of many other persons and ideas.

    My definition of a great writer is pretty simplistic, and AS meets it easily, as do others like Samuel Clemens, George Orwell, Rudyard Kipling and so on. It rests on two points. One, their writings had a significant cultural impact and two, they represent high art – namely that truth, beauty and love exist and matter immensely. RIP Alexander Solzhenitsyn

  • Missing? You can’t say everything. What I concentrated on was his discovery of and publicising of the truth, about what people were suffering in the Gulag and above all on the sheer scale of the thing. He gathered up all he could, and passed it on. For these purposes, his own opinions about how Russia should have been governed are secondary. Very interesting, and you are of course right about his non-liberalism and Christianity and nationalism, but the important thing from the propaganda point of view was finding the stories and spreading them, which he did. The truth is often told by people with very odd and/or confused ideas about what should have been happening instead.

    Solzhenitzyn’s reports included many from, just as a for-instance, convinced Communists, who still thoroughly supported the Revolution, regretting only the turn it had taken.

    If I thought that Solzhenitsyn’s political opinions had been neglected in other commentary about him, and in particular in the obituaries, I would have mentioned them, but they haven’t been. What I wanted to emphasise was his fascination with and mastery of the nuts and bolts of propaganda. Emphasising his mere opinons about things has caused many to miss this, as if the only thing he was interested in doing was spreading his own opinions, and telling of his own experiences.

  • RKV

    Brian, Take a deep breath. Only added that stuff for completeness sake. Your point is well made, and well taken.

  • Take a look at this.

    Sure, we might not like his ideas on “how things should have been”, but so what. What makes him a real hero is his ability to recognize evil, and to have the courage not only to point it out, but to actively fight against it.

    I will always remember as a kid walking into a home of friends of the family, and finding them glued to the radio, listening to the (VOA or BBC?) reading of The First Circle.

  • Sigivald

    I must quibble only with the implication, perhaps inadvertent, that Solzhenitsyn coined the term “gulag”.

    He did not, since it’s just the acronymized name of the subdivision of the NKVD in charge of the camps.

  • In the first sentence of the second paragraph quoted from Dalrymple is the essential reason why, in 1999, I decided that A.S. was the single most important writer of the twentieth century.

    I would point out that the “Red Wheel” series is about a great deal more than World War I.

    He often captivated me as a writer, but it was almost never undiluted with political philosophy. Details of his style brought me to an understanding of Ayn Rand’s work from a perspective that I hadn’t seen before I read him: she was a Russian in her passions and tempo. Solzhenitsyn’s portrait of Col. Vorotyntsev in “August 1914”, home from the Tannenberg disaster and daydreaming about kissing the stones of what later became Red Square is an image of patriotism that moved me to tears.

    Maybe it’s just because I grew up in ground-zero nuclear crosshairs (Dad was Air Force: we always lived right in the middle of targets) — the period of history that made Solzhenitsyn crucially important. {shrug} If so, then I guess I’d just have to say that these brats these days missed something really special in world history.

    I would hope to keep it that “special”, but the ways things are going, I say that all bets are off.

  • Some friends recently had a Russian exchange student come to stay. The boy is about 16. Given current events, some interesting discussions ensued. For one thing, he and his family (parents are university profs) are very pro-Putin because they support a strong Russia. But most disturbing was his reaction to AS death. The basic gist of it is that he believes AS wrote fiction and that none of the stuff depicted in his books is real, in any way; that people move to Siberia because they want to; that he is not to be taken seriously at all. It is likely that this is the propaganda that is taught in the schools.
    The boy is staying with a family that has a library full of Mises and Hayek and Sowell, and he will be going to a charter school with an economics class and a strong classical curriculum, as well as a history teacher who is going to disabuse him of at least a few firmly held beliefs.
    If this boy is representative of current Russian thinking, we can expect more of Putin, and more Putins.

  • Ivan

    Theodore Dalrymple:

    Because of his clear-sightedness about Lenin’s true nature, it was no longer permissible for intellectuals who had been pro-Soviet to hide behind the myth that Stalin perverted the noble ideal that Lenin had started to put into practice.

    As much as I’d love things to be that way, I’m afraid Dalrymple is being way too optimistic here. In my experience, in the intellectual mainstream, it is still the prevailing opinion that Lenin’s good, or at least mixed-bag legacy was perverted by Stalin. Outside of staunchly anti-Communist circles such as libertarians and conservatives, and to a large degree even among them, stories about peasant uprisings against the Red Terror that Lenin and Trotsky crushed using chemical weapons or the first Bolshevik concentration camps that were up and running already in 1919 are mostly unknown. In fact, even today, praising Lenin or Trotsky won’t raise a single eyebrow in a polite mainstream company.

    Even when it comes to Stalin himself, most people will admit that he was bad, but very few are aware of the sheer scale of his crimes. In fact, I’m sure that most modern intellectuals would honestly opine that while Stalin was admittedly bad, he was nowhere as evil as various anti-Communist dictators – even when a cursory look at undisputed numbers will reveal that the crimes of the latter were smaller by three or four orders of magnitude. In fact, I would say that these days, you’re more likely to make people think you’re a raving monster by making a remark in favor of George W. Bush than in favor of Stalin.

    As much as we might hate to admit it, the Communists lost the Cold War militarily and economically, but they did get the upper hand in propaganda. Sure, few people view Communism as an unalloyed good these days, but compared to what they actually did in practice, Communist regimes never suffered even 5% of the condemnation they deserved – not to mention that virtually not a single Communist murderer ever got prosecuted for his crimes, even though plenty of them are still alive as I write this, and many are guilty of worse crimes than the majority of the convicted Nazi criminals. Still, Solzhenitsyn and other brave Soviet dissidents deserve every praise and respect for making even that 5% happen.


    It is even more sinister than that, Laurel. I don’t recal the exact details, but very recently the Russian Ministry of Education announced that from now Russian history books for students will no longer deny the murder of Polish Officers in Katyn, but will treat that crime as a justified revenge for Soviet Union’s lost war with Poland in 1920-21 when the Soviets invaded this country in order to crush Poland’s freshly recovered independence. And that seems to be only a tip of an ice-berg. It will be easy for neo-Soviet regime to poison the minds not only of the young Russians but minds of the Westerners as well, as the overwhelming majority of them is completely ignorant about Soviet barbarity. In Australia, for example, no more than one in ten has ever heard about GULAG. Looks like Solzhenitsyn’s victory over Soviet Grand Lie was temporary only. Very sad…

  • All victories are temporary…

  • Adam

    Solzhenitsyn was a leader of anything because he did what he did without regards to larger intentions like reform or what not. I liked how a writer put it, if Solzhenitsyn did not exist, then Khrushchev would have invented him. A writer who lamented the excesses of Stalinism on a personal level, but wasn’t a radical democrat or reformer with an agenda ran totally contrary to the Kremlin.

    Solzhenitsyn was in the end a very “Soviet”
    man despite his suffering by Soviet hands. People in the West who lionize him tend to forget that.

  • Solzhenitsyn was in the end a very “Soviet” man

    Oh, what nonsense.
    “Soviet man” means: a corrupt, lying, power grabbing, murderous bastard.
    Solzhenitsyn was a decent person. Diametrically opposed to “Soviet man”.

    “propagandist – all time great”
    Propagandist means, in my book, one who sells you lemons – basically a liar, or charlatan. Again: diametrically opposite of what Solzhenitsyn was.
    Unfortunate word. Maybe you should have used “communicator”.
    He was above all, an outstanding writer, this talent gave power to his crusade. This, and the fact that he spoke the truth in the kingdom of liars, where truth speaking was usually punished by death.

    I decided that A.S. was the single most important writer of the twentieth century.

    I’ll second that if you omit the “single”.
    (What is a plural writer ?).

  • M

    Solzhenitsyn’s anti-Western views are one of the most interesting things about him. Not that I agree with his views on the west. They are interesting to read about though because it shows he was a far more complex character than many of his supporters in the West tended to make out. He thoroughly despised liberalism, secularism, consumerism, compared NATO to Hitler, and considering his nationalism and his belief that NATO was encircling Russia, my guess is that had he lived to see it, he would probably have supported his government’s policy in Georgia.

  • Paul Marks

    It should be remembered what some of Solzhenitsyn’s “anti Western” views were.

    For example, in his Harvard speech he attacked the betrayal of millons of people to be murdered and tens of millions enslaved in Indo China. He told his “liberal” audience that the Vietnam war was not “unwinable” and that American casualties (even with the stupid tactics used) were NOT vast.

    Of course to a man whose idea of war was the Russian Civil War of his early childhood, or the Eastern Front of World War II of his early manhood – less than 60, 000 dead over ten years must have seemed less horrible than it does to us.

    Solzhenitsyn also attacked the superficial and dishonest media – and it is superficial and dishonest.

    Solzhenitsyn also attacked a lot of Western popular culture, but he did NOT (as some seem to think) call for it to be banned.

    He simply thought that a lot of popular music was worthless (and so on in the other arts).

    One could attack him that this was an opinion he shared with nasty people (such as Stalin), but it was an artistic and spiritual judgment – and it would have been dishonest of Solzhenitsyn not to be open about his views on the quality of the arts and their role in the spiritual life of man.

    That (as an artist – not just a Russian) was what he was about. So he had denounce the worthless and spiritually bankrupt – if that is what he thought it was.

    As for knowledge of the crimes of the Marxists:

    Yes they were known.

    For example, my father (Harry Marks) knew that MILLIONS of people were being murdered in Soviet Russia in the 1930’s (the “Terror Famines” were even reported in the Daily Express – and it was obvious that it was not “capitalist propaganda”) , that is one reason that he left the Young Communist League.

    And it was known in the United States also – which is why Mrs Roosevelt demanded that the old Russian Section of the State Department be closed down. It kept producing evidence of things the New Dealers wanted to pretend they did not know about.

    Although (to be even handed to American political groups), Richard Nixon and his allies did not want to know about the tens of millions their friend Mao was murdering.

    But then Red China, at that time, had no Solzhenitsyn.

    Somehow Solzhenitsyn managed what so many other writers had failed to do – he got the crimes of the Marxists to the inner core of the minds of most people.

    Not all people – many pro Soviet people remained.

    But most people understood in their core that the Soviet Union was both evil and not a “perversion” of Marxist socialism – but a logical outcome of it.

  • M

    Solzhenitsyn also attacked the superficial and dishonest media – and it is superficial and dishonest.

    He doesn’t appear to have attacked the post-Communist Russian media for this though, even though the media under Putin era Russian media makes even American trash like CNN and Fox News worth watching in comparison.

  • M

    But this probably has much to do with the fact that Solzhenitsyn appears to have been pro-Putin.

  • Paul Marks

    Solzhenitsyn opposed a pro government monopoly of broadcasting – and that is exactly what Putin has created.

    Although I agree with you that Solzhenitsyn’s failure to denouce Putin (a failure directly connected to the endless inflation, corruption and economic chaos of the Yelstin years – and the great poverty this produced) was the greatest moral failing of Solzhenitsyn’s life – even the greatest of men can suffer periods of moral blindness.

    As for Fox News being trash – actually it is one of the few things that makes my life bearable.

    Before you laugh I would remind you of M.A. Bradford’s reply to the statement that Ronald Reagan was “all rheteric”

    “You will miss that rhetoric when he is gone”.

    When and if Fox News is eliminated or castrated (which will be the first order of business for an Obama Administration in conjunction with such people as Speaker Pelosi and Majority Whip Durbin) you will miss it – for all your opinion that it is trash.

  • M

    I wouldn’t miss it because I don’t watch TV news anymore.

    I don’t really begrudge Solzhenitsyn for not condemning Putin. Not that I like Putin. It’s just that thinking about it more and more, I don’t think Solzhenitsyn really ever hid his contempt for liberalism (be it what we would call classical liberalism or modern liberalism) or his support for Russian nationalism. Therefore I don’t think he was particularly inconsistent to both hate an internationalist and totalitarian communist regime and support a somewhat autocratic and nationalistic state. Although we can make comparisons between Soviet Russia and Putin Russia, it is obvious that whereas the former seeked to destroy Russian culture and export socialist revolution abroad, the latter seems to support, at least superficially (the Russia nouveau-riche are perhaps the most tasteless rich folk on Earth after all), a revival of old Russian culture through its patronisation of institutions like the Orthodox Church and its foreign policy is unideological and simply concerns aggrandising Russia. It has no appeal to non-Russians and has led to a complete breakdown in Russian-Western relations, but I can see how a Russian nationalist may see something good of Putinism. This no doubt disappointed many of Solzhenitsyn’s liberal supporters, but I think they probably should have been aware that in many ways he was miles apart from them.