Telling the Truth about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

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Comes now the great Daniel J. Mahoney, author of penetrating intellectual biographies of Bertrand de Jouvenel, Raymond Aron, and Charles de Gaulle, among other books, to discuss his latest work, The Other Solzhenitsyn. Mahoney, coeditor of The Solzhenitsyn Reader, offers in this discussion a tremendous introduction to the Russian dissident writer’s oeuvre and a rebuttal to his many critics.

We might say that some Western writers who, from their position of faux outrage, frequently critique their governments, societies, and cultures have Solzhenitsyn envy, earnestly wishing their work had even a fraction of the impact of the Russian anticommunist’s corpus of writings. Not that they admire Solzhenitsyn’s political or moral philosophy, or his belief that freedom is ultimately born of spiritual commitment. They only yearn to have it said that their words put a “sliver in the throat of power.” Such was the praise given Solzhenitsyn in 1962 after the publication of One Day in the Live of Ivan Denisovich.

If that short account of prison life was a sliver, The Gulag Archipelago represents the single most consequential writing delegitimizing Soviet communism. This “experiment in literary investigation” reports on Solzhenitsyn’s eight years in Soviet prison camps, recalling the sufferings of the zeks and the lies of the regime, knowingly accepted by its apparatchiks, lies required to keep the entire illegitimate enterprise afloat. Mahoney quotes the Swiss scholar Georges Nivat’s observation that in this work, Solzhenitsyn is “the Homer of the subterranean world inhabited by the zeks, a world of camps, repression and death, but also of spiritual renewal that he famously named ‘the gulag archipelago.’”

Yet, Solzhenitsyn’s person and his work have been attacked and misrepresented. Are the accounts of Solzhenitsyn as anti-democratic, theocratic, and pro-Putin, to name a few, accurate? Do they reveal something his admirers have missed? Or is it the case that many Western writers fail to understand the nature of Solzhenitsyn’s critique of both communism and the materialism and unbounded freedom of late-modern Western democracies, to say nothing of their understanding of the Russian nation and culture, and the type of political freedom that Solzhenitsyn advocated after Soviet communism fell? Mahoney’s discussion of these questions and ideas is fascinating.

Some might wonder why we need to listen to the words of Solzhenitsyn given that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics is defunct. It is because we have been unable to deal with the monstrous legacy of communism. We have fallen short, as Solzhenitsyn himself said, and we need to explore why. His reasoning that communism was the fulfillment of philosophical modernity surely merits consideration in the matter of our diffidence in confronting communism’s record of death and destruction.

Daniel J. Mahoney

Mr. Mahoney holds the Augustine Chair in Distinguished Scholarship at Assumption College in Worcester, Mass. He is the author of the Conservative Foundations of the Liberal Order; Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The Ascent From Ideology and is co-editor of The Solzhenitsyn Reader.

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  1. says

    “Some might wonder why we need to listen to the words of Solzhenitsyn given that communism failed.” Because the evil of coercively collectivist tyranny always returns with a new face, from Barabas to Barak, veneering the same totalitarian spirit of oppression.

    • JohnTyler says

      “……Because the evil of coercively collectivist tyranny always returns with a new face, from Barabas to Barak, veneering the same totalitarian spirit of oppression…..”

      Actually it never leaves!! Despite the mass exterminations in Stalin’s USSR, despite the consistent record of oppression and state -conducted murder EVERYWHERE communism has been imposed, the CPUSA still !!!!!! has it’s headquarters in NYC and still !!!!! proclaims that communism is the only path to societal “justice.”

      Not for one second could the NAZi Party USA maintain it’s headquarters in Manhattan, yet the 100,000,000 MURDERED by communist regimes in the 20th century does not cause anyone to question why a political organization based on MASS MURDER and OPPRESSION is tolerated in NYC.
      Where are the demonstrations? Where are the human rights activists??
      Simple, ANY anti-capitalist organization , all of which are beloved by “intellectuals” , are given a free pass .
      If Hitler had been declared by Stalin to be a good , socialist traveler, you would hear of the horrors of the Holocaust as often as you hear of the horrors of the “Great Terror” or of the other mass extermination carried out by communists; that is, almost NEVER.

      • The Big Picture says

        What a hysterical, idiotic response. CPUSA is a tiny crackpot organization with few followers and no mainstream recognition (it’s loony members may sympathize with communism, but did not themselves commit any crimes). In this country we afford the rights of free speech and association even to crackpots, because history shows it’s better to let them embarrass themselves than to gain currency for their status of being banned. And actually there was a similarly crackpot American Nazi movement until the 1970s that found followers based on its opposition to civil rights. The government did not ban that movement, either. You ought to be worried about real threats to democracy instead of spewing this red-bating drivel in response to a fantasized problem.

  2. says

    When working my way through the (in the end three) volumes of the Gulag Archipelago I was always wondering where Solzhenitsyn.got all the names from that he mentioned in these pages. There are hundreds of names of prisoners etc.and to this day I struggle to understand how he could have a) collected them and b) get the manuscript smuggled out with all that evidence. The Gulag was not really a literary work; for it to that it was to long-winded as he tried to incorporate every sliver of individual fate that he had come across during and after his imprisonment. Yet I can’t think of anyone who has proven him wrong in any detail worth noting. Later he moved to Oregon and became rather a mystic and if I’m not mistaken, a lot of the people around Putin follow similar ideas about the role of the orthodox church although Putin at times has called the demise of the Soviet Union a great political catastrophe. The Russian ideas of politics, fate and history are difficult to fathom.

  3. john trainor says

    Solzhenitsyn became a past hero not to long after arriving in America. Lionized in Russia, eventually shelved and forgotten here. In one country he faced the collectivist, brutal State, in the other the materialist, morally desiccated, principles free and power driven, centralized and historically ignorant contemporary democracy we find ourselves in, and which through it’s spokesmen, the media and academics, found quite quickly it had no use for him. A prophet come to late, the bearer of tidings unwanted. And so he was discarded by them.

  4. Susan Waggoner says

    While I agree with the importance of Solzhenitsyn’s political contributions, one reason to continue reading him is that he was a great writer. I first read him in college, when I was the typical English lit grad student, without any significant political thoughts of any kind, but I knew he was a great writer. It was only when I hit the wall of the real world that I incorporated those vivid and memorable books into a political fabric. Communism’s many poisons will never be completely eradicated, just look east to the control fanatics running the government, so it’s good to have these books under your belt when you start wondering why things are the way they are. Reading Solzhenitsyn first as a great writer is a good place to start.

  5. John Brown says

    Everyone should read Solzhenitsyn’s work especially about how the old USSR engaged in the lies of communism that were told and knowingly accepted by its slaves, lies that were required to keep an ideological regime going. Then they should compare it to the current Obama regime in the U.S. where LIES are told, and accepted by the media and tens of millions of adherents, even though everyone knows they are LIES, for the sole purpose of keeping Obama’s corrupt, dishonest, and INCOMPETENT Regime. going. Obama hasn’t imposed a communist dictatorship, YET, but he is clearly working hard to transform our nation into an authoritarian Marxist/Socialist people’s style Republic where the truth is whatever the regime decides it wants it to be.

  6. Bob in Maryland says

    Solzhenitsyn is one of my favorite writers. I must have read The Gulag Archipelago at least five times over the years, along with most of his other works. One book by Solzhenitsyn that I have yet to read (or even see a copy of) is his “Two Hundred Years Together” about Russian-Jewish relations in the 19th and 20th Centuries. I understand it’s never even been translated into English, although I don’t know for certain whether that’s true.

    Does anyone know whether “The Other Solzhenitsyn” discusses his writing (and views) about the Russian Jews? I hesitate to believe the negative comments I’ve read about “Two Hundred Years Together” because we now know there was a very effective KGB-directed smear campaign designed to discredit the author throughout most of his life in exile, and a great deal of totally fabricated misinformation and distortion made its way into popular thinking about Solzhenitsyn.

  7. M White says

    This was disappointing. A brief mention of One Day, one of the most important works of the middle of the twentieth century. No mention at all of The First Circle or Cancer Ward. I wasn’t as impressed by the WWI/Revolution trilogy, but when writing about what he knew, Solzhenitsyn was a worthy successor to Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov. There was plenty of information about the Stalinist penal system, but great novelists are thin on the ground. What a shame to remember Solzhenitsyn merely as a political polemicist.

  8. Bob says

    The Gulag Archipelago is a ground level view of the communist/totalitarian regimes. Not just the Soviet Union’s record, but the same thing has been going on in No. Korea for many years. What history course today would make a semester course out of F. A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, a high level view where socialism leads, and The Gulag Archipelago, the end result?

  9. mickeycz2014 says

    Communism failed and left a legacy of misery. A comment here made note of the 100 million dead at the hands of all the Communist regimes n the 20th Century. The source of that information is The Black Book of Communism, which lays out all of the atrocities committed by dictatorships of the “common man.”
    I have met and talked with Communist authors and believers since its fall and they still believe in it and always will.
    Occupy Wall Street was just Communist street theater that any apparatchik would recognize in the last century.
    Somehow there are people who believe that the State can make things better, without the realization that our human natures will always get in the way and nepotism and cronyism and every human vice and failing will come to the for within and as part of that State.

  10. Delmar Jackson says

    In a time when we have billionaire open border globalists feverishly working to flood western nations with and endless wave of 3rd world immigration, I am always comforted by a quote from Solzhenitsyn:
    “It has become fashionable in recent times to talk of the leveling of nations, and of various peoples
    disappearing into the melting pot of contemporary civilization. I disagree with this,…; all that should be said
    here is that the disappearance of whole nations would impoverish us no less than if all people were to become identical,
    with the same character and the same face. Nations are the wealth of humanity,…”
    Alexander Solzhenitsyn

  11. says

    Aw, this was an extremely good post. Taking the time
    and actual effort to create a very good article… but what can I say… I put things off a lot and never manage to
    get anything done.

  12. dr. james willingham says

    When I first saw the title, I thought it involved criticism of Solzhenitsyn. Then I read the discussion and was delighted to find that it was worthwhile. I can remember , when I was introduced to Solzhenitsyn in the Summer of 1971 at Columbia University by a professor who told me he was a Marxist. He recommend that I read One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich, and I did, adding it to my library then. Later I would read the Gulag, thinking how much of concentration camp life is alike, regardless of where it is located or under what regime. Seems that communism, according to Bella Dodd, late chairman of the American Communist Party sometime in the 30s-40s, was the invention of the rich to control the poor and that they were not governed over there but over here. I had one of the theoreticians for world communism as a professor of sociology at a small Black state University in the Midwest. He armed me, though that was not his intention, with the expectation that I would encounter this stuff later in my education career which I did. However, none achieved the stature that that Sociologist did.

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