The Ikon and the Latrine Bucket: The World of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

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|I LYICH, is it your turn to take out the latrine bucket?', one prisoner asked another in a crammed cell in the Lubyanka Prison in Moscow in the Spring of 1945. The question was overheard by a twenty-six year old captain of artillery, newly arrested for veiled, though disparaging, remarks about Stalin contained in a letter to a friend which had been intercepted. The young captain shuddered with a sense of outrage. Ilyich happened to be Lenin's patronymic as well as that of the prisoner addressed. The brilliant young officer felt disgust that the name should be uttered in the same sentence as |latrine bucket' and also felt that it was somehow wrong to call anyone but Lenin by that name.(1) This highly decorated Red Army officer had harboured an intellectual contempt for Stalin since boyhood, yet he was a passionately convinced Marxist-Leninist. The young officer was Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn, later to become a Nobel prize winner and the most famous of Soviet dissidents and one of the most formidable and implacable opponents of Marxism of the 20th century.

Few writers in history have been so profoundly and crucially affected by the experience of imprisonment as Solzhenitsyn. His major works are an artistic response to prison and concentration camp life, to punitive exile and to an awareness of being defined as an enemy and an alien by the society which he had served unselfishly and with energy and discipline. Now that the writer is in his seventies and has been engaged for over twenty years in writing a quite different series of books, not connected with his prison experiences or - in any direct way - with his own life, it can be seen that his arrest and his years as a prisoner are an essential point of reference in understanding his development and his literary output as a whole. Understanding of Solzhenitsyn is important because his career illuminates not only the course of 20th century history and the ideologies which have helped to generate historical changes, but also the issues of moral integrity and artistic integrity and artistic decline.

It has become increasingly obvious in recent years since the spectacle of Solzhenitsyn's almost unbelievable bravery in setting himself up as opponent of the Soviet regime - and indeed that very regime itself - have receded into the past, that he is not a great writer. That term, great writer, is of course an imprecise and dangerous one, but it is an essential concept. Much lengthy theorising can be avoided, perhaps, by quoting actual examples. Shakespeare's sonnets are great poetry, while the sonnets of Sir Philip Sidney are good poetry. Jack London and Somerset Maugham are good writers, even important writers, but George Eliot and Conrad are great writers. The peculiar nature of the 20th century has given Solzhenitsyn immense importance as a historical figure though he remains a good and remarkable writer not a great one. The notion that Solzhenitsyn's work is on the same level as that of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky is a cliche put about by politically-minded journalists hostile to the USSR, or an over-reaction by intelligent critics astonished by the appearance of worthwhile fiction in Russia after decades of censorship and silence.

Political writers are perhaps the least clearly understood of all writers, though they often go to great lengths, even to the extent of vulgarising their work, to make their meaning clear. Sympathetic understanding and objectivity are replaced, however, by condemnation or adulation which has little to do with the writer's work and a great deal to do with party loyalty or emotional imperatives. Orwell grasped this point with unusual clarity and ironically, it has been the fate of Orwell's own greatest novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four to be more misunderstood and misrepresented than any novel in English in the last half-century. Until the 1980s the artistic greatness of Orwell's last work received amazingly little attention. The book was either seen as a defence of the Free World against Communism and the Labour Party or as a sick man's vicious satire on socialism and the Soviet Union. …