Solzhenitsyn's Century

Article excerpt

Alexander Solzhenitsyn: A Century in His Life. By D.M. Thomas, St. Martin's, 583 pp., $29.95.

In 1994 Alexander Solzhenitsyn returned to Russia on a trans-Siberian whistle-stop tour. In one town meeting he heard this rebuke: "It is you and your writing that started it all and brought our country to the verge of collapse and devastation. Russia doesn't need you. So for your own well-being and that of your loved ones, go back to your blessed America." Solzhenitsyn replied that to his dying day he would keep fighting against the evil ideology that is capable of slaying one-third of the population. The meeting erupted with applause.

Had D. M. Thomas been there, he would have clapped too. Not because the angry citizen was wrong, but because his opening ten words were right. The premise of Thomas's biography is that "Solzhenitsyn helped to bring down the greatest tyranny the world has seen, besides educating the West as to its full horror. No other writer of the 20th century has had such an influence on history." This attitude goes against the grain of the Western consensus, especially strong in the U.S., that has consigned Solzhenitsyn to neglect. By allowing us to glimpse afresh the grandeur of his achievement, this book may unsettle the consensus.

It was far from obvious that Solzhenitsyn would end up playing his world-historical role. He grew up such an enthusiastic communist that his young bride was jealous of Lenin. He too suffered from "the willful self-blindness" that, Thomas notes, "was to become a hallmark of the intelligentsia in many countries." Unlike the many who learned of Lenin's terror and Stalin's famine and still kept the faith, however, Solzhenitsyn lost the faith, saved his conscience, and took his solitary way to becoming a major player in and teller of the drama of his era. Thomas's subtitle presses the claim that Solzhenitsyn is central to his age and that knowing his story will help us understand the larger story.

We have yet to come to proper terms with what the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova called the True Twentieth Century, that foreshortened epoch which she saw beginning in 1914 and which we now can see ended in 1991. The young Solzhenitsyn logged in his notebook a grandiose title for a prospective novel: The Twentieth Century. In the end, this is the subject of his life's work. Along with only a few others, he came to see that the century's plot line was leading to a collapse of communism. This climax, generally so unexpected, imposes an enormous task of historical reassessment that not everyone is ready to embrace. As one survivor of the Gulag put it, "People are tired of the past." Vaclav Havel, trying to pinpoint our century's distinctive character, has called it the first atheistic civilization. In this description, he gives priority to culture over politics as historically decisive. Anyone who accepts Havel's sense of priorities will learn, as Havel has, from Solzhenitsyn.

This turbulent century has churned trot sensational life stories with plots too improbable for fiction. Havel went from prisoner to president within months. Solzhenitsyn went from army camp to prison camp for privately criticizing Stalin's military, blunders. In prison he moved from Marx back to the Jesus of his childhood. Eventually this unknown schoolteacher got a short novel published: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and the Soviet Union was never quite the same. Metaphorically speaking, the first crack had appeared in the Berlin Wall. Solzhenitsyn quickly fell out of favor and wrote on the run. Eventually he was shipped to the West, where the prickly fellow became a thorn in our side.

Twenty years later he went home as he had always said he would. Solzhenitsyn wished for no biography during his lifetime. But how could we resist this spectacular story?

Solzhenitsyn (whom Thomas annoyingly calls Sanya) seems an unlikely subject for the author of The White Hotel. …