From Imagination to Idolatry: The World of Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Article excerpt

ONE night in early August 2008, my daughter, then aged nineteen and staying in Devon, sent a text to my mobile phone: 'Alexander Solzhenitsyn died tonight. Sorry'. It was clear from her text that she had grasped the strange sense of connection that I had always felt towards this Slavophile, Russian Orthodox Christian writer and anti-Marxist, despite my own lifelong left-wing views, and despite the fact that I have always thought of myself as a child of the Enlightenment, a believer in science, democracy and progress. One of my own early successes as a writer came in 1983 when I won an Eileen Illtyd David Human Rights Essay prize for a study of Solzhenitsyn's work, a revised version of which was later published in Contemporary Review. (1) Some weeks after the appearance of my piece, I received a letter from Australia via Contemporary Review from a man who claimed to be a Russian journalist who had been arrested in 1946 and had spent some years in Soviet labour camps. The letter claimed that Solzhenitsyn had in fact always worked for the KGB, or at least with the connivance of the secret police (strangely, this claim was hardly new, and had been made back in the 1960s at the beginning of Solzhenitsyn's fame). In my own small way I had entered the world of Solzhenitsyn, and, as an American journalist posted in Moscow observed in the 1970s, entering that world was a bit like entering a radioactive zone--the long-term consequences were unpredictable.

The day after the news of Solzhenitsyn's death reached the West, all the quality British newspapers published lengthy articles about him, which were of varying, but mainly high standard. I read them all. One photograph that must have proved disturbing for many people like myself who remember the Solzhenitsyn of the 1970s shows Vladimir Putin shaking the hand of a very old, frail and wheelchair-bound Solzhenitsyn as he presents him with the Russian Federation State Prize. Putin stands over Solzhenitsyn, and the Russian leader's face looks as curiously blank and expressionless as ever, while Solzhenitsyn looks incredibly old. It is, of course, difficult to assess Putin's achievements, character and motives in the West because much of what is written about him here is superficial and biased. When I was in Russia in 2007, Putin certainly seemed to still enjoy a good deal of popular support and approval, but, of course, the perceptions of a visitor to Russia may be unreliable.

It was startling to see Solzhenitsyn being shaken by the hand by any ruler of Russia, let alone an ex-KGB officer, remembering, as many of us do, the breathtaking courage of the man with the coarse beard, sombre and deeply lined face and fearless outbursts who set himself up as a one-man opposition to the whole weight and apparatus of the Soviet state. The writer's 'bizarre' and 'controversial' friendship with Putin was even more surprising, although Solzhenitsyn had been quick to point out that Putin served in the foreign intelligence service and not as an investigator of the political deviations of fellow Russians. Nevertheless, Solzhenitsyn's approval of Putin may give a clue to a defect in his own personality that he has--intermittently, and to his own great credit--acknowledged in his writing.

Before reflecting on any such defect and what it may mean in Solzhenitsyn's life and work, we do need to be firmly aware of certain basic facts. Millions of people were imprisoned, killed or otherwise suffered under the Soviet system, particularly, of course, in the years of Stalin's rule, and Solzhenitsyn himself was one of those victims, and carrying his bitter experiences with him, he was the first Russian to 'break down the wall of silence surrounding repression in the Soviet Union', as the dissident Russian historian Roy Medvedev put it. (2) And finally, Solzhenitsyn was the first person inside or outside the Soviet Union to describe the full scale of the Gulag, the network of labour camps that extended across the USSR. …