A Nation’s Conscience
As mentioned in the foregoing essay, in the Soviet period which stretched from the Revolution of 1917 to the fall of Soviet communism in 1991, it was Russian underground fiction which carried on the nineteenth-century struggle against Russian despotism now turning into a full-blown Soviet totalitarianism.
The Russian revolution of 1917, like most revolutions in their initial stages, had been full of humane promise: a new Soviet man would supersede the old Adam; corruption, greed and exploitation would cease, and men and women would be free to follow their own creative ends in a world where freedom and social equality would become the mark of a classless, atheist, society in the not too distant future, creating its own paradise on earth.
This idealization of revolutionary Soviet reality was to bear bitter fruit in real Soviet Russian life, bringing with it a holocaust of death and destruction to tens of millions of Soviet people caught in Stalin’s concentration camps. Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918-) who experienced the Stalinist terror in the camps firsthand, who in his literary work, of which One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962), Cancer Ward (1968) and his three-volume The Gulag Archipelago (1973-75) were the most notable, became one of the most courageous voices in the dissident moral protest of the 1960s, had this to say in his Nobel Lecture of 1972 on the tragic consequences of the Soviet totalitarian state:
But woe to the nation whose literature is cut off by the interposition of force. That is not
simply a violation of “freedom of the press”; it is stopping up the nation’s heart, carving out
the nation’s memory. The nation loses its memory; it loses its spiritual unity - and, despite
their supposedly common language, fellow countrymen suddenly cease understanding each
other. Speechless generations are born and die, having recounted nothing of themselves
either to their own times or to their descendants. That such masters as Akhmatova and
Zamyatin were buried behind four walls for their whole lives and condemned even to the
grave to create in silence, without hearing one reverberation of what they wrote, is not only
their own personal misfortune but a tragedy for the whole nation -277
277 Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Nobel Lecture, Translated from the Russian by F. D. Reeve (New
York, 1972), pp. 19-20.