The Last Dissident
Beer, Jeremy, The American Conservative
America viewed Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn as too Christian, too uncompromising, too reactionary-but we are hugely in his debt.
A PROPHET'S DEATH makes our shallow infotainment culture even less tolerable than usual. To see the man's passing become just another item on the ticker, juxtaposed with the latest developments in the unretirement of Brett Favre or the fascinating Paris Hilton-John McCain contretemps. To endure some dimwitted anchor's mangling of the few "facts" about his life on file in the newsroom. ("Solzhenitsyn was awarded a Nobel Prize last year," reported Headline News, mistaking 2008 for 1971.) To see his legacy reduced to predictably "neutral" journalistic synopses. ("Some thought him a hero, but others spied a dangerous fanatic...")
It was all so unworthy of the great Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. He devoted his life to struggling against not just the lies of communism but, more fundamentally, the peculiarly insidious lies of secular, anthropocentric modernity, of which communism was one of the most ugly-because most ruthlessly logical-manifestations. And so, not surprisingly, in the last three decades of his life, when he was not mocked, ridiculed, or misrepresented, the perversely uncooperative Solzhenitsyn was almost entirely ignored by the news and culture industry. The tasty morsel of his death provided-finally-some usable Solzhenitsyn material. It even provided an opportunity for genuine gratitude: despite your many faults, thank you, Solzhenitsyn, for helping us overcome so unprofitable a system as communism.
Fortunately, as he once said of himself in another context, Solzhenitsyn has proved indigestible. He was not a man given to compromises. With the astonishing worldwide success of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in 1962, and as the famously courageous author of The First Circle (1968), Cancer Ward (1968), and The Gulag Archipelago (1973-76), Solzhenitsyn could, after his exile from the Soviet Union in 1974, have had his choice of publishers for the rest of his working life. All he had to do was not deviate too much from the pattern that the West had set out for him. Had he just played the game a little bit-moderate this, mute that, and could you give us something a little bit shorter?-all would have been fine. Who could have blamed him?
But Solzhenitsyn was a man of conviction and calling. By August 1914 (1971), Christian themes had become important in his work. This discomfited his secular Western audience, and the "problem" of Solzhenitsyn's profoundly Christian outlook would only deepen over time. Mistrusting and feeling betrayed by the liberal-and to his mind unpardonably stupid-Western media after his exile, he rarely gave interviews after his emigration to the United States. Then, in his Harvard commencement address of June 8,1978, he remarked at length upon the West's self-satisfied and lazy misuse of its freedom and prosperity, "its cult of material well-being" and manifold other sins. "No, I could not recommend your society as an ideal for the transformation of ours," confessed Solzhenitsyn. "Through deep suffering, people in our country have now achieved a spiritual development of such intensity that the Western system in its present state of spiritual exhaustion does not look attractive. ... After the suffering of decades of violence and oppression, the human soul longs for things higher, warmer, and purer than those offered by today's mass living habits, introduced as by a calling card by the revolting invasion of commercial advertising, by TV stupor, and by intolerable music."
This was not the dissident that the West had ordered up. When the speech was published, liberals spat, rinsed, and-except for occasional scurrilous asides-moved on. Many conservatives also kept their distance. For a while, Solzhenitsyn was valuable as a hammer in the Cold War toolbox, but after 1989, the American Right, too, had little use for his counsel. Not only was he a critic of our wealthy (he would say materialistic) liberal democracy, which was bad enough, he was a principled advocate of local self-government and a Russian patriot to boot-none of which was on-message with the end-of-history, America-as-the-universal-nation conservatism that became predominant in the 1990s. …