Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Reflections On Solzhenitsyn's Centennial

Solzhenitsyn with Heinrich Böll in Langenbroich, West Germany, 1974 

One phrase struck me when reading Michael Scammel's column commemorating Alexander Solzhenitsyn's centennial, "A Writer Who Destroyed an Empire": Yeltsin’s “foolish desire to introduce Western democracy in Russia.” Foolish, Alexander Isayevich, really? I caught myself arguing with the departed sage. Scammel is right, though: Solzhenitsyn’s aversion to Western democracy and modernity - individualism, secularism, tolerance, the rule of law - was fundamental to his view of the world. His anti-Western, in effect anti-liberal, stance earned him his the nickname "Ayatola Solzhenitsyn." But his even deeper aversion to the Soviet system, for awhile, overshadowed his innate conservatism. Solzhenitsyn's anti-Soviet invective, at first only implied, began early and reached its peak — the publication of Gulag Archipelago in 1973 — when it began to resonate with the jitters shaking up the empire from within. It also dealt a death blow to the flimsier construct of Euro-Communism in Italy and France. With time, his impact waned, as his writings progressively fell out of step with the mood in Russia as in the West. To resort to Solzhenitsyn's own favorite habit of quoting Russian proverbs, each berry has its own day for picking — Каждой ягоде - свой срок.

The edition I assigned to my class
I learned this lesson while teaching "One Day of Ivan Denisovich" to Stanford students for over thirty years (1978-2016). My Soviet period syllabus always listed it as required, because I felt that no one should graduate from Stanford's Russian program without reading and understanding this little masterpiece. In the sense of its impact and condensation of key ideas, "One Day" is rather similar to Pushkin's "Bronze Horseman": it's an archetype. Not only did it spawn a whole era of the so-called "village prose" and its antipodes, but it helped to crystalized the ideology of resistance to communism based on what we now refer to as "conservative values," more specifically, values that are considered native to the Russian soil, the Russian version of Blut und Boden.

The first Russian edition of "One Day." 1963.
There was another, more personal reason: my own first encounter with "One Day" in 1962 when it had just come out. I read it in the cheapest mass edition printed on newsprint as if to match Solzhenitsyn's plain-speaking voice, and I was transformed. As I turned pages, my head was exploding with a burst of indignation and grief for the millions victims of Stalinist repression, hitherto unacknowledged and unmourned. I was sixteen then but I had already come to know two women Gulag veterans who never spoke about their past, and heard plenty of whispered stories about the poet Osip Mandelstam, family members of my friends and, of course, my own. Although only obliquely, I myself was touched by the Dr. Zhivago affair — through my older sister Marianna. She was friends with Irina Emelyanova, daughter of Boris Pasternak's last Muse, Olga Ivinskaya (the prototype for the Zhivago's Lara). Irina (herself a prototype for Katenka, the daughter of Zhivago and Lara) was imprisoned in 1960, along with her mother, both accused of serving as intermediaries between the Nobel laureate Pasternak and  his publishers in the West. Irina was released in 1962. Of course, I had my feelings about all of these abominations but to have them publicly articulated in a widely available publication was a revelation. 

Irina Emelyanova, Irina Odokhovskaya, Marianna Freidina,
Sergey Nekliudov, Alla Tarasova. Moscow, July 1962. 

Solzhenitsyn's "One Day" was published, indeed broadcast (in hundreds of thousand copies), on Nikita Khrushchev's orders. Khrushchev's aim was to mobilize public opinion against his Stalinist Party rivals. Unintentionally, no doubt, this publication brought about a universal catharsis. The whole vast country let loose a collective moan for all the Gulag victims who had remained unmourned since the 1930s. For this alone, we owe Solzhenitsyn the debt of undying gratitude. But "One Day" was much more than that.

Each time, rereading "One Day" before my lecture, I felt like a photographer developing a print in a chemical solution. Little by little, political and ideological changes in Russia – and later on in the West – made what seemed like a simple tale of the Gulag horror morph into an anti-modernist, nativist, nationalist allegory. Like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, the other great Russian writers who donned the mantle of prophet, Solzhenitsyn, it seems, could see far beyond the horizon that was visible to his contemporaries. And he departed from this world in 2008 before the changes he wished for his beloved country matured and began to bear fruit — under Vladimir Putin's cultivation.

Vladimir Putin and Solzhenitsyn in the writer's home. 2007

Solzhenitsyn's love and respect for custom and tradition grew into rabid nationalism, xenophobia, and aggression against Ukraine; his hope for order, into a brutal suppression of criticism and opposition; instinctive reliance on the folk's common sense for fairness, into a crooked criminal justice system; critique of Western consumerism and hedonism, into obscurantism and intolerance of the state-sponsored Orthodox Church; his opposition to censorship, into a virtual criminalization of free speech on social networks; his disdain for the popular culture of a modern metropolis, into the harsh policing of Russia's own bards and rappers.

But even in death, perhaps, especially in death, Solzhenitsyn's personal charisma has remained in force, and associating with him can enhance the authority of a politician. Vladimir Putin did not miss the opportunity and spoke at the unveiling of the monument to Solzhenitsyn in the Taganka district in Moscow. The head of the Russian state, he praised Solzhenitsyn for his support of the Russian statism (derzhavnost), a type of polity that favors state over society, and he singled out for special tribute Solzhenitsyn struggle with Russophobia.  "Even in exile," Putin noted, "Solzhenitsyn did not allow anyone to speak with disdain or ill about his motherland, he opposed all forms of Russophobia."

A term of relatively recent coinage, Russophobia was popularized in the 1980s by Igor Shafarevich, who attributed it largely to Jews. Replicating  Judeophobia, or anti-Semitism, Russophobia refers to some innate prejudice against Russia as a nation and Russians as an ethnic group — a prejudice that spawns critical opinion of the country and its government. The term is now habitually flung by Russian officials at anyone disparaging Russian policies or actions as a prejudice against Russia held by critics overseas or by Russia's own "internal enemies" (e.g., Sergei Lavrov in January 2018).  Those who know Solzhenitsyn writings from "One Day" to his much later history of Jews in the Russian Empire and Soviet Union (Two Hundred Years Together2002)will recognize that the seeds of this wholesale inversion of rational critical opinion into an ethnic prejudice were planted by the great author himself.

Putin at the unveiling of the monument to Solzhenistyn. 12.11.18

This moment of reflection on Solzhenitsyn's centennial unexpectedly illuminated the aphoristic lines Boris Pasternak dedicated to Lenin in his 1928 poem "Lofty Malady." Pasternak offered a formula for the paradox of the Russian revolution: its promise of freedom and justice in 1917 contrasting sharply with the incipient despotism of 1928. He found it in the archetype of divine vengeance for human hubris.

                               A genius arrives, heralding [new] privileges,
                               And he avenges his passing with oppression.

                               Предвестьем льгот приходит гений
                               И гнётом мстит за свой уход.

Almost a century later and a decade after Solzhenitsyn's passing, these words resonate with the  paradox of the now post-communist Russia.

* * *

Berkeley. 12.12.2018


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