Monday, 4 August 2008

Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008)

In the depths of the Cold War Solzhenitsyn became one of the West's favourite Soviet writers. The Gulag Archipelago, his epic dissection of the prison-camp system confirmed everything that we 'knew' about the USSR, while the treatment he received at the hands of the regime only deepened that knowledge.

Without denying Solzhenitsyn's greatness as a writer, we can recognise that his reputation was emblematic of the mirror image outlooks of West and East, shackling artistic worth to 'dissidence' and 'conformity'.

In 1945 Alexander Isayevich Solzhenitsyn was a twice-decorated Red Army officer when a letter obliquely criticising Stalin was intercepted. He was imprisoned for eight years, followed by three years' internal exile.

Solzhenitsyn continued to write in secret but it was Khrushchev's 1961 speech denouncing Stalin's cult of personality that emboldened him to submit One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich to Novyi Mir.

Based on his own experiences, the fictionalised account of camp life is, at the end, quite optimistic, showing the importance of fortitude and small victories - the hero had enjoyed that day's work, managed to get an extra ration of kasha, and found a piece of hacksaw blade (with no immediate purpose but the thought that it could come in useful). But more than that, it shows that the regime, no matter how brutal, could not guarantee to reduce people to its level. Published at Khrushchev's express command, it made Solzhenitsyn an overnight literary sensation, though almost immediately he also attracted some now largely forgotten criticism, not least from the First Secretary of the Moscow Communist Party.

A few stories appeared while he worked on the novel Cancer Ward but, though it was typeset, it was pulled before publication. Nothing new appeared in the Soviet Union after 1965.

He continued to write through the inevitable campaign of harassment, while living at the dacha of husband-and-wife cellist and soprano Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya. In 1969 Solzhenitsyn was thrown out of the Writers' Union, and the following year won the Nobel Prize. As the attacks continued Union, whereupon his hosts wrote a defence, though it went unpublished and contributed to their own fall from grace. When The Gulag Archipelago appeared in Paris in 1974, he was deported, and settled in Vermont.

For the West, this was a coup: a noble dissident, from whose eyes the scales had fallen, uncowed by the shameful treatment at the hands of an irrational tyrant.

But Solzhenitsyn soon disabused them of the idea that he would be grateful for their refuge. What the West saw as anti-Soviet was nearer to pro-Russist, and he had equally little time for the decadent West. Withdrawing to the snowy woods, his ongoing fiction was interspersed with jeremiads on how Western freedom had descended into decadence, most notably in a 1978 address at Harvard.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union he was rehabilitated, his work was finally authorised and he returned to the country that was, to misquote Stalin, "dizzy with failure."

He quickly came to hate the legalised pillage of Gorbachev and Yeltsin's perestroika, and it became clear that he would settle no more easily in Russia than he did in Vermont.

In Rebuilding Russia (1990) he argued that Russia, Ukraine and Belarus should reform as a bastion of (anti-Western-atheist) Christianity. Unsurprisingly, he opposed Ukrainian independence, though they probably took a dim view of this 'support' as he also denied that the Holodomor - the 1932-3 Ukrainian famine - was an act of genocide, denouncing those who proposed as much. Semantically he has a point. Despite the similar sound, the Holodomor ('murder by hunger') was not a Holocaust, a planned attempt to exterminate the Ukrainian nation. Rather it was a shameful exploitation - even exacerbation - of a natural tragedy. Of course, the Soviets used the same 'not-only-Jews-were-killed' logic-chopping to persuade Yevtushenko to alter Babi Yar. Still, at least Solzhenitsyn wasn't following Stalinist fellow-travellers like the New York Times' Walter Duranty in denying that it happened at all.

In 1936 Solzhenitsyn had planned an epic on the Revolution, though it was only in 1969 that he began The Red Wheel with August 1914. He revised it in 1984 before, over the next nine years, adding three more volumes to bring the story up to April 1917. It's fascinating to think what it would be like had he written it when it was conceived. Although he held out against Party membership, became disenchanted with Stalin, and later saw the Revolution as a schismatic moment when the Bolshviks severed 'Russia' from its roots, pre-Purge he was in contact with conformist writers including Konstantin Fedin. Ironically, it was Fedin who prevented the publication of Cancer Ward.

After some doubts, Solzhenitsyn became a supporter of Vladimir Putin and praised the country's new robust foreign policy, forgetting some of its new illiberalities. In return he was rewarded with the state prize. In his acceptance speech he said that memories of the Soviet period would "forewarn and protect us from destructive breakdown."

Ironically in his 1970 open letter defending Solzhenitsyn, Rostropovich cited the notorious 1948 Musicians' Conference: "Can it really be that the times we have lived through have not taught us to take a more cautious attitude toward crushing talented people?"

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