by Francis P. Sempa
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who died on August 3, was a courageous man and a powerful writer whose literary works helped initiate the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union and discredited the Communist ideology on which it was based. He was a modern prophet, whose life is remembered and celebrated in this essay. – Ed.
Toward the end of the Second World War, a captain in the Soviet Army exchanged letters with a colleague that included unkind references to Soviet dictator Josef Stalin (“big shot” and “the moustachioed one”). On February 9, 1945, in the village of Wormdit, near Konigsberg, this “offense” against the Soviet state resulted in the soldier’s arrest and imprisonment for eight years in a slave-labor camp and, ironically, began the literary career of the most consequential writer of the twentieth century – a writer who “spoke the truth to power” and thereby helped inspire and marshal the forces that eventually led to the demise of the Soviet state.
That writer, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, died on August 3, 2008, at the age of 89. Solzhenitsyn wrote numerous works of fiction and non-fiction, including One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The First Circle, Cancer Ward, August 1914, Lenin in Zurich, The Oak and the Calf, Warning to the West, From Under the Rubble, November 1916, Invisible Allies, and The Mortal Danger. But the work that made him the most consequential writer of the twentieth century was the massive, three-volume Gulag Archipelago.
Solzhenitsyn’s life and literary career benefited from Stalin’s death in 1953 and the so-called Khrushchev “thaw” that followed. Many political prisoners like Solzhenitsyn were released from the labor camps, some of the crimes of Stalin were publicized and condemned, and censorship was somewhat eased. This environment enabled Solzhenitsyn in 1962 to publish his first fictional critique of the Soviet labor camp system, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.
After Khrushchev’s fall from power in 1964, Solzhenitsyn tried to publish two more fictional books, The First Circle and Cancer Ward, which were highly critical of the Stalin era. Khrushchev’s successor as General Secretary of the Communist Party, Leonid Breszhnev, and his Politburo colleagues, however, rightly worried that Solzhenitsyn’s criticisms of the Party could extend beyond Stalin to the very heart of the Soviet system. Literary censorship was tightened. The manuscripts were refused publication by state authorities. They began circulating in samizdat, secretly, underground, in typewritten form. Solzhenitsyn also smuggled out copies to the West. He was increasingly viewed by the Communist Party as an enemy of the state who had to be silenced or removed.
Initially unbeknownst to the Soviet security services, Solzhenitsyn was also secretly at work on a lengthy examination of the origins and history of the forced labor camp system known by its Russian acronym, GULAG. Working with allies both within and outside the Soviet Union, Solzhenitsyn, under constant harassment and surveillance by the security services, successfully smuggled out his manuscript of The Gulag Archipelago, which was initially published in France and then elsewhere in the West in the early and mid 1970s.
Inside the Gulag
The English translation of The Gulag Archipelago appeared during 1973-1978 and runs to 1,821 pages in three volumes. The first volume explored the experiences of arrest, interrogation, detention, and transit to the camps. Volume two traced the history of the camp system beginning in Lenin’s time with the early prisons on Solovetsky Island in the White Sea, and later throughout the Soviet Union as the Gulag “metastasized” under Stalin. This volume, perhaps the most memorable of the three, goes inside the camps to explore all aspects of camp life: the harsh conditions of labor; the extreme climates; the unsanitary conditions; the lack of adequate food; the brutality of camp guards; friendships, loyalties, love, treachery, thievery, and kindnesses among the camp inmates or zeks; life, suffering, and death.
The final volume explored the unquenchable spirit of resistance among many camp inmates (escapes, rebellions, acts of martyrdom), the downscaling of the camp system after Stalin’s death, the experience of leaving the camps and being transferred to forced internal exile, and, finally, attaining “liberty.” Volume three, however, closed with the sobering reality that in the Soviet system, “rulers change, the Archipelago remains.”1 “The same treacherous secrecy, the same fog of injustice,” Solzhenitsyn wrote, “still hangs in our air…For a half century and more the enormous state has towered over us, girded us with hoops of steel. The hoops are still there. There is no law.”2
The Gulag Archipelago, therefore, was more than a denunciation of Stalin. It laid bare the rot at the core of the Soviet system. And it traced that rot all the way back to Lenin, who at the time was still revered by many intellectuals in the West. Even worse, it claimed, notwithstanding rhetorical pronouncements of détente and “peaceful coexistence,” that fundamentally the system had not changed with Stalin’s death, as some in the West believed.
Problems of Détente
Solzhenitsyn’s masterpiece surfaced in the West just as Western leaders were embarked on the decade-long, futile, and often self-defeating policy toward the Soviet Union known as détente. Détente so corroded the moral fiber of some Western leaders that it led the State Department to advise President Gerald Ford to refuse to invite Solzhenitsyn to the White House (after he was forcibly exiled from Russia) for fear of offending Soviet leaders. “Not even Watergate,” wrote columnist George Will, “was as fundamentally degrading to the presidency as this act of deference to the master of the Gulag Archipelago.”3
Unwelcome at the White House, Solzhenitsyn was invited by AFL-CIO President George Meany to address the labor organization in Washington on June 30, 1975, an address later included in a book called Warning to the West. In the speech, he ridiculed détente, contending that “The Soviet Union has used détente, is using it now, and will continue to use it in its own interests.”4 “Nothing has changed in Communist ideology,” he warned. “The goals are the same as they were, but instead of the artless Khrushchev, who couldn’t hold his tongue (‘we will bury you’), now they say ‘Détente.’”5 “Communist leaders,” he continued, “respect only firmness and have contempt for persons who continually give in to them.”6 Détente, he said, was “a process of shortsighted concessions; a process of giving up and giving up and giving up in the hope that perhaps at some point the wolf will have eaten enough.”7
In that same speech, however, Solzhenitsyn pointed to a phenomenon which would in the long run undermine Soviet rule. “Under the cast-iron shell of Communism,” he explained, “a liberation of the human spirit is occurring. New generations are growing up, steadfast in their struggle with evil, unwilling to accept unprincipled compromises, preferring to lose everything…so as not to sacrifice conscience, unwilling to make deals with evil.”8
With this and similar speeches in the United States and Britain, Solzhenitsyn confronted the statesmen of the West with the consequences of their own moral blindness and strategic shortsightedness. Three years later, in his commencement address at Harvard, Solzhenitsyn confronted the U.S. liberal intelligentsia and elites and many other Americans with the consequences of their moral cowardice and spiritual bankruptcy. Abroad, Solzhenitsyn lamented, this lack of courage and willpower led to the tragedy of our defeat in Vietnam and the consequent horrors for the Vietnamese and Cambodian people, and a moral feebleness in dealing with powerful countries such as China and the Soviet Union as well as international terrorists. At home, the decline of religion and the promotion of limitless personal freedom led to moral squalor and a neglect, and often rejection, of the civilizing heritage of Christianity.
Warnings to America
In 1980, with détente shattered after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Cuban troops in Africa, and communists in control in Nicaragua, Solzhenitsyn wrote The Mortal Danger: How Misconceptions About Russia Imperil America, which originally appeared as an article in the journal Foreign Affairs. This was a scathing attack on “Sovietology” as practiced by Western diplomats, statesmen, and scholars, including George Kennan, Henry Kissinger, and, surprisingly, Richard Pipes. The West was in mortal danger, he wrote, because of “sixty years of obstinate blindness to the true nature of communism.”9
“Communism,” he wrote, “will never be halted by negotiations or through the machinations of détente. It can be halted only by force from without or by disintegration from within.”10 Solzhenitsyn’s principal message in the book, however, was that the West’s best allies in the Cold War struggle against Soviet communism were the peoples – including Russians – held captive by Soviet rule.
In a speech in the U.S. Senate chamber in 1975, which was published in Warning to the West, Solzhenitsyn told his audience that, “Very soon…your country will stand in need of not just exceptional men but of great men. Find them in your souls. Find them in your hearts. Find them in the depths of your country.”11 Nineteen years later, Solzhenitsyn, writing in National Review, recalled those words and added, “Five years later, I was overjoyed when just such a man came to the White House.”12
Ronald Reagan campaigned for the presidency in 1976 as the nation’s chief critic of détente. Four years later, his election to the White House was in part due to the obvious failure of détente. As President, he initiated policies that attacked the vulnerabilities of the Soviet system and helped undermine its rule in Eastern Europe and Russia. Reagan proved Solzhenitsyn right: the Communist system could only be halted by force from without or by disintegration from within.
And just as Reagan proved Solzhenitsyn right, Solzhenitsyn proved the truth of Norman Podhortetz’s profound insight, written before the end of the Cold War, into the nature and value of Solzhenitsyn’s moral challenge to the West:
For here…is a lone individual who, by having successfully stood up to the full power of the Soviet state, has made himself into a living reproach to the West: a parable in action of the very courage in the face of Communist totalitarianism that the West has been unable or unwilling to summon in its own dealings with the Soviet state. Solzhenitsyn’s terrible and terrifying question to us is this: is it possible that courage like his own is all we require to escape from the fate he has come to warn us against? Is it possible that the courage first to see the truth about Communism and then the correlative courage to act upon it can guide our steps to safety as his own courage guided Solzhenitsyn’s, that it can make the Soviet leaders back down and ultimately, perhaps, even collapse, just as they did when confronted by Solzhenitsyn himself?
Forcing us to face that terrible question, rubbing our noses in it, has been Solzhenitsyn’s prophetic mission to the West.13
The prophet is dead. We honor his memory because his literary skill and personal courage helped shake the foundations of an evil empire.
1. Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago Three (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1978), p. 505.
Francis P. Sempa is an American Diplomacy contributing editor and has written frequently for this journal as well as other publications on geopolitics, foreign policy, and historical topics. He is an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University.