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Solzhenitsyn: One Book That Shook The World

  • Brian Whitmore

Solzhenitsyn photographed in the gulag in 1953

Solzhenitsyn photographed in the gulag in 1953

How much impact can one book have? If that book is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's "The Gulag Archipelago," quite a bit.

When it was published in the West in 1973, Solzhenitsyn's most famous work reverberated loudly on both sides of the Atlantic. U.S. forces were withdrawing from Vietnam. Detente and peaceful coexistence with the Soviet Union were in vogue. Western Europeans, meanwhile were tiring of Cold War divisions as many on the far left talked of cozying up to Moscow.

And then came "The Gulag Archipelago." Smuggled out of the Soviet Union to Paris and New York on microfilm, the book was a monumental and harrowing account of the Soviet labor-camp system.

It wasn't the first book about the Soviet forced-labor system. Soviet defector Viktor Kravchenko published "I Chose Freedom" in 1946 and Solzhenitsyn himself published "A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" in 1963, just to name a couple.

Powerful Indictment

But it was by far the most comprehensive and forceful indictment the world had seen. Anne Applebaum, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author or "Gulag: A History" and a columnist for "The Washington Post," says that Solzhenitsyn aimed to show "that the camps were not some sort of incidental problem, some accident that the Soviet Union had made; but that they were an integral part of the system, had been from the beginning, and that millions of people had gone through them."

The impact of the book, on both sides of the Atlantic, was enormous, causing elites in the United States and Western Europe to reassess their assumptions about the Soviet Union.

So great was the impact that Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev saw fit to convene a special meeting of the Politburo in January 1974 to discuss Solzhenitsyn, his book, its impact, and what to do about it. The next month, Solzhenitsyn was exiled from the Soviet Union, eventually settling in the town of Cavendish, Vermont.

Solzhenitsyn was part of a wave of emigres -- including the writer Andrei Sinyavsky and the U.S.-born gulag survivor Alexander Dolgun -- who either voluntarily left or were expelled from the Soviet Union in the 1970s

In the United States, "The Gulag Archipelago" served to harden American attitudes about the Soviet Union -- particularly on the political right -- at a time when President Richard Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger were engaging Moscow with their policy of detente.

Human Rights Agenda

But as Applebaum explains, "The Gulag Archipelago's" long-term and enduring effect was to help move human rights on to Washington's foreign-policy agenda.

"The Gulag Archipelago was part of a group of books and Solzhenitsyn was one of a group of people coming out of the Soviet Union in the 1970s who began to change the conversation in the United States about human rights. Should human rights be a part of international dialogue? We tend to forget this now, but in the '40s, '50s, and even the '60s, it wasn't. It wasn't even considered a fit subject for diplomatic discussions," Applebaum says.

That all changed when Jimmy Carter took office as president in 1976 and made promoting human rights a cornerstone of U.S. policy. Ronald Reagan, who succeeded Carter in 1981, continued the focus on rights, as has every U.S. president since.

Analysts are careful not to draw a direct causal link between Solzhenitsyn's work and the policy line in Washington, but as Applebaum notes, the impact is clear and difficult to deny.

"In some ways, Solzhenitsyn, because of his fame, because of the status of his book, because he was expelled from the country, the news and publicity around him and his work absolutely added to this impetus to make human rights a more important part of U.S. foreign policy," Applebaum says.

Across the Atlantic in Western Europe, the prevailing mood also favored rapprochement with the eastern bloc at the time of "The Gulag Archipelago's" publication. With his policy of "Ostpolitik," West German Chancellor Willy Brandt sought better relations with East Germany, and by extension, with their patrons in Moscow.

Prague Spring Crushed

European communist parties, particularly the powerful French Communist Party, had long been calling for a rejection of the United States in favor of siding with Moscow in the Cold War. That argument had been severely weakened by Moscow's behavior in Eastern Europe during the 1950s and 1960s, with Red Army's forceful suppression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956 and Czechoslovakia's Prague Spring in 1968.

And as Edward Lucas, a longtime Russia watcher and deputy foreign editor of the British weekly "The Economist," points out, the publication of "The Gulag Archipelago" destroyed any remaining illusions many on the European left had about the Soviet Union.

"I think it came at a time when illusions with the Soviet Union were already fragile. Pre-Hungarian uprising, more people believed. Pre-Prague spring, more people believed. 'Gulag' came out at a time when it was really hard to believe in the Soviet experiment. I'd say it crystallized what was already the latent disillusionment among the European left with the communist experiment," Lucas says.

Likewise, Applebaum says some on the French left were initially contemptuous when it came to Solzhenitsyn. French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, for example, described him as "a dangerous element."

But "The Gulag Archipelago" was "part of what led to the end of Euro-communism and the end of pro-Soviet left-wing parties across Europe," according to Applebaum. The change, she says, was most noticeable in France.

"At the time it was published it did have an enormous impact, I would say particularly in Western Europe and above all particularly in France. The French left was still very strong and still very pro-Soviet and the French Communist Party was still very strong and even more pro-Soviet," Applebaum says.

"The book had the force there as a kind of revelation. You can't just say Stalin was a mistake and now things will get better. What Solzhenitsyn was arguing from the point of view of somebody inside the system was that the system itself is sick, cannot be fixed, and has been a crime against humanity from the beginning."
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