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Solzhenitsyn, 'The Mediator Of Memories Slated For Erasing'

  • Miluse Zadrazilova

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in 1974

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in 1974

In the spring of 1962, rumors started swirling in Prague that "Novy mir," the Soviet literary journal edited by Aleksandr Tvarkovsky, would publish a work by an unknown author that would bare the darkest secrets of Stalin's labor camps for all to see.

When the long-awaited copy of the magazine arrived and we devoured "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," all our expectations were exceeded. The tale of one "happy day" in the life of a rural handyman who had been transferred directly from a German prisoner-of-war camp to a Siberian labor camp was captivating.

It is complicated novella. It is based on the paradox of a day of relative happiness against the background of the terrors of camp life. The form of the novel is also determined to some extent by its content: at one point in the story Ivan Denisovich, a solid Tolstoyan peasant, overhears some more intellectual prisoners debating on of Solzhenitsyn's controversial theme -- the moral unacceptability of aestheticizing evil.

At the same time, however, the novella reflects Solzhenitsyn's old-school conviction of the essential unity of truth, goodness, and beauty -- an idea that was a major theme of his Nobel acceptance speech. This strain of the novella was one of the clearest signs of an intellectual and artistic return to the classical traditions of Russian culture, which had been badly shaken by decades of modernism earlier in the century.

Solzhenitsyn continued this aesthetic exploration with his next major work, an almost iconic depiction of the tragic fate of a peasant woman. The heroine of "Matryona's Home" is described by the author with the Biblical term "salt of the earth" and is given a folk variant of the New Testament name Mary. After the appearance of this work, people began seriously discussing Solzhenitsyn as the heir to Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.

Solzhenitsyn's third groundbreaking story was "An Incident at Krechetovka Station," which matter-of-factly relates the tragic consequences of some completely innocuous acts by a once-spotless soul whose mind had been warped by a lifetime of Stalinist indoctrination. This story was part of Solzhenitsyn's life's work devoted to uncovering the mechanisms of the "red wheel" that was set spinning by the Bolshevik coup and that, to some extent, is still in motion today.

'Live In Truth'

At a time when the world was only beginning to come to grips with the different forms of individual guilt and responsibility for the atrocities of Nazi Germany, Solzhenitsyn was already trying to formulate terms that could be applied to Stalin's Soviet Union. He drew distinctions between those who endured a purgatory of misery and those who refused to accept the waste of their own lives. More importantly, he defended those two groups from the discomfited post-Stalin leaders who wanted to usurp for themselves the right to decide who should be rehabilitated and who should not. Already in his first three works, Solzhenitsyn was defining who the real victims of Stalinism were.

These were truths that were already visible, or at least suspected, in Czechoslovakia, where we had been living in this environment for nearly two decades. Our critics began writing about the consequences of a society in which individual human beings were nothing but interchangeable screws for a vast inhuman steamroller, about the meaning of surrendering one's birth name and taking on a number from the prison-camp files, about participating in the huge industrial colossus of a gulag powered by the labor and blood of modern slaves.

And our philosophers began exploring the pseudo-conscience of whole generations of people who lived in a network of delusion simply in order to make sense of their existence. Solzhenitsyn appealed to all of us not to "live in lies" but to face the truth and learn its lessons. For him, the call to "live in truth" was a synonym for enlightenment. These declarations were not a revelation themselves, but the fact that Solzhenitsyn dared utter them was a heroic act.

In Czechoslovakia, we learned about the later novels, "Cancer Ward" and "The First Circle," mostly from hearsay or from a few smuggled copies of Western editions. But they convinced us of what we had already guessed from the shorter works -- that Solzhenitsyn was a great strategist who could build a complex, multilevel text from disparate parts. And he knew how to balance the peculiar cohabitation of different styles and genres -- classical and archaic, meditative and journalistic, sacred and profane -- in an elaborate, fictional world that looked just like the one of our own experience. This is exactly what his great literary predecessors had achieved.

The projection of bits of the author's biography onto his epic characters was a unifying element of his canon. "The First Circle" featured a deeply reflective intellectual, while the hero of "The Cancer Ward" was a former prisoner and exile who found himself on the edge of death before being miraculously saved for some future mission. The works were also profoundly informed by the supporting texts of Tolstoy ("War and Peace," "Three Deaths," "The Death of Ivan Ilich") and Dostoyevsky ("Notes From the House of the Dead" and the great novels), as well as by Dante's "Divine Comedy," medieval myths, and the lives of the saints. But most of all by the Bible, "the book of books," and the deepest traditions of Russian literature from the oldest Slavonic texts through the religious thinkers of the early 20th century.

A National Epic

All of this early experience was building up to and preparing the ground for his monumental "The Gulag Archipelago," which he envisioned as a device for giving voice to the millions who could not themselves tell the story of their experiences in the various circles of Stalin's Dantesque hell. Achieving this goal demanded that Solzhenitsyn establish himself as a great writer and an unshakeable moral authority. As it became clear that his works would not be published in the Soviet Union, he needed international renown.

When "The Gulag Archipelago" appeared abroad in 1973, Solzhenitsyn had completed the mission that he felt was his destiny. He had become the mediator of memories that had been slated for erasing. He was the geographer and cartographer of the hidden penal zones. He was the guide through each period in the life of the prison. He was the historian of the hidden side of a modern empire of death.

He not only believed, but demonstrated that death can be conquered by a word that is not forgotten. "The Gulag Archipelago" is a national epic, a monumental documentary testimony, a purgatory mystery. It is a return to the traditional mythic patterns of Russia from which the culture's great personalities emerged -- Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Nikolai Berdayev, Father Sergei Bulgakov, and many others.

The rest of Solzhenitsyn's works -- "August 1914," "The Red Wheel," and the rest -- were largely surveys of the historical moments that anticipated and ushered in the catastrophe that became "The Gulag Archipelago." The formed an increasingly extensive epilogue to his major work.

There can be no argument that "The Gulag Archipelago" changed the thinking of Solzhenitsyn's contemporaries and helped to change the world itself. But Solzhenitsyn himself didn't seem to understand the new world very well. He developed a utopian vision in his "Rebuilding Russia" and a dystopian one in "The Russian Question." In his last years, he lived less and less for the national idea and more for simple nationalism and centralized authority. He did not become the spiritual leader of the state the succeeded Stalin's empire, the wildly capitalistic and morally ambiguous modern Russia.

It is not easy outliving one's epoch. Solzhenitsyn's return to Russia in 1994 after 20 years of exile was disillusioning from the beginning. He lived out his last years in a solitude reminiscent of his years in exile, nourishing the hope that better times would yet come. And now he is dead and I can already see how Russia is shaping and packaging his legacy. Soon they will drain the life of all that was vital and essential about Solzhenitsyn. The real Solzhenitsyn may be forgotten soon and all that will be known about him will be what is related in school textbooks. He deserves better.

Miluse Zadrazilova is a professor of Russian studies at Charles University in Prague. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL