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The Successful Tragedy Of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn arrives in the German city of Frankfurt on February 15, 1974, after being expelled from the Soviet Union.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn arrives in the German city of Frankfurt on February 15, 1974, after being expelled from the Soviet Union.
Editor's note: Russian novelist and historian Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was born 90 years ago today, on December 11, 1918. The following appreciation was written for RFE/RL's Russian Service on the occasion of Solzhenitsyn's death on August 3 of this year.

He was the last classic Russian writer.

In terms of his ethical and aesthetic composition, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was rooted in the tradition of humanism. He was a complex molecule comprised of Russian values. He was both a writer and a social activist. He was a critic of the regime and a victim of the regime. He was both a subject and an object of Russian history.

He believed in justice.

Interview With Linguist Leonid Krysin On Secret Work Of Preserving Solzhenitsyn's Writing
He thought that human beings were, in their basic nature, good, but that social circumstances could distort them, ruin them. In order to establish justice as a foundation of society, Solzhenitsyn took religion as a common denominator. For him, belief in God was utilitarian in the sense that it justified the struggle against totalitarianism. And the result is the integrated figure of a fighter. From the perspective of 20th-century philosophy, of course, all this is terribly primitive, naive, helpless. But from the perspective of the struggle against communism, it was the only possible formula by which a writer could exist.

When it comes down to it, the social doctrine that he despised created Solzhenitsyn as a writer. Without this external enemy, he would have had nothing to write about. His ideas about human nature, about history and the uniqueness of Russia were determined by the idea of moral resistance to evil, including deception and violence.

The Foreign West

For Solzhenitsyn, the West was just a base for continuing the struggle against the hated regime of the Soviet Union. The West was always foreign to him, the source of the ideology of liberalism that he viewed as antithetical to Russia. He never hid his disdain for the Western lifestyle, the consumer essence of which was repugnant to him.

So why should we all love him?

First and foremost, for "The Gulag Archipelago." By collecting the testimony of repressed individuals, he proved that communism destroys human beings, and proved it using the entire history of the Soviet Union. As a result, "Euro-communism" virtually vanished from Europe, while in Russia the book became the intellectual precondition for the destruction of the Soviet Union.

About the rest of his works, it is possible to debate.

In his novella "One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich," which turned Solzhenitsyn into a cult figure as a writer of Truth, he resurrected an important theme of Russian literature -- the theme of "the little man" who, despite his lack of education, understands and feels the world more truly than educated people, the intelligentsia. In rough terms, what we are talking about is a Russian variation of the philosophy of Jean Jacques Rousseau: Natural man is the only person whose instincts can be trusted.

We see the same theme in Solzhenitsyn's "Matryona's Home," in which the heroine is a simple-hearted woman who is depicted as a virtual saint. This is the old Slavophile call for a return to Holy Rus, to a myth that must be taken on faith.

And so Solzhenitsyn became a leading light of the so-called village prose movement, which questioned modern civilization in its entirety -- both the Soviet and Western variants.

Then Came Putin

Solzhenitsyn's heroic personal fate masked the essential conservatism of his art. He courageously and successfully fought the Soviet regime, which considered him a particularly dangerous enemy because it -- like Solzhenitsyn -- purported to be devoted to the common man and hostile to Western values.

After the death of Josef Stalin, it was only possible to murmur under one's breath against the idea of the "holiness" of the Russian people -- the Soviet government also came to believe in the unique qualities of the Russian folk.

Solzhenitsyn was never able to find a common language with the Russia of the Boris Yeltsin era.

But then came Vladimir Putin.

Solzhenitsyn agreed to meet and chat with him as someone who had restored the Russian state. The writer practically ceased all criticism of Putin's regime.

Solzhenitsyn treasured God and goodness, and so closed the circle of the traditional Russian writers. He did not leave behind a literary school or political followers. The essence of his life was the destruction of communism. Everything else was just detail.

He ended up alone. Successful and tragic at the same time.

Viktor Yerofeyev is a novelist and a regular contributor to RFE/RL's Russian Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.