On December 11, the Nobel laureate and last great giant of Russian literature would have turned 100. Critic Victor Yerofeyev says despite a grave error late in life, the genius of Alexander Solzhenitsyn is eternal.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s renown in Russia is so great that everyone can cite him. Anyone who reads his works creates their own Solzhenitsyn — and that goes for me, too.
Solzhenitsyn was a god to me. Not an idol, not a literary star, not the heroic fighter against political injustice, as he was for many others. A god. I continued to worship him even when he was always with me — on my windowsill.
One day I saw a small bust of him in the workshop of two Moscow sculptors; it was made from red fired clay with his head resting on books wrapped in barbed wire. This was in the mid-1970s, both the darkest and most heroic time in the writer’s life — the era that he fought the powerful Soviet state before being expelled to the West.
I begged the sculptors for the bust. When I brought it home, it caused a stir: “Return it,” my parents insisted.
My father was a high-ranking Soviet diplomat, and my mother feared for his career, although she had appreciated Solzhenitsyn’s novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, published a few years earlier.
We agreed that the bust could remain in my bedroom on the windowsill. If guests asked who it was, I would lie and say “Beethoven.” That is how “Beethoven” survived all my years of Soviet rule.
Two brilliant books
Solzhenitsyn would go on to damage his divine reputation. Nevertheless, it is impossible to imagine the Russian literary canon without him. In his first novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, he broke with taboo and took on the subject of the Stalinist camps in Soviet literature. He skillfully built the story by depicting a happy day for his hero in a Gulag forced labor camp.
I vividly remember my father’s friends, who were Soviet diplomats, arguing about the book around the dining table and saying that the book damaged the Soviet Union. In fact, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was a condemnation of Stalinism.
Solzhenitsyn gradually achieved wider influence on all European politics when he published The Gulag Archipelago in the West. Though it was not officially published until the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, it had circulated since 1973 as samizdat underground dissident literature, then was published in the Novy Mir literary journal in 1989 once the policies of perestroika and glasnost were in place.
The horrors of the Soviet camps documented in the book were not far off the hellish chapters from Dante’s The Divine Comedy, and sparked a rethinking of Lenin’s legacy and the realities of the Soviet system both inside and outside of the USSR.
I sat on a stool for hours reading the book in the home of my Polish wife’s parents in Warsaw, too afraid to take it with me to Moscow. It was a bomb that ultimately shattered the European left’s longstanding enthusiasm for Eurocommunism — a moderate but still pro-Soviet communism. These two brilliant books alone are enough to recognize Solzhenitsyn’s genius and significance.
The utopia of a ‘Russian world’
The themes in the remainder of his work are by no means simple. In the narrative of novella Matryona’s Place, there were undercurrents of conservative Pochvennichestvo ideology that was against the dominant ideologies prevailing in the USSR but at the same time opposed modern Western values.
Solzhenitsyn’s exposure of Soviet crimes was increasingly accompanied by his rejection of the liberal European alternative. Instead, the dream he offered the way into the new utopia of a “Russian world.”
Once deported to the West by the Soviets, Solzhenitsyn, became increasingly opposed to modern Western democracy. Pluralism to him was a dirty word.
He was guided by Christian virtues — as he understood them. He was probably not a great philosopher able to penetrate the secrets of the ambivalence of human nature. Instead, he proposed to heal people with old methods — a return to a “moral life.”
Late-life U-turn and legacy
And yet somehow, at this point, he became enraptured by Russian President Vladimir Putin. In a private conversation after Solzhenitsyn’s return from exile, the two agreed that Russia should diverge from the Western path.
The fact that author of The Gulag Archipelago, with the immortal camp refrain “Don’t believe, don’t fear and don’t ask” trusted the former KGB operative and instrument of oppression who had wanted to build a Russian utopia of his own making, caused a storm of indignation among the opposition but delighted supporters of the Russian great power.
Some ask if a magnificent writer of that caliber can make such a mistake — and such a huge one at that. Some might say that Solzhenitsyn could be forgiven for such an indiscretion — after all, he wrote many short stories, including the historical epic The Red Wheel, a series of novels about the revolution. And it is true that his persistent archaic experiments with the Russian language were sometimes ridiculous.
However, a writer’s significance is determined by his or her best works. Solzhenitsyn is the last Russian writer with whom the great moral tradition in Russian literature ends. In any case, his own story and his works are an important stage for the controversies of Russia. In another 100 years, he will still be relevant — and at least another 100 after that.
Viktor Yerofeyev, born in 1947, is a Russian author. In 1979, he was expelled from the Union of Soviet Writers. In 1990 he became internationally known with his novel Russian Beauty that was translated into 27 languages. He now lives in Moscow and regularly criticizes the policies of Vladimir Putin.