Not a One-Dimensional Anti-Communist
Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile
By Joseph Pearce
Publisher: Baker Books
Review Author: Patrick Rooney
I rented a video recently called Unbreakable, starring Bruce Willis and Samuel Jackson. The movie posed this question: “Do comic book heroes actually walk the earth?” The question hovered in my mind as I read Joseph Pearce’s biography of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. After reading it, I knew that the answer is “yes.”
We live among so much mediocrity. The quality of things is generally low, particularly the quality of our heroes. These days, if you’re famous enough, or crude enough, or rich enough, you’re going to be considered a hero by many. Solzhenitsyn is a real hero, and amazingly, he’s still alive! To our discredit, however, he’s been largely forgotten, both in his native Russia and worldwide. Pearce’s excellent biography aims to change that.
Solzhenitsyn was raised in a traditional religious home in Russia. But as a youth, he was lured into the Pioneers, the Communist version of the Boy Scouts. He was soon on the road to becoming a fanatical Communist.
On February 9, 1945, while serving in the army, Solzhenitsyn was arrested. A piece he had written years before containing derogatory remarks about Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin had been found. The arrest was a shock, and led to years of brutal imprisonment.
Solzhenitsyn began to undergo a spiritual awakening in prison. A cellmate had tried to convince him to play it safe and stay quiet. Solzhenitsyn’s reaction was: “One wanted to agree with him, to serve out the time cozily, and then expunge from one’s head what one had lived through. But I had begun to sense a truth inside myself; if in order to live it is necessary not to live, then what’s it all for?”
Solzhenitsyn became determined to tell the brutal truth about Stalin’s camps. When finally released, he was a changed man.
Solzhenitsyn began to ask himself questions about life. He wondered about the evil of Stalin and the torturers in the camps. They appeared to prosper, and he could not understand it: “And the only solution to this would be that the meaning of earthly existence lies not, as we have grown used to thinking, in prospering, but…in the development of the soul. From that point of view our torturers have been punished most horribly of all: they are turning into swine, they are departing from humanity.”
In 1970 Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature “for the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature.” The Soviet authorities were outraged. Others saw it differently: A message smuggled out of a Soviet labor camp said, “Barbed wire and automatic weapons prevent us from expressing to you personally the depth of our admiration for your courageous creative work upholding the sense of human dignity….”
Solzhenitsyn is undoubtedly one of the greatest writers of this or any other time. More importantly, he is a great man. His highest value to society has been the power of his example. Says Pearce: “Solzhenitsyn’s courage was clearly contagious and was spreading to parts of Soviet society that the authorities had hoped it would never reach.” Other writers and citizens in Soviet society began to step forward and challenge the authorities, which increased the moral pressure on Communist power.
In 1972 Solzhenitsyn went public with an open confession of Christianity, and was roundly denounced. In Solzhenitsyn’s own words: “I was received with ‘hurrahs’ as long as I appeared to be against Stalinist abuses only…[but] the time had come to speak more precisely, to go even deeper. And in doing so I should inevitably lose the reading public, lose my contemporaries in the hope of winning posterity.”
On August 23, 1973, Solzhenitsyn detailed death threats he had received, he believed, from the KGB. While Solzhenitsyn was speaking to the press, “the KGB was being implicated in the death of a frail old woman named Elizaveta Voronyanskaya, who was one of Solzhenitsyn’s most devoted supporters. She was arrested by the KGB and broke down under interrogation, divulging the whereabouts of a hidden copy of his finished manuscript, The Gulag Archipelago. Racked with guilt she returned home on August 23rd and apparently committed suicide by hanging herself, though there were rumors that the KGB had a direct hand in her death.”
Solzhenitsyn had done everything possible to keep the existence of the book secret from the Soviet authorities. Now that they had a copy of the book in their possession, he had no choice but to authorize publication in the West as soon as possible. It was to become his best-known and perhaps greatest work.
Soon after publication, Solzhenitsyn was arrested at his Moscow home and taken to Lefortovo prison, where he was charged with treason. The next day, having been stripped of his Soviet citizenship, he was expelled from his homeland as a traitor. He and his family were to live in Switzerland, and later the U.S.
In 1978 Solzhenitsyn delivered the commencement address at Harvard University. In his uncompromising speech, he condemned the Western world as being morally bankrupt. Many in the West had loved Solzhenitsyn, but only as long as he was trashing the Soviet empire, not them.
On August 16, 1990, Solzhenitsyn’s Soviet citizenship was restored nearly 17 years after it had been taken from him. An announcement was subsequently made that the treason charges against him had been revoked. This had been the last official obstacle barring his return to Russia.
On the morning of May 27, 1994, Solzhenitsyn set foot in Russia for the first time in over 20 years. The old Soviet Union had fallen: The truth of Solzhenitsyn’s works had attacked the foundation of the Soviet system, until it came crashing down under its own immoral weight, with the help of the policies of President Reagan.
Solzhenitsyn made a blistering attack on Russia’s new political leaders, saying they were no better than the Communist rulers he spent much of his life opposing. Ironically, though, the man who was most responsible for the newfound freedom of everyday Russians was now considered no longer relevant by many in the “New Russia.” Solzhenitsyn was to assume a diminished cultural role, and has semi-retired to a home in the countryside.
In Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile, Joseph Pearce has completed a labor of love, and chronicled a giant. This book has had a powerful effect on my life. It reminded me of what human beings are capable of — for good or ill, but particularly for good. Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile has my highest recommendation.
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