Sunday, December 20, 2009

Tattered Remnants #022: Aleksander Solzhenitsyn

(Read all about the Tattered Remnants by clicking {here}.)


"If one is forever cautious, can one remain a human being?"

The name Solzhenitsyn is known to every adult American over the age of 35. But times are changing; already, he is fading into history and into disregard as the train of history moves forward. Although he is today still among the most famous of men, he was, at his finest, an unknown, a single minded enemy of one of the 20th Century's Great Tyrannies, the smallest of Davids against the greatest of Goliaths. As such, he was without doubt one of the Tattered Remnant.

* * * * *

In the year of 1961, in a tiny town called Ryazan south of Moscow, a high school teacher sat, late at night, before his typewriter, composing a short story. It was written in single space, on both sides of the paper (to save on the paper itself, which was hard to find at the time).

The story he wrote was a hidden artwork, created in darkness in a corner of his small apartment; he had never shown this, or any other work, to anybody else, as he was convinced that his works would never be published in his lifetime. This was, after all, only eight years after the death of Josef Djughashvili, known as Stalin; and the gang of terrorists who had assisted him in blighting the evil empire called the Soviet Union still ruled the country with a bitter, iron hand. The cold body of Stalin himself still lay in state next to Lenin's in the latter's Tomb.

He sat in his room writing a story that would change the world, retelling his experience of eight years in Siberia, where he had worked as a slave for the Soviet state, under sentence for "disloyalty" and "founding a hostile organization." His crime had been one of calling the leader of his nation "The Whiskered Guy" and "The Boss" in a private letter to a friend.

The final paragraph he composed slowly, carefully, savoring every single word:

The end of an unclouded day. Almost a happy one. Just one of the 3,653 days of his sentence, from bell to bell.

The extra three days were for leap years.

It took time, but within thirty years the writing of this short story would come to be seen as the first and single most significant event leading to the destruction of his nation's dictatorship.

His name was Aleksander Isayevich Solzhenitsyn. And in typing his story he changed his universe, and ours.

Solzhenitsyn was at that time a 42-year-old survivor of the Soviet labor camps, a former "Zek", or zakliuchonniy, a prisoner. He had been arrested while serving in the Soviet Army in Poland as the Red Army approached Berlin. His letters to his friend having been intercepted, he was shipped by a special train to Moscow proper, where he was imprisoned in the famous Lyublyanka prison. He was severely beaten and, after a drumhead trial before three State Security officers, he was sentenced to eight years in the Soviet labor system. He was shipped to the east, to Siberia, where, in a series of camps, he labored as a bricklayer for the heroic Soviet people.

Solzhenitsyn had been an unquestioning Communist until his arrest. But as he spent eight years in backbreaking labor, his former appreciation for the Soviet way of life gave way to a realization that he lived in the heart of darkness, which called itself a light to the workers of the world but which was, in fact, a vile political monstrosity that ate human flesh.

(Let it not be forgotten that the Soviet empire, in its 70 years, consumed 40 million lives on its own initiative and lost another 20 to the invasion of Hitler.)

At the conclusion of his eight year sentence, he was freed from the camps, but sentenced thereupon to lifetime exile in the East. He was only allowed out of his imprisonment long enough to travel to the city of Tashkent, to receive treatment for stomach cancer.

After Stalin died, he was again allowed to leave the far East and he returned to central Russia, where he settled in Ryazan. His wife, who had divorced him during his imprisonment, remarried him and they settled down to a quiet life.

But he wrote on, regardless, knowing that he had no future: his works would never be published; indeed, if they were discovered, he would likely be arrested again and returned to the cold hell of the far East.

He chose, however, to take a chance. He sent a manuscript copy of his short story – Yedin Den' Ivana Denisovitcha, or One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch - to an old friend of his, Aleksander Tvardovskiy, editor of the magazine Novy Mir ("New World"). The excellence of the work was recognized immediately; some of those reviewing the short story comparing it to Dostoyevski.

But old habits die hard, particularly in socialist dictatorships. The publication of such a (counter-)revolutionary work would require approval at the highest level. It finally came from the unlikeliest of sources: Nikita Khrushchev himself, who, telling the Politburo of his decision to approve the release of the story, made what is possibly the most remarkable admission of any public official in Soviet history:

There is a Stalinist in each of you; there is even a Stalinist in me. We must root out this evil.

But this was but a false spring of freedom in Russia. Although the nation was swept by this daring new writer who actually was allowed to attack the (former) leadership of the Soviet Union, the brief era of tolerance for dissent soon ended when Khrushchev was overthrown and replaced by the Brezhnev clique of reactionaries. And Solzhenitsyn, the golden boy of the Khrushchev era, found himself almost an unperson.

In this period, his next novel, Cancer Ward, was published, but his next, The First Circle, was blockaded. In the years that followed, while the children of the "Free Speech" protestors in Berkeley decried American "censorship" and Woodstock became the symbol of freedom, Solzhenitsyn's home was raided by KGB agents and a copy of his most important work, Arkhipelag GULag, or The Gulag Archipelago, was seized. In 1969 he was expelled from the Union of Writers–membership in which was a sine qua non to being a published novelist in the U.S.S.R.

While the police had seized the manuscript, however, copies had been carefully stored in the homes of friends, and were smuggled out of the Soviet Union to the West. An American at the Embassy, military attache' William Odom -- later head of the National Security Agency under Ronald Reagan -- got the manuscript to publishers in Paris.

As time passed, his importance as a writer and as a solitary opponent of the Soviet system became more apparent, even to his enemies. The Soviets could not afford to kill him, and they were unable to effectively silence him. His growing reputation became a rebuke to everything the Soviet system stood for. He was given the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970–this, back in the days when Nobel Prizes were still meaningful–and he came to stand for all those silent men of good will inside the Soviet Union who quietly opposed the stone face of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

Since he could not be silenced, and since he could not be safely killed, they expelled him.

One day, in 1974, he was again arrested in his home. At this time, he was informed by the KGB officers arresting him that the decision had been taken by the Politburo to strip him of his citizenship and expel him from Russia. He was forcibly placed on an Aeroflot plane to Germany, and he was unceremoniously dumped onto the tarmac.

In the days that followed, he was allowed to migrate to the United States, where he took up residence. His second wife, Natalya -- he had divorced his first wife in 1971 -- was allowed to join him, along with their three young sons.

He took up residence in Cavindish, Vermont, a small, woodsy town in the Northeastern United States, which resembled in many ways his old home in central Russia. He chose well, for his Vermont neighbors had almost as insular views of privacy as he did. He stayed there, shielded by his neighbors' willing shielding of the family from the curious, and quite pointedly rarely left his estate. Although his wife and children all obtained American citizenship, he chose to remain officially stateless.

Never learning to speak English fluently -– although of course he read it well enough –- he spent his seventeen years in exile concentrating on finishing his Red Wheel cycle of four novels on the Russian Revolution. During his stay in Cavindish, he made one public appearance–a speech at Harvard University's Commencement ceremonies in 1977, where he denounced American culture, materialism, and "bad music" to an audience that found his words, to quote the New York Times, "bewildering." It almost seemed like he was biting the hand that fed him–except that this particular "hand" was made up of a lot of people who believed that the USSR was, to put it kindly, unobjectionable.

Your Author recalls seeing him in one of his very rare appearances on American television in 1984, giving an interview where he advocated that the USSR should be broken into its component parts, and the other nations forming it allowed to be free and independent states. Although he foresaw some internal border changes that never took place–he thought, for instance, that majority Russian-speaking regions in Ukraine and Kazakhstan should become Russian territory–his foresight in predicting the shattering of the USSR which came only seven years later was, in retrospect, truly astonishing. (Were that our CIA had had such vision!)

I can remember my father shaking his head after the interview ended. "The man's a dreamer," he said. But, as it turned out, he was (pace John Lennon) not the only one.

Time passed and the ice dam that he had first pierced shattered into a million pieces in his absence. To those of us who lived through those heady years, the events that moved so swiftly still seem miraculous – the "Easter Sunday party" that broke the fence between Austria and Hungary in 1988 to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the return of Solidarity, the death of the Warsaw Pact, the execution of Rumania's Nicolae Ceausescu on Christmas Day 1989, the independence of Lithuania, the August coup of 1990, Boris Yeltsin standing on the tank, and, most gloriously, the fall of the Soviet flag from the Kremlin on Christmas Day 1991 and its irrevocable consignment to the ashheap of history.

But Aleksander Solzhenitsyn was forced to observe all this from exile.

In 1995, he finally came back to Russia, landing in Magadan, a city in the Far East near Vladivostok. His first act on emerging from the plane was to kiss the ground in remembrance of his fellow Zeks who had died as Stalin's slaves tearing this city out of the Siberian waste. He then took a train with his wife across Siberia, soaking in the "new Russia."

He was, as one might expect, dismayed. The collapse of the Soviet Union had left the nation impoverished, and yet the Russian people who had suffered so long did not seem to have emerged from their decades of horror morally improved. He saw Russian Mafia influence everywhere, Soviet Communistic influence still abounding, Western materialism, extremely gross sexual immorality, drugs, and mindless pursuit of pleasure, and he was shocked and appalled at what he saw.

He settled in Moscow and became what we might call a "pundit." He had, for a time, his own TV show, two fifteen-minute spots a week where he would interview leading politicians and thinkers of the day. But his bitter and hectoring style attracted few viewers and the show was cancelled after a few months.

He was, in the end of his life, viewed (fairly or not) as a has-been and an eccentric, a supporter of Tsarism and an opponent of democracy. He also held many views that today are held to be unacceptable, including a bitter attitude toward the Jewish people that approached anti-Semitism, although to his credit he recognized it in himself, admitted to it, and battled it. It should be remembered that it was he that observed that "the line between good and evil lies not between 'us' and 'them' but down the middle of every human heart." And none knew that line better than he himself. We all must struggle with evil; some of us have the misfortune of doing so publicly.

Yes, at the end of his life, he was in many ways a crank. But his legacy is clear.

Today, his master work, The Gulag Archepelago, composed in fear of the KGB, is now required reading in every high school in Russia.


I will not recount her life story here. While she had the makings of a member of the Remnant--she was, indeed, courageous, in a twisted way--she chose to stand up and be counted for the other side.

In the spring of 1985, I was in my final semester as an undergraduate at Michigan State University. A major public speaking event was scheduled one evening at the main theater, where the celebrated Madelyn Murray O'Hair was to come to give a speech.

O'Hair of course was and is famous as the individual who was responsible for forcing public schools to stop allowing prayer or the reading of the Bible as part of educational curricula. She gloried in her title as "the most hated woman in America," and taunted those Christians who she claimed dreamed of her death.

I remember going to see her at MSU on that occasion. As was common at such events, microphones were set up around the ampitheater so that, following her speech, the audience could comment and ask her questions.

I do not remember much about the speech, except that it was standard atheist boilerplate: Christians are idiots, atheists are the smart ones; believers are idiots, scientific materialists are the smart ones; those who imagine that the world was created are idiots... yadda yadda.

I patiently stood in line and was standing before the microphone when someone asked Mrs. O'Hair about freedom of worship in the Soviet Union.

"I've traveled several times in the Soviet Union," she bragged. "In every city there are still churches. They're open. Nobody is in them because nobody believes there any more. But there is no persecution of religious believers in the U.S.S.R."

I spoke up into the microphone at that instant.

"I don't believe Aleksander Solzhenitsyn would agree with your last statement."

"Aleksander Solzhenitsyn," she said, voice dripping contempt, "is a fascist."

At that the room erupted in applause. I had not realized, until that moment, how alone I truly was in that building--or that almost everybody else there seemed to be enthusiastically buying the bovine scatology that she was selling.

I will also not recount what ultimately became of her: an atrocity so horrible that I would not wish it happening to Charles Manson.

I'll simply observe the difference between their respective legacies: Solzhenitsyn's being a book that every school child in his nation must now read; O'Hair's, a Book that no school in her nation is allowed to teach.

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