Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Solzhenitsyn

He was, of course, the greatest MAN of the 20th century.

Discussions - 48 Comments

"MAN" - as opposed to . . . the greatest gentleman?

The greatest and largest soul, along with Churchill, of the 20th Century. Churchill more of the 19th Century, Sasha totally of the 20th. A man of the ages. Wrote maybe the greatest novel of the century too, The First Circle. And a great statesman: "After all, the writer is a teacher of the people: surely that's what we've always understood. And a great writer...is, so to speak, a second government." Thank you, Aleksandr Isaevich, for leading me many years ago, and for teaching me over the years. Requiem aeternam dona ei, Domine. Et lux perpetua luceat ei.

I would hope that the great man's passing would occasion some reflection and discussion upon his truly remarkable -- even miraculous -- life and work. There's so much there: the critique of the Lie, communist ideology, the appropriate application of moral and spiritual values and criteria to politics (e.g., his great themes of 'repentence and self-limitation in the life of nations'), his notion-and-practice of art, and of the artist as collaborator with God, servant of truth, his people (and their memory and best traditions), and -- thereby -- of mankind, his substantive notions of liberty and of democracy, his ability to work in the midst of the most trying circumstances, his moral courage, his ... . I wish I could write something similar to Strauss's famous spontaneous eulogy of Churchill upon hearing of Churchill's passing, but the above-list may indicate in the right directions. For those of us who came of political age during the Cold War, he was the Beacon (along with several other luminaries). Requiescat in pace.

I said greatest man as an invitation for you guys to employ your eloquence to explain what that means. Paul and Rob haven't disappointed. He deserves a spontaneous eulogy even more memorable than the one Strauss gave Churchill. It's not dissing Churchill to say he was no Solzhenitsyn


This man won the cold war, not Reagan. The naive embrace of communism by some in the american left in the 1950's ended with his writing. And before the neocons claim Solzhenitsyn as their hero, be sure to understand the nature of his critique of western capitalism, which he condemned to be as oppressive as any gulag.

Ivan, insofar as he combined magnanimity and humility, he belied Strauss's contrast of the two (in, e.g., his Strauss/Cropsey Machiavelli chapter), and insofar as he combined a natural moral phenomenology along with Christian faith, he belied Strauss's presentation of biblical faith, and his critique of the ideological Lie goes beyond what Strauss said about Communism and Marxist-Leninism.

Charles Kesler on Solzenhitsyn in 1978 from National Review.

Paul,

Agreed. Please excuse the blackberry brevity

Stertinius, many a Neo left the Left BECAUSE of the writings of Solzhenitsyn, which ripped the veil away from the ugly visage of the Soviet Union, and not just the Soviet Union, but the whole notion that the state should control economic activity. It's difficult to recall today the blockbuster impact of his 3 volume series on the GULAG.

For some, Solzenhitsyn served as a catalyst to rethink the prescriptions of the Left. For others, he was but one more milestone on the path to Conservative sanity. But for all, his was a voice prophetic like.

I'm going to provide some quotes from the brief preface to the third and final volume of perhaps the greatest literary accomplishment in human history, THE GULAG ARCHIPELAGO.

The first paragraph follows: "TO THOSE READERS who have found the moral strength to overcome the darkness and the suffering of the first two volumes, the third volume will disclose a space of freedom and struggle. The secret of this struggle is kept by the Soviet regime even more zealously than that of the torments and annihlation it inflicted upon millions of its victims. More than anything else, the Communist regime fears the revelation of the fight which is conducted against it with a spiritual force unheard of and unknown to many countries in many periods of their history. The fighters' spiritual strength rises to the greatest height and to a supreme degree of tension when their situation is most helpless and the state system most ruthlessly destructive."

Second Paragraph: "The Communist regime has not been overthrown in 60 years, not because there has not been any struggle against it from inside, not because people dociley surrendered to it, but because it is inhumanly strong, in a way as yet unimaginable to the West."

Then he moves on to the subject of terrorism and retalliation, and closes his brief preface with this most prescient comment about terror: "And there is no guarantee that the darkest abyss of terrorism already lies behind us." That preface was written in November, 1977.

I suggest that those who can today, just read Chapter 2 from Part VI, of the third volume, which is titled: "The Peasant Plague," and begins: "This chapter will deal with a small matter. Fifteen million souls. Fifteen million lives." I've read that single chapter at least a dozen times, and I think it could be the best single chapter of the whole 3 volume epic.

Ivan, no apology needed. Frankly I'm just trying to hold the fort until Dan Mahoney can weigh in. Of all days to be doing so, he's travelling! When I posted my 'rejoinder'-items I certainly had his book on Solzhenitsyn, Ascent from Ideology, in mind.

Julie, thanks for the link.

Rob, amen.

Mahoney & Ed. Ericson's The Solzhenitsyn Reader (published by ISI) remains the essential intro to, and compendium of, the man's oeuvre.

Alain Bescancon had perhaps the best image of AIS: as St. George battling the dragon.

"Luc in tenebriae lucet, et tenebriae, eam non comprehenderunt."

I took a year in Latin at Villanova as an elective, but I think that's the rendering of the Gospel line: "A light in darkness shined, and the darkness comprehended it not."

It's an irony that A.S., who so desperately wanted to be known as another Tolstoy and great writer in Russian history, ended up not being another splendid fictional writer, but ended being something else, something unique, but something that transcended Tolstoy and all the rest of them combined.

It's difficult not to think of the words of St. Paul, {in this year of St. Paul}, for A.S. too "ran the race" and "fought the fight."

Solzhenitsyn dead? Alas, alas! And what thanks we owe, for such a man, such a life, such a light in such a darkness.

Here is a fragment of mine from an unfinished and probably abortive essay, which expresses my more pedestrian (i.e., strictly political and Gulag-connected) thoughts on the man on his significance. Paul's one comment on the comparison w/ Strauss ultimately says much more, I think, my thoughts focus on facts on the ground like the Soviet Union.

One Book That Shook the World

There was one event that more than any other that shook the Left free from its long gaze in the communist direction, free to become fundamentally disoriented. This was the publication, in 1974, of Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago.

(to be continued...)

The widespread extent of the Soviet prison camps had been reported before, but it took Gulag’s eye-witness narrative and literary presentation to really break this fact and its significance through the Western Left’s hard shell of denial and dismissal, to really show both the horror of the camps and what an indispensible part they had played in the Soviet regime. During the first part of his imprisonment Solzhenitsyn had still believed in communism. Aided by this “leftist-in-spirit” beginning, his personal anger, poetic voice, and meticulous attention to detail he produced a book that stunned the Western Left, which now saw that the camps had been far more widespread than previously thought, and had in fact begun with Lenin. Moreover, Gulag showed that the cruelties employed were unprecedented, categorically different from the comparatively child-like oppression employed by the Tsars, and most damningly, it demonstrated that this difference proceeded from the ideological logic of communism itself. Prisoners were not simply killed or locked up, but everything turned on the need to make them confess to fabricated counter-revolutionary crimes and conspiracies, to even accuse family, friends, and mere acquaintances of the same, made to do so by the threat of ten-year camp terms and by every means of torture imaginable. The regime’s ideocratic character demanded in each and every case a Marxist-Leninst explanation for the existence of dissent, and more generally, the regime’s leadership needed the existence of such categorize-able enemies to explain the halting progress of its program to “create socialism.” In short, it demanded the continual fabrication of evidence, even out of human lives, to support its fantastical version of events, and this led it to demand of its victims’ participation in its own Lie. In various ways, the premises of communist ideology pressed its leaders towards this demand, which meant the regime’s rot did not begin simply at its one-time head, at Stalin, but was inherent to the whole and began from the very outset. Nowhere was that murderous and utterly debasing rottenness better seen than in the camps, and few left-leaning Westerners could walk with Solzhenitsyn through them and emerge with their old objectivity toward or dutiful half-condemnation of communism intact. No, if there was such a thing as Evil, then this, alongside Nazism, was it. And clearly, the responsibility for it did not stop even with Lenin but went back to Marx. While a leftist could remain prickly about how much guilt Marx deserved, that he bore a significant amount had become undeniable. Those who lament that Marx is too blithely dismissed today do have a point or two, but the bottom line is that they need to read The Gulag Archipelago, for a complaining manner in his defense is plain evidence that they haven’t. One emerges from it a different person, and the Left never really recovered from it.

...continued...last segment: Thanks for the peace-time fall of the Soviet Union a decade and a half later is owed to the occurrence and character of the Reagan presidency, to the Europeans who precariously maintained NATO solidarity, to the various dissident movements, especially in Poland, perhaps to the Pauline papacy, and finally, to the salutary delusions of Gorbachev, but I think none of these actors’ impacts can be fully accounted for apart from that of Gulag. The developmental cancer endemic to communist systems would have probably caused a CONTAINED Soviet empire to eventually collapse apart from some of these actors—and that, alongside the willingness of a liberal-democratic West to contain it were obviously the two key factors in its demise. But as for persons, it is Solzhenitsyn who deserves the greatest credit for bringing the obscenity to an end and for giving the West the final dose of determination necessary to resist its intimidations to the end. That is, what Gulag did to the Western Left is probably inextricable from what it did to the USSR. One can quibble with elements of my account here, but the following statements are undeniable: 1) no book in history has had a greater near-term political impact, and 2) this grand impact was not due to unprecedented political wisdom or literary genius on Solzhenitsyn’s part, but shamefully, to the magnitude of the political insanity enacted and entertained by the 20th-century Left, inside and outside the Evil Empire.

And Stertinius, you haven't read the Gulag. There is simply no way you could equate capitalism, even at its worst, with the horrors revealed therein, or think that Solzhenitsyn would entertain such moral equivalence for a second, if you had read it. For shame. Reminds me of the disgusting episode a few years ago in which the leaders of Amnesty International, forever destroying that organization's reputation, dared to use the word "gulag" to describe Guantanamo Bay.

And a nod to one of Solzhenitsyn's lesser talents - his sense of dark humor and the absurdity of evil. There were several points in reading Gulag where I laughed out loud (one line included the the phrase "since he could not call the snow a kulak"). This was a quality he shared with Reagan. But, partly since he was a great Russian rather than a great American, Solzhenitsyn's humor was more bitter.


I use gulag with a small g, just as I use holocaust with a small h. Those who do so do not lessen the monstrosities of those events. But my critical nature resists escalating them to metaphysical absolutes. To do so is to denigrate the gulags of the past, and the holocausts surely yet to come. I respect your right to capitalize your g in Gulag, just as I recognize the right of the Jews to capitalize the h in Holocaust.

As my post suggests, I agree with many of your criticisms of the left. The European left in the 50's simply did not know about Stalin's evils in the 30's, and when they became apparent after the war, were in denial with regard to them. I could not read the later Sartre the same way after Solzhenitsyn, for example.

I have read the Gulag. I have read Yevteshenko, Mandelstahm, Pasternak, Conquest, Tolstoy, Dostoevski, Ahkmatova, Marina Tsvetayeva, even Bogolyubov's algebraic chess notation. My concern is that the contemporary far right in the United States elevates a great work of literature into some irrefutable refutation of the left in general, as if Obama is to be equated with Stalin. A.S. was an old-school Russian nationalist, and had no love lost for the west, for capitalism, for Reagan America. So do not scold me for not having learned his lessons. I share many of your feelings with regard to the passing of this figure of towering moral vision, but I see as over-reaching your equation of the evils he describes to be intrinsic to the political left. Perhaps I will step back from my moral equivocation when you step back from yours.

Recall Stertinius that GULAG is an acronym. It's not a word, it's a bastardization of the Russian language. Through frequent use it became a word, the shorthand descriptive of the Soviet penal system, but properly speaking, it is an acronym.

The thread concerns Solzhenitsyn, not the false messiah.

However, Solzhenitsyn ripped away the veil of the Left. To the extent that Obama stands with the Left, then he stands in the dock. Not just Obama of course, but the entire Left, who knew, or had reason to know, and just didn't remain mute, just didn't remain silent, but offered the best of themselves in defense of the most anti-human system ever contrived.

Solzhenitsyn placed the Left in the dock, evidence was weighed, arguments heard, decision rendered. And the verdict was cast against the Left, for shedding more human blood in a single century than all the centuries previous.

Look I am not pretentious enough to go getting into a debate with someone who has the quality justly so and in greater proportion...but saying that Solzhenitsyn was the greatest man of the 20th century? I suppose there is no harm in it, but the very nature of the opinion is supposed to tell you something of those who hold such a view.

It seems possible to me that both Stertinius and Carl Scott are at least in agreement on the question of greatness. Which technically speaking would require a further refinement in what is meant by being of the left or of the right. Such a refinement is probably of necessity itself an academic affair precluding populism. In which case what we are talking about here is a pissing contest in the humanities.

The truth of the matter is that Henry Ford was the greatest man of the 20th century. This is disputable in terms of what is meant by greatness, to which the person making such a claim without great pretense should simply fall back on the rejoinder that: Everything in life is somewhere else, and you get there in a car.

What is insensibly delicious in all of this is various games of right and left, albeit technically speaking this is the true foundation of the much decried "relativism" in the first place. The person who says that Henry Ford was the greatest man stands on firmer ground. While Stertinius and Carl Scott duke out greatness...it would certainly be a hillarious event if such a dispute could be settled politically. I have a simple proposition: Henry Ford is the greatest man of the 20th century and the evolution of the automobile is its greatest ongoing invention.

Let the politician who wishes to claim Solzhenitsyn for the right or the left speak up when the issue of high gas prices are brought up to the effect that great books are more important.

My guess is that in this context Stertinius would quickly desire that it was McCain who claimed Solzhenitsyn and that Dr. Lawler would be pleased to see Obama do likewise.

It is after all 2008 in the year of our Ford and not 2008 in the year of our Solz...

This is a completly inapropriate Eulogy, but assuming I could offer a better one, would require weighting the relative merits of presumptiousness.

But I repeat myself about Vero Possumus when I say that there is no Latin in America.

I hate to lower the tone, but I have to share my grief and outrage over the treatment of Solz. overheard on NPR this morning: some journalist who interviewed him in the late seventies was invited by the "anchor" to endorse the judgment that Solz (since, I suppose, he was hard on Western journalists, a little untrusting, no doubt -- I wonder why!!)was, come to think of it, just about as dictatorial as the regime he criticized. That's waht they dared say: he was a imperious towards these magnificent journalists, and so he was like Stalin. God help us! I found myself wishing earnestly that Mr. Mahoney (for example) would not have to listen to such depravity -- at least not while he was driving, say. Clearly it had never occurred to these NPR voices that they might be talking about a man whose spiritual rank so far exceeded them that they barely (if at all) had a right to talk about him. You can see I was disgusted.

Thank you Dan and Paul and Carl and Ralph and others for your eloquence. I want to share a passage from AS that I have always treasured. I can't remember where it is from (Dan perhaps can help me). Here it is: "Do not pursue what is illusory--property and position: all that is gained at the expense of your nerves decade after decade, and is confiscated in one fell night. Live with a steady superiority over life--don't be afraid of misfortune, and do not yearn after happiness; it is, after all, all the same: the bitter doesn't last forever, and the sweet never fills the cup to overflowing. It is enough that you don't freeze in the cold and if thirst and hunger don't claw at your insides. If your back isn't broken, if your feet can walk, if both arms can bend, if both eyes see, and both ears hear, then whom should you envy? And why? Our envy of others devours us most of all. Rub your eyes and purify your heart--and prize above all else in the world those who love you and who wish you well. Do not hurt them or scold them, and never part from any of them in anger; after all, you simply do not know: it might be your last act before your arrest, and that will be how you are imprinted in their memory."

Solzhenitsyn was not of the right or of the left, but merely of the human. In that he was great. I was a housewife when reading him. My children would find me in tears reading Gulag and I taught them from it what humans should never do to other humans.

Last spring a student came to me with two weeks before the midterm paper on literature was due. "What is short that I could read?" he asked. I told him to read A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. The boy came back the next Monday and said he had not been able to put the novel down. The book spoiled his weekend. This was no great intellect, just a human eighteen year old. The boy wrote too much for me, as if he couldn't help it. He wrote of pity, the great many things in the little book that moved him and wondered why people do such things. That's Solzhenitsyn; he can even move the callow - if they read him. I hope he's not forgotten.

Mr. Lewis: It's "presumptuousness." Please spell it as well as you practice it.

I never thought the story of Ivan Denisovich was worth the while. When I read it, I must confess, I was disappointed. I thought that piece was overbilled. But I thought his Red Wheel work wasn't given the praise it warranted.

We have to be mindful that Denisovich wasn't praised in the Soviet Union because of its intrinsic worth, but because of the subject it broached, and the fact that it described a ZEK as a human being, and not an enemy of the people. It was THAT which garnered so much attention for Denisovich, but not for the work itself. But then again, as KATE relates, for someone unfamiliar with the GULAG, Denisovich can throw light on the human soul.

I think his great work was The Gulag Archipelago. I've read it completely quite a few times, and portions thereof over a dozen.

For anyone who hasn't glanced at it and is intimadated by its length, just read the chapter on arrest. There are significant sections of the work that are flat out hilarious. It's not Elie Weisel stuff, darkness unilluminated. Solzhenitsyn is much better than that, he finds the humour in lines, in arrests, in trials, the narrative voice in the work is unforgettable. Simply unforgettable.

ROBERT, that sounds like it might derive from the section "The Ascent," which is in Part IV, titled: The Soul and Barbed Wire."

It might be from one of his speeches though. I don't recall it off the top of my head.

Ralph, thanks for the distilled cum righteous indignation report of NPR's 'coverage.' I'm reminded that Harvey Mansfield started his piece on "the media" -- 'the media, what are they? they're 'between', between what? the people of a particular country and the peoples of the world' and so on -- with a quote from Solzhenitsyn; when I first read it I didn't appreciate the great Manfieldian irony of that 'lede' (pronounced the journalistic way).

John Lewis, you're quite right to ask for some sort of clarification about 'greatness'. Let me simply state that I consider Solzhenitsyn great for the following complex of reason's (in no particular order, since this is a blog, not a journal): 1) his surpassing physical and moral courage; 2) his supreme artistic talents; 3) his fidelity to his vocation, once he found it (his was a superhuman devotion to remembering and to truth-telling); 4) his properly august self-awareness of all the above, connected with his genuine humility, consisting in living the truth of our creatureliness; 5) his preternatural ability to peer into the abyss and to intellectually and spiritually take the measure of Ideology and ideocracy; 6) his wiliness; 7) his penetration into the human heart and the human condition; 8) his ability to emphatize, one of the writer's greatest requirements; please note that the foregoing were what we might call 'personal' qualities, they don't attempt to quantify 'greatness'; however, his contribution to toppling the Soviet Union was unique and, like Ford, his legacy continues to be written; much depends upon us and our scale of values.

Kate, thanks for the touching story. The departed storyteller himself would be pleased.

Dan M., I did hint that I am as callow as that boy.

I had seen the movie with Tom Courtney as Ivan Denisovich first, before reading the book. I had been leftist and it was an eye-opener as Dan indicated above. It is not over-billed for what it is - a short work on an enormous and complex subject. Of course Gulag is better on the subject.

When something about life is too big for us, too painful, can we do any less than deal with it humorously? I never laughed so hard than at my beloved father-in-law's deathbed, when we comforted each other with all the funny stories about him that we could remember and his jokes and his foibles that we would be missing, even when they had exasperated us before.

We handle sharp things with care and laughter is as good as a pair of gloves. Humor cushions the blows to the soul. Yes, Solzhenitsyn did that well. As irony sharpens irony, so one man sharpens another. (God forgive me for the paraphrase.) I do hope he is unforgettable and not just to intellectuals. I hope his stories go into schoolbooks, as must-reads, and other people raise their children on those, too.

Please pardon the typos in the foregoing post; I won't further embarrass myself by pointing them out.

You're welcome, paul seaton. Thank you for your list of Solzhenitsyn's great virtues. I'm not good at such lists and when I am explaining my mourning to friends, it will help

As Paul Seaton mentioned, I'm on the road and am not really free to weigh in at great length(I'll have a major statement on AIS in a leading national magazine very shortly). Thanks to Paul, Ivan, Robert, Carl, and Ralph, among others, for their thoughtful and eloquent comments and reflections. I encourage every one to read the great man and not just the books and essays written before, let's say, 1978(much of the commentary in the press by friend and foe is seemingly stuck in the mid-1970's!). The writings, old and new are available in many places not least THE SOLZHENITSYN READER:NEW AND ESSENTIAL WRITINGS, 1947-2005 which I had the great honor to co-edit. It's quite right that Solzhenitsyn cannot be pidgeon-holed on some Left-Right spectrum (although he was by no means a man of the Left). But he did very much admire Reagan as his brief tribute in NATIONAL REVIEW after the gipper's death makes abubdantly clear.Solzhenitsyn was a thoughtful and incisive critic of radical modernity, and rightly so. But he also the admired the prodigious energy and self-governing capacities of the United States(a theme developed at some length in his memoir of his years in the West{THE LITTLE GRAIN}, a book available everywhere it seems except the United States!).Most of the American discussions of his socioplotical views are caricatures at best, shaped by the journalistic consensus of the mid-70's. I meet very few people, even among he great man's admirers, who are even remotely familiar with his indefatigable "Tocquevillian" defense of local self-government as the building block of a true regime of liberty. His writings on the great Russian conservative liberal statesman Pyotr Stolypin are also a true gem of historical and political-philosophical reflection and a guide to Solzhenitsyn's own defense of "the middle line of social development." By the way, by my counting the lengthy NYTIMES obituary contained no less than fifty factual errors(to give one example the TIMES piece mentions volumes of the RED WHEEL not selling well in the STATES that in fact have never been published here!) not to mentions outright lies about Solzhenitsyn's views on a whole range of things. In any case, AIS was arguably the "great soul" of the century: the scourge of the ideological lie,he brought together magnanimity and humility in a manner that did pride to our humanity.--Dan Mahoney

Thanks to all. Paul, please write up your list of Solzhenitsyn's great virtues with an exanple for each TODAY for immediate publication. I will give my own view of AS after I get back from my most unmanly vacation on the Redneck Riviera in FL.

The assassination of Prime Miniser Stolypin was THE great event of the former century, for it set entrain all that would follow. Russia would never have involved itself in the Balkans had Stolypin been in power, thus the 1st World War would not have happened, because Tsarist Russia would have stayed on the sidelines, which meant that France would have been forced to stay on the sidelines, and which would have led to Russia successfully making the journey from autocracy to constitutional monarcy. Had Stolypin lived, there would have been no Soviet Union, no NAZISM, no Holocaust.

Dan, "gulag" is in ole' Websters!

Let me echo what others have said about Gulag Arch. being a very funny book...and generally being a great read. You pick up the three-volume thing, flip-forward to grim pictures of prisoners standing in the snow, and you think, "Ugh...this is going to be like being trapped in the Holocaust Museum for a month! DE-PRESS-ING! But it is a duty, I guess...and they all say its great..." But once you read, you find it bracing, entertaining, full of wily jokes, impossible to put down, despite the--yes--excrutiating accounts of torture, horrible conditions, etc. Even those are presented with a verve that is thoughtful, infectious, unique. For the hesitant, get the abridged version ed. by Ericson, 468 pages.

But even more, I'd like to do what I can to amplify Dan Mahoney's point about the post-70s writings, and particularly those of the Red Wheel. The relevant books here are August 1914, and November 1916, since these are the parts of the Red Wheel published in English. Copies of the first are available in most used bookstore, but they are an old incomplete version rushed out in the 70s when interest in Solzhenitsyn was at its peak. BUY THE WILLETTS TRANSLATION INSTEAD. I've read both, although the first unfortunately in the incomplete version--I'm saving the treat of the Willetts version for a rainy day. November 1916, weighing in at an astounding 1,000 pages, is one of my favorite works of literature. Maybe I'm not the best judge of literary merit, and at points it does inevitably drag, but I rate it up there with Tolkien, George Elliot, Austen, Forster, Flaubert, Naipaul, Howells, and other favorites of mine. I enjoyed the two-month task of reading it immensely, indeed, regretted bidding it goodbye. Those of you who love well-written history as much or more than the usual novelizing should enjoy it, once you take the plunge. Here again and in posts below, I'll cut and past from that abortive essay I mentioned, thus giving my summary of these two volumes and their merits.

Despite its unprecedented impact, Solzhenitsyn never considered the Gulag Archipelago to be his most important work. That honor he reserves for his history-infused four-part novel The Red Wheel, the first two parts of which have been published in English as August 1914 and November 1916. In each of these thousand-page volumes, the genre of historical fiction is stretched in the direction of historical narrative (or, in the Lenin chapters, in the direction of biographical narrative), and periodically interrupted by explicitly historical accounts of the key Russian political deliberations of the time, sometimes by means of providing excerpts from official documents and legislative records. These parts of the text are presented in smaller type, so that less history-interested readers who want to skip them may. Despite this feature, Anglophone readers have been daunted by the length of the books and by their large doses of specifically Russian history, and they thus remain almost unknown among them. This neglect is a great shame (and there is some shameful publishing-house and literary politics connected to it), for these volumes will eventually come to be seen as the rightful heirs of the Russian/Tolstoyan tradition of the history-infused novel. Prospective readers who let those thousands of pages intimidate them are missing a literary feast, or more accurately, a consistently surprising, exquisite, and utterly engaging nine-course dinner-party that one does not want to end.
August 1914, of which an abridged and greatly inferior version is found in many used bookstores, contains one of the most strategically intelligent presentations in literature of a single battle, and is interwoven with fascinating sketches of Russian character-types and their relation to the final heyday of Tsarist society. November 1916 continues to develop these various sketches, and takes the main character back to the more-important action of the home-front, where the deterioration of society and the gathering of revolutionary forces prior to the 1917 February Revolution can be observed. While the two books ought to be read in order, I have a preference for the second, and think it is the more significant one for our own times, for reasons that will soon be evident.

Dan, will there be a letter of correction sent to the Times?

Oh, and just a thought on Peter's formulation, "the greatest MAN of the twentieth century." Wondering if he may be thinking of the distinction between man and citizen. The great patriot and Christian Solzhenitsyn could not be said to have been a citizen, having been a subject of the Soviet empire for most of his life. Churchill, then, would have been a greater citizen, even if he loved his country no more than Solzhenitsyn did.

The question of historical fate is the unifying theme. In August 1914, the Russian army loses its opening WWI battle with Germany near Tannenburg, but Solzhenitsyn shows that given better individual decisions, they actually might have won, and thereby would have cut off a large German army in far Prussia. This calls into question the view that given its social structure, Russia was foreordained to collapse and then to undergo revolution once pitted in an extended war against a superior German foe. This view can be found, for example, in the marxisant but still quite impressive “structuralist” explanation of the Russian Revolution provided in Theda Skocpol’s States and Social Revolutions. Against such a view, August 1914 suggests that had the Russians won at Tannenburg the allies might have forced Germany to the settlement table early on, which means that social revolution in Russia would have been greatly delayed or even made impossible. And in November 1916, the main character convincingly argues that it would have been in the interest of Russia for the Tsar to have negociated a separate peace with the Central Powers once the extended nature of the conflict became apparent. The point is that had Tsar Nicholas found the wisdom to make such a negociation despite the denunciations it would have provoked from the Western democracies, and even despite the greatly increased possibility of German victory over those democracies, the deeper catastrophe of 1917 would probably have been avoided. As a whole, The Red Wheel is filled with such tantalizing “what ifs.” As Daniel Mahoney, puts it in his Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn: The Ascent from Ideology,
"In the Red Wheel Solzhenitsyn…writes in explicit opposition to both Tolstoyan fatalism
and Marxist historical determinism. …If the principal noncommunist actors in the drama
had made more responsible or brave decisions, if Russia’s most able statesman in two
centuries, Pyotr Stolypin, had not been assassinated in September 1911, things might have
turned out very differently… [the] work is a vindication of human freedom and responsibility against any view of history that makes human beings mere playthings of impersonal historical forces."
Tolstoy, Marx, and the likes of Skocpol are wrong about history and thus also about political responsibility. We might need to heed particular evidences or arguments presented by such thinkers, but as Tocqueville warned long ago, to accept the overall spirit behind such historiography is to pave the way for despotism.

Will, good question for Peter...off the top of my head...my top three men of the 20th would be Solzhenitsyn, Churchill, and Strauss. While we know that comparing the greatnessnes of latter two is inherently problematic, i.e., statesman v. philosopher(even if no-one can ignore the political aspect of Strauss' thought), one has to wonder whether Solzhenitsyn was more of a thinker or more of political actor, and it seems we can compare his greatness to that of each of the two others. Does this have something to do with his being an artist?

Now, back to my long-winded plug for a long-but-wonderfully-winded pair of books:


The Red Wheel’s call for responsibility is not naively unaware of what the individual’s efforts are up against in the era of mass politics and social movement. The work always seeks to explore the degree to which individual initiative can be effective, always presents this as a live question, and thus always tries to measure the powerful social currents that Solzhenitsyn’s historical and fictional heroes, the ones seeking to reform Russia and thus prevent class revolution, were actually up against. One witnesses moments of defeat that no amount of courage or wisdom could have overcome, and struggles in which the odds prove to be hopelessly stacked.
One of the things that makes November 1916 so relevant to our efforts to consider democracy’s inner dynamics, is that it shows that perhaps the most intransigent social force Solzhenitsyn’s would-be saviors of Russia were up against was not economic or class-based, but a uniquely ideological social “force,” namely, the leftward tilt of liberalism. Let us begin by hearing his words:
"Just as the Coriolis effect is constant over the whole of this earth’s surface, and the flow of
rivers is deflected in such a way that it is always the right bank that is eroded and crumbles,
while the floodwater goes leftward, so do all the forms of democratic liberalism on earth
strike always to the right and caress the left. Their sympathies always with the left, their
heads bob busily as they listen to leftist arguments—but they feel disgraced if they take a
step to or listen to a word from the right."
Do not these words ring true for our era as well? Haven’t most of us felt a greater defensiveness about any of our steps that might be labeled rightward, than about our leftward ones?
Solzhenitsyn goes on to speak of Russia’s “Kadet” liberalism, the liberalism that dominated the Duma, the Russian parliamentary body, both during the war years and during the hapless Kerensky government of 1917:
"Kadet liberalism (and liberalism the world over), if both of its eyes and both of its ears had
developed evenly, if it had been capable of following a firm line of its own, would have
escaped its inglorious defeat and its wretched fate…"
Finally, there is this:
"Nothing is more difficult than drawing a middle line for social development. The loud
mouth, the big fist, the bomb, the prison’s bars are of no help to you, as they are to those at
the two extremes. Following the middle line demands the utmost self-control, the most
inflexible courage, the most patient calculation, the most precise knowledge."
I regard this last quotation, which we might call the “motto of fierce moderation,” as one it would be edifying to have engraved on every public building in every land.

Okay, here's my last bit: The model for this sort of political prudence, for Solzhenitsyn, is Pyotr Styolypin, the Tsar Nicholas’ far-seeing prime minister who quite explicitly worked to combat the social conditions that made Russia ripe for communist recruitment in the cities, and even more dangerously, peasant revolt in the countryside given a weakening of military strength. To learn of and from his exemplary but often misrepresented statesmanship, which sought to preserve the authority of the Russian autocratic system for the sake of successfully reforming it in the direction of a constitutional monarchy, and for the sake of peacefully decreasing the enormous socio-economic gap between the upper classes and the peasants, one must turn to August 1914 , or for a briefer account, to the relevant chapter in Daniel Mahoney’s book. Had Russian liberals been more thoughtful, particularly about whether their almost entirely upper-class activists could connect with or lead the peasant and worker masses, they would have backed much of Stolypin’s program, but the bulk of them instead fostered a denunciatory spirit that heaped abuse on and presented impossible demands to the Tsarist regime that Stolypin was trying to work within. Far more worried about looking good in the eyes of those to their left than to anyone else, they repeatedly staked out highly impractical political positions and constantly sought to undermine the regime heedless of what would take its place. The lessons one would have thought had been learned from the French Revolution, lessons which at one time had defined the world-wide “liberal” label, did not characterize these liberals. Even if they more-than-occasionally spoke of individual rights, division of powers, parliamentary procedures, and peaceful reforms legally enacted, they never acted politically in a spirit commensurate with these, and they much preferred to make speeches that basically asserted that all problems are caused by the monarchy’s existence, or, “moderately,” by its unwillingness to let us liberals use it as a figurehead. Such a stance logically turned heads and hearts toward the much-prophesied advent of Revolution, as that which would set everything right. The Kadet liberals were incapable of admitting that a Revolution would not primarily occur for the sake of putting them and their principles in power, and that it could not stop at merely attacking the authority of monarchy. They were also incapable of admitting how deadly serious their radical “allies” on the Left really were about their declared principles, as well as how politically effective their tactics were, and thus what a terrible threat they would pose to civilization itself if given the opportunity.
Was the nature of this liberal failing peculiar to Russia or her situation? Or was there a broader “Coriolis effect” at work, a “leftward tilt” in operation above and beyond the particularities of time and place? A basic point of this [again, abortive] essay, of course, is that there was and still is such a tilt, but admittedly, the reader cannot fully judge such a question, nor fully grasp what Solzhenitsyn conveys by the idea, without a better understanding of the particular situation. I can only urge the reader to investigate the question herself by reading Solzhenitsyn’s magnum opus.

In capitalizing "MAN," I took Peter to be alluding to our earlier discussion(s) of "manliness," hence the theme of greatness which I commented upon. (In one vocabulary, the distinction between aner & anthropos.) Of Solzynitsyn, one must note that he spiritedly stood up to, arguably, the greatest tyranny of the twentieth century ('greatest' in terms of the falsity of its mendacious ideology, the extent of its apparatus and techniques of control, and, leastly, the # of deaths attributable to it, although Mao & China may have won this gruesome contest) and that he was utterly devoted to the truth. However, pace an earlier Jim Pontuso and the late Delba Winthrop, the Platonic/Straussian categories of thumos and eros do not adequately capture his soul, nor his criteria, vision or his oeuvre. (There was a Socratic or a polyphonic aspect to his 'voice,' to be sure.) Nor, however, did a milquetoast version of 'Christian' or 'Christianity' capture his faith. He resisted tyranny and pursued his vocation of truth (of historical memory, intellectual analysis, moral-spiritual evaluation, and of publication) by exercising enormous courage and craftiness, by doing the research of the historian, employing (and creating) the literary techniques of the belle-lettrist, all the while having to deal with (and ignoring is a form of dealing with) the slings, arrows, and liberal stupidities of a good deal of the western media (there were, and are,honorable exceptions, e.g., David Remnick). His portrait of "the artist" in his Nobel Prize accepting speech is a self-portrait. The artist has a unique vocation, under and with the Creator, writing for his people, in terms of the categories of the true and the beautiful, and thus contributes to humanity's mutual understanding.

On magnanimity and humility in Churchill, consider his remark to Violet Asquith that we are all worms, "but I am a glowworm." In contrast to AS, Churchill was man entirely of this world, though indeed his prudence included care for "Christian civilization" and for Israel. John Lukacs goes so far as to suggest he had a "natural Christian soul." Carl's remarks on The Red Wheel lead me to think there is a parallel between it and WSC's The World Crisis, which actually is less a personal defence than a refutation of the notion that the war and its outcome was fated. On thinking through how the soul of AS compares with Strauss and Churchill, I suggest looking at Gleb Nerzhin in the First Circle. DAN, when can we expect publication of the better translations and of the complete First Circle and Red Wheel?

Harper Collins will be publishing the full 96 chapter version of FIRST CIRCLE next year (in a superb new translation by the late Harry Willetts) and ISI Books will be publishing the two volume THE LITTLE GRAIN(the sequel to THE OAK AND THE CALF and a fascinating account of AIS's twenty years of exile in the West) in 2010. THE SOLZHENITSYN READER contains big chunks of MARCH 1917 and April 1917, and nine chapters from FIRST CIRCLE-96. About 30% of the volume is material that appears in English for the first time(plus another 25% of material that has long been out of print).

I regret being stuck in FL with nothing but my Blackberry. Thanks especially to Carl for saying more than was thought possible on a thread. Paul is petty much right on what I meant by great MAN, as well as on the suggestion that the fact of Solzhenitsyn eludes the classical/Straussian categories. I also learned from Rob's comparisons of S and Churchill.

Carl's right to note the importance of Stolypin to Solzhenitsyn. And to observe how pivotal his tenure was. Stolypin defeated the revolution, and he was killed for his victory. Tsar Nicky II threw away that victory by allowing himself to be drawn too deeply in the pathologies of the Balkans. Had he delivered no warning to Germany, offered no support to the Serbs, had he rightly allowed the Austro-Hungarian Empire to go in and make quick work of the treacherous Serbs, then the Great War would have been averted.

Serbia was involved up to their necks in terror, and in the assassination of the Archduke. THEY SHOULD have been punished, and punished hard for it. Russia effectively signed off on Serbia's state sponsorship of terror, and Serbia's program of assassination of royalty. It was brain dead. And it lead to the death of the Romanovs themselves.

But then again, Solzhenitsyn says there were only two Romanovs equal to the burdens that fell upon Nicky II, and they were Peter the Great and Alexander the Great.

Dan, do you recall where Solz. say that about Nicky II's burdens? Novemember 1916 certainly puts a great deal of the blame on Nicky's indecision and its being coupled with constant interference/input from his rather less-than-helpful Empress Alexandra. Some fine biographical fiction in the work, both of Nicholas' household, and especially, unforgettably, of Lenin in Zurich. I think my comments have overemphasized the history-filled character of the work, as it is also filled with fascinating characters, fictional and real.

Carl, let me take a quick look later in the day for it. I'm pretty sure it in a footnote. But I'll get back to you on that.

Yes, Solzhenitsyn doesn't speak well of Peter the Great. And I'm no fan of him myself. But nonetheless Solzhenitsyn did mention him as one of only two Romanovs with the strength to hold firm.

It might take some time to find that quote. So be patient.

Leave a Comment

* denotes a required field
 

No TrackBacks
TrackBack URL: http://nlt.ashbrook.org/movabletype/mt-tb.cgi/12652