Monday, August 04, 2008

Aleksandr Isaevich Solzhenitsyn, l9l8-2008

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn died in Moscow last night of heart failure. It is hard to imagine the world without him, because he had such a huge and lasting impact on it.

I will leave it to those composing his obituary to give a summary of his life and work. He had a lot of critics and took a lot of criticism in his career, especially for his views on the alleged moral failures and weakness of western countries. He was outraged by what appeared on tv and what passed for "culture" in the United States, where he spent l8 years in exile after being expelled from the Soviet Union. Additionally, he castigated the US and its allies for their lack of will, even cowardice in calling an end to the Vietnam war. I disagreed with him most of the time on these and other issues--I think he had a poor understanding of democracy. But one thing was for sure: he told the truth about the Soviet Union. He definitively proved that it was an evil, meglomaniacal entity from the start, whereas prior to the appearance of his works, many people alleged that it had fundamentally good intentions prior to being hijacked by J.V. Stalin. Particularly in the Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn demonstrates in exhaustive and devastating detail that mass imprisonment without trial, summary executions and other manifestations of lawlessness began not in Stalin's time, but immediately following the October revolution. This was a warning to the world about any group of mortal individuals who declare they "never make mistakes" and rule with unchecked power. Absolute power corrupts absolutely-- no one made this clearer than Solzhenitsyn. He grabbed you by the collar in his books, got in your face and shook you, and kept shouting unpleasant truths at you until you acknowledged them. No writer has ever had quite that effect on me.

He was always controversial, even in the virulently anti-Communist first years of independent Russia. I was there at Iaroslavksii station on July 23, l994 when he finally returned to Moscow with his entourage. You'd have thought thousands would have gathered to welcome him home, but the crowd was sparse and kind of quiet. The people who made the most noise were protesters carrying placards that read, "Solzhenitsyn is a tool of the CIA," and "Solzhenitsyn Go Back to America." In recent years, he managed to alienate the new Russians, by condemning them for their greed and materialism, and his old dissident allies with his praise for Vladimir Putin's restoration of "order" in Russia. I guess an authoritarian personality will always find common cause with authoritarian rulers...he did warn last year that the gap between rich and poor in Russia was approaching that of l9l7. That comment certainly got my attention.

In any event, people should remember that one unassailable fact about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: everything he said about the Soviet Union was true and verifiable. That was his greatest contribution to his country and the world.


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