Sometime in the late 1980s a Boston friend of mine brought up the books of Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn. I had never read any of Solzhenitsyn’s works but I was aware that he was the author of The Gulag Archipelago, Cancer Ward, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and that he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970.
For a good many years Solzhenitsyn’s works had nothing to say to me. I was more interested in Susan Sontag’s critiques of art and culture; in Paul Goodman’s diary, Five Years; in Gore Vidal’s caustic, pagan wit; in Edmund White’s Parisian stories and in Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin of the 1930s. The works of Edmund Wilson, Mary McCarthy and Henry Miller also filled my library shelves.
The unkempt - looking Solzhenitsyn was, to my mind, too Russian. According to my Boston friend, Solzhenitsyn was also, “too conservative…a real reactionary.” Solzhenitsyn’s critics, including The Boston Globe, accused him of wanting to revive the Russian Orthodox monarchy and resented his harsh criticisms of the West.
“Hastiness and superficiality are the psychic disease of the 20th century and more than anywhere else this disease is reflected in the press,” Solzhenitsyn said at Harvard University’s 327th Commencement ceremony in 1978.
“Such as it is, however, the press has become the greatest power within the Western countries, more powerful than the legislative power, the executive, and the judiciary. And one would then like to ask: By what law has it been elected and to whom is it responsible? Who has granted Western journalists their power, for how long a time, and with what prerogatives?”
The ‘press problem’ of course has multiplied exponentially since the author’s death in 2008.
Solzhenitsyn, the prophet, also stated:
“I have received letters in America from highly intelligent persons, maybe a teacher in a faraway small college who could do much for the renewal and salvation of his country, but his country cannot hear him because the media are not interested in him. This gives birth to strong mass prejudices, to blindness, which is most dangerous in our dynamic era.”
Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard address established him as an arch enemy of liberal academics, some of whom even accused him of anti-Semitism (a label that can be carelessly thrown around, like the word racist.) Solzhenitsyn, who spent 8 years in a forced labor camp under the old Soviet regime because he criticized Josef Stalin in a personal letter, heaps many other criticisms of the West in his recently released memoir, Between Two Millstones, Book 2, Exile in America, 1978-1994, by University of Notre Dame Press.
“Current literature in the West,” he wrote, “titillates either an intellectual or a popular
readership: it is degraded to the level of entertainment and paradox, no longer of a standard to mold minds and characters.”
He also observed that that when he was serving his time in the camps, still under Stalin, he imagined Russian literature after Communism to be “Luminous, skillful, powerful… dealing with the ills of the people and all the suffering since the Revolution!” Yet once the post-Soviet ‘emancipated literature’ came pouring forth, Russia’s new West-inspired authors behaved like “mischievous little boys using their first taste of freedom to pick up swear words in the gutter,” while other writers went for no-holds-barred-sex.
A third group opted for self expression: “A buzzword and the supreme vindication of their literary activity. What a pathetic principle. ‘Self-expression’ does not presuppose self-restraint, either in society or before God. And is there in fact anything to express?”
Solzhenitsyn felt that the American press was cut from the same cloth. “Articles were constantly appearing in The New York Times and its supplements, and in other major papers, saying that Russian national consciousness now being reborn consisted above all of anti-Semitism—which meant it was worse than any Communism.”
The Washington Post at the time even published a cartoon entitled the Virgin of Vladimir with a hammer and sickle on her forehead, with the caption, “Mother Russia.”
Some American critics even said that the rebirth of Orthodoxy in Russia was like the Islamic Revolution in Iran.
The New York Review of Books, like The London Review of Books, two publications that tend to only review books that meet its strict leftist standards, were also on Solzhenitsyn’s tail. In 1979, this fact was apparent to Solzhenitsyn who labeled the NYRB, “the stronghold of American radicalism.” The NYRB published a cover story entitled, “The Dangers of Solzhenitsyn’s Nationalism” and hinted that the former Gulag slave labor prisoner was a fascist.
“Nazism and Communism imagine themselves as exact opposites. They are at each other’s throats wherever they exist all over the world. They actually breed each other; for the reaction against Communism is Nazism, and beneath Nazism or Fascism Communism stirs convulsively,” Winston S. Churchill wrote in a 1937 essay.
To this day, Russia-hating among Americans has a long legacy quite apart from the evils rampant in the now gone Soviet Union.
Solzhenitsyn writes: “The Russia-haters are already sinking their teeth into Russia’s good name. And what would happen later, when we crawled out, weak, infirm, from under the ruins of the hateful Bolshevik empire? They wouldn’t even let us start getting back on our feet.”
The new Russian nationalists after the fall of the Soviet Union condemned Christianity, saying that it blunted the combative spirit and that it was “Judaism’s Trojan Horse.”
“Russia has been slandered for centuries,” Solzhenitsyn continues, “Repent? We certainly have things to repent of –we’ve committed enough sins!—but it’s not to biased American journalism that we must repent…”
World forces aligned themselves against the Russian writer, especially when he migrated to the United States and took up residence in Vermont with his wife, Svetlova and their three sons.
Norman Podhoretz, editor for many years of the right-wing Jewish magazine, Commentary, came to Solzhenitsyn’s defense when he wrote. “In my opinion, Solzhenitsyn’s evident bitterness over the fact—and it is of course a fact—that revolutionaries of Jewish origin played so important a role in bringing Communism to Russia is overridden by his consistently fervent support of Israel. “
The Boston Globe called Solzhenitsyn “a brooding apocalyptic presence” when it was supposed that the author had taken control of a “network of radio stations in Russia.” What didn’t help Solzhenitsyn was the fact that he was favored by President Ronald Reagan. Critics called him a Russian ultranationalist (“fascist scum …financed by Hitler”) Once again, he was labeled an anti-Semite. That label and other heavy handed virtue-signaling was enough to arouse the curiosity of Washington politicians. The Senate Committee on Foreign Relations soon established a Hearing.
“American senators and congressmen like nothing better than to sit at microphones, on lofty platforms, brows sternly knit, and display their uncommon perceptiveness and superior intellect,” Solzhenitsyn wrote.
As it turned out, the Hearing came to nothing. It was merely an early form of Russiagate, the conspiracy theory that became the rage after the 2016 U.S. elections. The author, in addressing the issue, wrote that the anti-Semitism label “like other labels, lost its precise meaning due to thoughtless use, and different social and political commentators over the decades have understood a variety of different things by it.”
Solzhenitsyn recalls an interview with CBS’s Mike Wallace. “Mike Wallace asked dull and then vile questions—still the same well-oiled refrain that had been running for decades.”
Forbes magazine was fair to him in its reporting and editorials but during his life a number of biographies appeared that skirted the bastion of truth and took many things he said out of context, or otherwise presented false narratives. Solzhenitsyn even had difficulty within the USSR during the Glasnost period. “During these final years of thaw in the USSR,” he wrote, “they had managed to publish all the banned authors who’d died, and all the banned ones still living—all except me.”
For the remainder of his life, the Russian writer reaffirmed the themes in his great Harvard Address of 1978.
In 1994, he returned to his native (post-Communist) Russia. He died in 2008. “Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the celebrated Russian writer, has been laid to rest after a funeral service held at Moscow's historic Donskoi monastery earlier today,” The Guardian reported.
Solzhenitsyn’s Philadelphia connection resides in the life and career of his middle son, Ignat, who is currently Conductor Laureate of the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia.