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Remembering Solzhenitsyn

Posted by Richard on August 5, 2008

James Lileks, who writes like few others can, remembers the Soviet Union's most famous — and effective — dissident:

In the summer of ’78 I was back home in Fargo between college years – exiled from the civilized world, cast into barbarity. During the day I labored under the hot sun painting giant fuel tanks in the hot sun, next to an auto-body shop that exhaled poison and Eagles all day. A sensitive soul, cast into such grim circumstances. A noble soul, a poet, reduced to living on the gruel of hometown “culture,” almost unable to stir himself each day to face the hopeless allotment that stretched forth until the sun turned its face away.

Naturally, I was in the perfect mood to read the entire Gulag Archipelago. I got all three volumes from the drugstore – which should have told me something about the land in which I lived, that one could buy this work from a creaky wire rack at the drugstore – and it taught me much about the Soviet Union and the era of Stalin. After that I could never quite understand the people who viewed the US and the USSR as moral equals, or regarded our history as not only indelibly stained but uniquely so. Reading Solzhenitsyn makes it difficult to take seriously the people in this culture who insist that Dissent has been squelched. Brother, you have no idea.

The great brooding man is dead – all those years of trial and disappointment done, his country no closer than before to manifesting the spirit he believed was within it. We wouldn’t have liked his Russia – autocratic, mystical, cold and apart from the outside world, unwilling to grant Ukraine the national identity he cherished for his own land – but we are in his debt for decades of revelations. If the translations I read accurately rendered his style, he wrote with a bitter sarcasm that flayed nearly every commissar who blundered into the narrative. It’s a difficult thing to maintain over the course of several thousand pages, but he managed. And then some.

Solzhenitsyn was a deeply flawed man — strongly nationalist, irrational and mystical, anti-democratic, and apparently anti-Semitic. But he was also a hero — a man of great courage and indomitable will who significantly changed the world. After A Day in the Live of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago, no half-way rational person could deny the monstrous evil that the Soviet Union represented. 

As Victor Davis Hanson noted, both liberal and conservative Americans were bothered by him. But (emphasis added): 

No matter. Solzhenitsyn's life was a roadmap of the horrific 20th century — the grainy picture of an enfeebled Solzhenitsyn with his Gulag-issue will forever haunt millions of his readers. It is hard to imagine how anyone other than Solzhenitsyn could have survived the Great Terror, World War II on the Eastern Front, the Gulag, cancer in the Soviet medical system, exile, the best efforts of Pravda, the KGB, and the Kremlin to destroy him, and scorn and abuse from those liberals who once proclaimed him a genius — or have written about it all any more brilliantly in fiction, narrative history, and poetry for over 60 years.

In the end, his epitaph is that no one in the 20th-century did more than he to bring down a horrific and bloodthirsty system that sought at any price to destroy the free mind and all that it entails.

Amen. Rest in peace, Aleksandr.

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