It is sad to see Alexander Solzhenitsyn depart and worth casting an eye once more over this 20th-century writer of incomparably heroic stature.

Solzhenitsyn was both a great Russian novelist ― though no Tolstoy, Dostoevsky or Pasternak ― and more than this. Like Avvakum trekking the shores of Lake Baikal, he retained the mission of the prophet-purist and perhaps saw himself as a religious leader. Art and prophecy jostle in Russian literature. In the course of his fully-televised global re-emigration into the ferment of post-communist Russia (from Vermont via Vladivostok), he may have been disappointed to find Boris Yeltsin bobbing like a ping-pong ball on the fountain; but from my brief and indirect contacts with the distraught Mrs Yeltsin, I can only feel thankful that Solzhenitsyn was spared such undignified upheaval and consternation.

Solzhenitsyn, 1976 (NYT)

Given the ability of the KGB to reach out and murder Bulgarian dissidents (Markov) and Russian former agents (Litvinenko) on the streets of London, and contrive the murder even of a pope on the streets of Rome (John Paul II), it had been no fantasy that inspired Solzhenitsyn to create a fortress in Vermont from which he rarely emerged.

So what more was he? A historian and documentarist. A writer with the impudence to think that, as a calf tethered to a stout oak tree, he should at least keep butting away. How could he have known he would one day ultimately succeed, an individual who, more than any other, brought about the collapse (“through its own inner contradictions”) of an evil empire.[1]

It is remarkable to think that in 1951, in his luminously original and prescient The Captive Mind, Čzesław Miłosz should still have seemed to think that Marxist ideologists were immensely cunning, resourceful and intellectually triumphant, perhaps like Vatican theologians (though he does not say this). Yet in fact Marxist ideology was never like this. It was a self-justifying smokescreen behind which thieves and gangsters could go about their accustomed business robbing and killing the innocent.

Bear in mind, indeed, that the finest philosophical minds in Europe had identified the intellectual flaws in both Marxism and Freudianism by, roughly, the end of the First World War.[2] This, though (I digress for a moment), is an example of the wide and ever-widening gap between the elite and the mass of those left behind, many of whom will never catch up. (One has to remember that in the West half, and in the rest of the world perhaps three quarters, of the population has an IQ of 100 or below.) This is the problem I call the Tail of the Comet, symbolised today by the intellectual distance between the Large Hadron Collider and the increasingly headscarfed and monolithic streets of Cairo, Istanbul and Alexandria, formerly culturally diverse cities like Beirut. Perhaps the tragedy of September 11th 2001 best captures this gulf of centuries. It is a hallmark of the uneducated mind that it takes symbols literally.

Lenin, who invented the Gulag, understood perfectly the dis-equation between strength and weakness, a feature of Russian backwardness in Tsarist and Leninist times alike, then as now. Russia is a vast world with nonexistent or crumbling borders across which its forces flutter like chickens. The only border it understands is the Ice Sea.

Intriguingly, One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich was not even original when it finally saw the light of day in 1962, in the shortlived Krushchev thaw after the death of Stalin.[3] Even before Solzhenitsyn had been arrested for a commonsensical remark in a letter to a friend seen by censors, Russians who had been unable to pronounce the name of a Pole captured in 1940, Gustav Herling, thought he must be a nephew of Hermann Göering and processed him into the Gulag. He survived two years by a chain of miracles to produce A World Apart in 1951. This remarkable documentary account retains, if possible, still more of the immediate vividness and knife-like moral edge of daily camp life. Ivan Denisovich, after all, has a good day. There is less optimism in Herling and he never returned to this theme.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn

There is little fine writing in Solzhenitsyn, though his analytic aim ― for instance in August 1914 and Lenin in Zurich was acute: a historian’s instinct. Most impressive are his networking efforts in relation to fellow zeks (convicts) whose testimony seemed to him to teeter on the verge of extinction. Compensatingly he therefore spared no effort to gather, through meetings and correspondence, every scrap of first-hand witness account he could lay his hands on and incorporate it all in the three mighty volumes of The Gulag Archipelago (I still haven’t read the third). No longer could a trivialising Sartre argue against the eyewitness testimony of the trickle of survivors arriving in post-war Paris, thus seriously compromising his relationship with Camus.[4]

Nothing could have done more to shake the oak tree and root world opinion in a more realistic view of the workers’ socialist paradise. Reagan, Thatcher and Gorbachev swayed in the upper reaches of the oak tree in thermals long before activated by Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

Martin Turner


[1] If this epithet should be questioned, consider the following: “After reading Rayfield’s book, no one will doubt that the Chekist-dominated USSR was one vast, sadistic frenzy of criminality.” Simon Sebag Montefiore, in review of Donald Rayfield’s Stalin and His Hangmen. Telegraph Online 14-Mar-2004.

[2] For a readable account, see: Popper, K.R. Unended Quest: an intellectual autobiography. Glasgow: Collins (Flamingo), 1986. Nothing however was available to prevent Karl Marx from building on the foundations of the crab-like Hegelian dialectic ― Hegel’s deterministic philosophy of history ― after they had already been decisively exploded by Kierkegaard. And Marxist-Leninist and Freudian ideas have progressed blissfully ever since in western academic departments of literature and history.

[3] The subsequent film, starring Tom Courtenay, was banned from public viewing in Finland in 1970.

[4] Sartre actually became a perfectly orthodox Marxist at the end of his life.