Solzhenitsyn at 100

A hundred years ago today Aleksandr Isaievech Solzhenitsyn was born. He is decidedly a man we should read and heed. From Daniel J. Mahoney writing at City Journal.

Solzhenitsyn’s was a long but ultimately rewarding journey. Since early boyhood, he wished to become a writer. One of the key chapters of August 1914 (the first volume of The Red Wheel), depicting the Battle of Tannenberg and the suicide of General Samsonov, was already written in the fall of 1936, before Solzhenitsyn was 18. He dreaded what kind of writer he might have become without the experience of the Gulag. It was in the prison camp in 1945 and 1946, as he describes it in various interviews and in “The Ascent”—his account in the central section of The Gulag Archipelago of how the scales of ideology fell from his eyes—that he was “completely cleansed of any Marxist belief.” His cellmates helped him see the light of truth and the unparalleled mendacity of the ideological lie, the destructive illusion that evil is not inherent in the human soul, that human beings and societies can be transformed at a revolutionary stroke, and that free will is subordinate to historical necessity. Solzhenitsyn’s life is marked by this great paradox: in the camps, cold and hungry, and subject to limitless repression by camp guards and camp authorities, he recovered an appreciation of the purpose of things.

If you understand that paragraph, you will see much evil around you, not as unbound as he did, but evil nonetheless.

Solzhenitsyn wrote with “lucid understanding,” and with no small dose of scorn, about the “Progressive Doctrine,” the inhuman ideology that justified terror and tyranny as no regime or ideological movement had ever justified the killing and repression of real or imagined “enemies of the People.” He showed that the heart of Bolshevism lay in a monstrous coming together of violence and lies that gave rise not to mere dictatorship but to a totalitarianism that transformed betrayal and lying into “forms of existence.”  This totalitarianism demanded fierce resistance, both for the sake of liberty and for the right of the human soul to breathe freely, with the dignity afforded it by God. [,,,]

Solzhenitsyn spoke in the name of an older Western and Christian civilization, still connected to the “deep reserves of mercy and sacrifice” at the heart of ordered liberty. It is a mark of the erosion of that rich tradition that its voice is so hard to hear in our late modern world, more—and more single-mindedly—devoted to what Solzhenitsyn called “anthropocentricity,” an incoherent and self-destructive atheistic humanism. Solzhenitsyn asks no special privileges for biblical religion (and classical philosophy), just a place at the table and a serious consideration within our souls.

In fact, I think he speaks as one with our founders, for an ordered liberty, and as Majoney says, biblical religion. It is not to be inferred though that he thought modern America had it right either, he didn’t.

In a three-part series, starting with The Exhausted West, over Christmas five years ago, my former co-author and my dearest friend, Jessica looked seriously at his Harvard Commencement speech in 1978. It bears review.

He saw a society in which:

Destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space. Society appears to have little defense against the abyss of human decadence, such as, for example, the misuse of liberty for moral violence against young people, motion pictures full of pornography, crime, and horror. It is considered to be part of freedom and theoretically counterbalanced by the young people’s right not to look or not to accept. Life organized legalistically has thus shown its inability to defend itself against the corrosion of evil. 

It is hard to see that nearly forty years later, things are any better; here, as elsewhere, Solzhenitsyn  prophesied aright. He identified the reasons for this very well:

Without any censorship, in the West, fashionable trends of thought are carefully separated from those that are not fashionable. Nothing is forbidden, but what is not fashionable will hardly ever find its way into periodicals or books or be heard in colleges. Legally, your researchers are free, but they are conditioned by the fashion of the day 

The West was, he said, ‘spiritually exhausted’. The ‘human soul longs for things higher, warmer, and purer than those offered by today’s mass living habits, introduced by the revolting invasion of publicity, by TV stupor, and by intolerable music.’

I don’t know about you, but here forty years on from that speech, what he says is even more evident to me. Jessica believed, as I do, that the key to the malaise is God, and to use that phrase again ordered liberty, which can translate as liberty under law.

In the last of the series, Sun-lit Uplands, she explicitly compares him pointedly to the prophet Jeremiah, to good effect.

She also quotes this from him, which has much bearing on the present, I think.

A statesman who wants to achieve some– thing important and highly constructive for his country has to move cautiously and even timidly: there are thousands of hasty and irresponsible critics around him; parliament and the press keep rebuffing him. As he moves ahead, he has to prove that each single step of his is well founded and absolutely flawless. In fact, an outstanding and particularly gifted person who has unusual and unexpected initiatives in mind hardly gets a chance to assert himself; from the very beginning, dozens of traps will be set for him. Thus mediocrity triumphs, with the excuse of restrictions imposed by democracy.

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20 Responses to Solzhenitsyn at 100

  1. Nicholas says:

    Much indeed to ponder on, as we have before, and again I find myself missing Jess’ posts and wondering how she fairs amid the mess of our nation. I find myself thinking much about comparisons between our current state of affairs and the changes in the Roman Empire during the Late Antique period. Peter Brown is, as always, worth reading, and probably a suitable companion to works by Solzhenitsyn. What strikes me most about this age is its barrenness. Despite the way we are crowded in buses and streets, the world feels spiritually empty. As a Christian, I cannot advocate a return to paganism – but the spiritual world, which fights behind the scenes to keep us enslaved, should not be ignored. There is a sterility about our glass-fronted offices, minimalist furniture adverts, and pseudo-50s revived fashion. Compare that to our Christmas tree, which I dressed this year. It is full of traditional American porcelain and brass ornaments given to us by friends we made when we lived in the States. That tree has a warmth about it and Mum has repeatedly said how pleased she is with its look this year. Why? Because it looks full, not empty.

    Liked by 1 person

    • NEO says:

      I miss her desperately, and likely always will. I just used a piece of one she wrote off one of my comments as a comment on the state of the UK, comparing it to the dead trees at Covehithe (the post on AATW is Dunwich). I have nothing to report, I’ve heard nothing from her, nor do I expect to.

      We are seeing the denouement of what Solzhenitsyn was talking about at Harvard. I pray for a revival, but doubt it in my lifetime.

      As to Christmas trees, I agree, and Kathleen over at CP&S yesterday had the story of how they came to be our symbol.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Scoop says:

      An excerpt of the article I linked below:

      “He identified Renaissance “rationalistic humanism” as the root cause since it separated man from any transcendent standard. The West, he said, had rejected “the moral heritage of Christian centuries.” The fundamental cause of the agonies of the Communist East and the West were the same: the rejection of God. Once humanism discarded its Christian foundations, he said, it could not withstand the temptation to embrace ever more extreme leftist ideologies: liberalism gave way to radicalism, radicalism to socialism, and socialism to communism. It is clear that Solzhenitsyn’s assessment is as valid today as it was forty years ago”

      Liked by 2 people

      • NEO says:

        Yep, and the same point that Jess made in her three articles.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Nicholas says:

        Much that I agree with in this. Do I wish for some of the barbarous practices of the middle ages – no. But I miss their religious sensibilities at times, and I loathe the Renaissance and Enlightenment seeds of cultural atheism. Italy should have listened when St Peter’s basilica was struck by lightning in the time of the Borgia Pope.

        Liked by 2 people

    • NEO says:

      Excellent article. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

    • Nicholas says:

      I do find that the labels “conservative”, “libertarian”, “traditional” become less and less meaningful over time, however. I’m not sure any one of us fits neatly into these categories.

      Liked by 2 people

      • NEO says:

        I don’t find them overly useful, either. Anywhere and Somewhere work somewhat better. Mostly I see it as the people and the (self-professed) elites at the moment. Alt least for UK, US, and maybe France, as well.

        A case could be made for ‘the bubble people’ as well.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Scoop says:

        I agree in regards to how people might ‘use’ the words but would probably say that it is less meaningful to to refer to oneself as a democrat or republican. Conservative and Traditional seems rather straight forward to me as I have watched the democrats leave these principles behind a long time ago and now the republicans are now as well (only at a slower rate).

        I feel like a man in a novel who went to sleep in his homeland only to awake in another country. Not that I would not recognize simple changes that organically respected and conserved the traditions handed down from ages past but would be horrified to see that the world had ‘progressed’ past our fundamental principles into an unrecognizable state. We are the hero of novels past who are trying as best we can to return to our homeland which we have never forgotten but the way is fraught with dangers and we even doubt at times that there a journey that will end well . . . arriving, as it were, in our homeland once again . . . one that we recognize and love. We are lost in a chaotic new land where up is down, east is west and north is south. How do we find our way in such a world?

        Liked by 2 people

        • Nicholas says:

          Now that I agree with. Sometimes it feels like Odysseus warning his men, only they aren’t listening .

          Liked by 2 people

        • Scoop says:

          Indeed that is the epic I had in mind to a large degree. The older I get the more isolated I feel from the order and civility that I recognized in my youth. It was whittled away one small slice at a time; a mountain leveled a spadeful at a time.

          Liked by 2 people

        • Nicholas says:

          I feel about the whole mess as devastated as I imagine you feel about the NO Mass. A wasteland stretches before us and only God can guide us home .

          Liked by 2 people

        • Scoop says:

          Yes indeed. I know its coming but have little hope that it will happen in my lifetime. But I still wait and hope. Waiting for Godot so to speak.

          Liked by 2 people

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