Solzhenitsyn and the Modern World
by Edward E. Ericson, Jr.
Regnery Gateway 1993.
Cloth, xi + 432 pp., $24.
As breathing returns after our swoon, as a glimmer of consciousness breaks through the unrelieved darkness, it is difficult for us at first to regain our clarity of vision, to pick our way among the clutter of hurdles, among the idols planted in our path.
—Alexander Solzhenitsyn, “As Breathing and Consciousness Return” (1971)
In September of 1991, three weeks after the failed coup of August 1991 and twenty years after Alexander Solzhenitsyn penned this passage, I visited Moscow as a participant in a conference of some five hundred Russian and American experts in various fields of government, economics, law, agriculture, and religious life. This nerve center of the Soviet empire was undergoing a transformation toward some new form and function that no one knew quite how to define. The injustices of the past had been opened to view. The future was anticipated with hope but also with a sense of dread that things might return to what they were. “Breathing and consciousness” had returned and with that new stirrings of life.
One of the Russians assigned to the Commission on Spiritual Values was a young fellow dressed in the shabby, threadbare attire of a student in a Dostoevsky novel. Mikhail Seleznev introduced himself in our first session as Director of Research and Publications at the headquarters of the Russian Bible Society. But the American members of the commission soon learned that there was more to this young man than met the eye. He had been present at the Russian Parliament Building—called the Russian White House—as the tanks rolled through Moscow. He also went into the streets with a few other brave souls laying flowers on the tanks and distributing Bibles to the soldiers in them.
On the second or third day of the conference Mikhail offered to take some of us to what he called “the graveyard of our fallen idols.” This was in the park adjacent to the Tretyakov Art Gallery. As I got off the bus I could see a clutter of large objects scattered on the grass among some trees. They were the monuments and statues of Communist heroes that had been removed from their locations in public squares and parks. Images of Marx, Stalin, Beria, and that enormous statue of Dzherzhinsky, founder of the KGB, that the world saw on television as it was moved by a crane from its prominent spot in front of KGB Headquarters in downtown Moscow, were scattered about. Some stood upright, others were on their back or side. Someone had drawn red horns and fangs on a large likeness of Stalin and young children climbed atop his “demon head” as parents took snapshots.
Then Mikhail pointed to a steep hill that loomed behind this odd “cemetery.” “Look, my friends,” he exclaimed. “Do you see that church and how its dome is being refurbished. And over there. Do you see that dilapidated building. That too was a church, but the Communists removed its dome and used it for a warehouse. Perhaps one day it will be repaired also. These holy temples have endured humiliation and now it is their turn to look down victoriously upon this graveyard of the fallen gods of Communism.”
What child of the Cold War could ever have imagined such a scene? What child of the Cold War, having once seen it, could ever forget it? Over the next few days my colleagues and I made several other excursions, nay, pilgrimages, to the grave sites of two true Russian heroes. On a beautiful fall morning we traveled to the sleepy village of Peredelkino, home and burial place of Boris Pasternak, the author of Doctor Zhivago. And on another morning, a Sunday, we hitched a ride in a van to the suburban parish church of the martyred priest Alexander Mens, who just one year earlier had been bloodily murdered with an ax. Everyone told us this was done by agents of the KGB. After the liturgy we visited Fr. Mens’s grave outside the small wooden church building. This simple spot was heaped high with flowers left by pilgrims who steadily came and went. Here we got the strong sense that we were witnesses to the birth of a new Russian saint.
What do these remembrances have to do with a book on Alexander Solzhenitsyn? Only that Alexander Solzhenitsyn is the godfather of the new Russian Revolution of which Mikhail Seleznev was a young hero. Twenty years ago Solzhenitsyn predicted this revolution and confidently stated that it would come in time for him to return to Russia, Few, even among his admirers, really believed this would happen. Yet in May of 1994 Solzhenitsyn did return just as he had predicted.
And so Edward E. Ericson’s book Solzhenitsyn and the Modern World is extraordinarily timely, having been released just months before Solzhenitsyn’s return to his motherland. As if to prepare his readers for this very eventuality, Ericson has written a richly researched and persuasive book in which he attempts to answer the myths and misunderstandings of Solzhenitsyn’s polemical and political writings, from the Nobel Lecture of 1972 and the Letter to the Soviet Leaders (1973), to his extended tract Rebuilding Russia in 1990. In Ericson’s words: “The ideas of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn are highly significant to the modern world…. [However], the prevailing Western view of Solzhenitsyn is very inaccurate and needs to be revised and corrected…. Current events in Russia make this a particularly propitious time to reassess Solzhenitsyn.”
Ericson argues that until the early 1970s Solzhenitsyn was rightly understood as a moralist and prophet; but that in subsequent years his fiction and non‑fiction came to be interpreted politically in ways that distorted his message of truth and freedom. Western liberals, especially, became disenchanted with Solzhenitsyn and began to describe him as anti‑democratic and a super‑nationalist. The obvious background of these shifts in opinion included the increased difficulties Solzhenitsyn and other so‑called dissidents encountered with the Soviet authorities and the debate over détente. Furthermore, Solzhenitsyn threw himself into political controversy through speeches and tracts that departed from his usual medium of historical fiction. His statements on the Cold War, détente, and the general state of the modern world, made him a lightning rod of political controversy over foreign policy in the West.
It is arguable whether Solzhenitsyn made a mistake by issuing such statements and should have stuck with writing fiction. But even this conjecture misses the point, says Ericson. As he shows in his earlier volume entitled Solzhenitsyn: The Moral Vision and argues pointedly in this new book, a deeper source of misunderstandings about Solzhenitsyn is the profound difference in his worldview from most of his Western critics. Solzhenitsyn’s moral vision flies in the face of Western secularism and such shibboleths of advanced liberalism as the individual’s moral autonomy and the indisputable superiority of liberal democracy. His skepticism about the rightness of these doctrines, backed up by his peculiarly Russian blend of religious piety and objective historical analysis, is commonly interpreted as sure evidence of a reactionary and authoritarian mind wedded to a dangerous nationalist spirit. In reality, Solzhenitsyn has been both critical of and sympathetic to democratic forms of government. What he has been skeptical about is whether Russian democracy need include the familiar accouterments of Western‑style liberal democracy. Often depicted as an advocate of authoritarianism he is in fact a radical decentralist. This, ironically, only alienates him further from statist oriented Western liberals.
Solzhenitsyn’s worldview is deeply informed by the faith and culture of Russian Orthodox Christianity, a matter neither acknowledged nor understood by most of his Western interpreters and critics who know little or nothing about that heritage. Thus the political interpretation prevails. Solzhenitsyn is described as an inventor of Russian political dissent who became reactionary and an apologist for Russian nationalism. If his moral vision is acknowledged at all, it is treated as a by‑product of his politics. For his secular interpreters, whose faith is pragmatism or utilitarianism, there is no imagining what possible purpose moral discourse could have other than as a rhetorical preamble to policy formulation or political action. If moral discourse does not serve such a purpose then it must obviously be a mask for some kind of ideology like nationalism.
Since Solzhenitsyn’s critics go back repeatedly to his polemical tracts and speeches to justify their opinions, Ericson carefully analyzes not only the content and contexts of Solzhenitsyn’s speech but his rhetorical technique. He finds a far more balanced thinker than Solzhenitsyn’s critics describe. Solzhenitsyn’s responsible moral vision is rooted in the history of Russia, the study and recovery of which has been his obsession as an uncompromising seeker of truth. Solzhenitsyn insists upon the inductive study of history, religious tradition, and culture over and against accepted liberal models of deductive reason in politics.
Solzhenitsyn’s gravest and most unforgivable sin, however, is that his God is God and not Demos. He founds his arguments in a doctrine of human nature created in the image of God and of sinful but redeemable human beings who are answerable to God. His strong sense of human imperfection and his Christian universalism cut against ideologies that invest ultimate meaning and value in race, economics, or politics. Ericson rightly insists that this is where one must begin in order to understand the man and his writing. From the very start, Solzhenitsyn sought to prepare the Russian soul for a moral reawakening and regeneration after Communism. This is why he told his harrowing stories of degradation inflicted by human beings upon other human beings in Cancer Ward and Gulag Archipelago. For it was Solzhenitsyn’s conviction that unless the people repented of their sins against God and themselves and reappropriated freedom as a moral responsibility to do right, they would inevitably corrupt whatever new form of government they chose after Communism. In his remarkable essay “Repentance and Self‑Limitation” published in From Under the Rubble in 1973, Solzhenitsyn emphasizes this point.
Repentance is … a clearing of the ground, the establishment of a clean basis in preparation for further moral actions‑what in the life of the individual is called “reform.” And if in private life what has been done must be put right by deeds, not words, this is all the more true in the life of a nation.
If Ericson’s book did nothing else than bring attention to this moral and theological crux of Solzhenitsyn’s work it would have been worth the trouble. In point of fact the book is broader. Its broadness is indicated by the title itself, Solzhenitsyn and the Modern World. For while Solzhenitsyn has taken upon himself the enormous task of restoring the history and historical memory of Russia, the substance of his research is a searing critique of modernity, much like Vaclav Havel whom Ericson compares with Solzhenitsyn in a highly instructive final chapter.
As I complete this review at the end of October, 1994, the newspapers report on Solzhenitsyn’s address to the Russian Parliament after his six months of travel through the Russian heartland. The opinions vary little, drawing basically the same simplistic answers to why his impassioned address was received rather coolly. Solzhenitsyn is judged to be out of touch with contemporary Russia, much as his Harvard commencement address in 1978 was dismissed as the product of a person who did not know American reality. While there may be some truth in both these judgments, my own guess is that Solzhenitsyn has seen and described reality all too clearly. Could it be that the day of this modern prophet is over and that his way of ruthlessly stating the truth is no longer needed? Ericson’s fine study gives the objective reader reason to pause before considering such a conclusion. Prophets are generally not popular in their own time. No one knows this better than Solzhenitsyn himself.
But one thing is certain. Solzhenitsyn’s analysis of the disintegration of modernity in Russia and in the West is filled with haunting foreboding of dangerous times ahead. My friend Mikhail Seleznev has told me the following story to make the same point. After the coup, a Western reporter walked into the office of a former KGB chief. He noticed on the wall a large space darker than the rest of the paint in the room. He asked the individual at the desk what that was. The new occupant replied that until recently a portrait of Lenin hung there. “Do you see the nail there,” he said to the visitor. “We are wondering now what to hang on it.” Mikhail comments that this story captures the greatest temptation facing Russia today. Russians are wondering what to hang on that empty nail. Mikhail answers that nothing should replace the portrait of Lenin, and that the nail itself should be removed. Faith, he said to my theology class during a discussion of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor story, must never replace ideology as ideology replaced faith in modern Russia. The difference between faith and ideology is that faith requires a responsible use of freedom. It knows freedom’s limits and true purposes under God, while ideology is the irresponsible submission to another’s will and choice. There must be no more demigods, no more false icons, insists Mikhail.
This also has been Solzhenitsyn’s one constant message threading through all that he has written. Ideology of the right or of the left always promises to answer the need to believe in something. It would fill the vacuum of our moral bankruptcy with false teachings of salvation, replacing God and his works with idolatry of men and their schemes of efficiency and perfection. Edward Ericson has done us the special favor of digging this message out from underneath all the misguided and misleading interpretation of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. And he makes us see that an uncompromising insistence on truth over and against ideology inspires and lends purpose to all of Solzhenitsyn’s work. One finishes reading Solzhenitsyn and the Modern World truly edified and far more sure of how to read and listen to one of the great authors of our time.
Vigen Guroian is a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia and the author of several books including Ethics After Christendom (Eerdmans, 1994). As an Orthodox theologian, he has made several trips to Russia and Armenia.