August 4, 2008
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who died yesterday at the age of 89, was commandingly, unanswerable correct about one huge subject — the corrupt savagery of life in the Soviet Union — and buffoonishly wrong about almost everything else.
Born a year after the October revolution, Solzhenitsyn grew up under the Soviet bootheel, survived years in a labor camp and became a particularly large and irritating thorn in the Soviet system’s side. With novels like One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Cancer Ward, Solzhenitsyn did more than any other writer to make it impossible to see the communist dictatorship as anything but a vast criminal enterprise. But he secured his place in history in the 1970s with The Gulag Archipelago, an immense three-volume study of the “archipelago” of destructive labor camps dotting the Soviet landscape. It is an exhaustive and exhausting work, an “experiment in literary investigation” combining eyewitness testimony, primary research and Solzhenitsyn’s own memories, and while there had been general knowledge of the gulags since the Stalinist era, Solzhenitsyn’s research and prosecutorial narrative turned up masses of new information, bundled it all together and made it a millstone to hang around Moscow’s collective neck.
The dictators did everything they could to silence him — the intimidation and harassment grew so intense that Solzhenitsyn took to sleeping with a pitchfork beside his bed – but it was to no avail, and when they finally opted to expel him, Solzhenitsyn had more moral stature than any other artist on the planet.
Solzhenitsyn happily outlived the Soviet Union, but unhappily he outlived his literary fame as well as his moral authority, and in his later years he turned into a rather loony moral scold, nationalist bigot and monarchist crank. The Red Wheel, the immense Russian historical saga he considered his crowning achievement, is well nigh unreadable, and it is unlikely that any of his works will withstand the passage of time aside from Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago.
Solzhenitsyn himself did much to undermine the standing of that latter work when, last year, he treated the world to the appalling sight of the onetime opponent of the KGB and its atrocities accepting the State Prize from Vladimir Putin, an ex-KGB man guiding Russia into a new century as a different form of criminal enterprise. There is some grim humor in seeing an opponent of tyranny embracing tyranny’s protege, but right now I’m not quite ready to laugh about it.