Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Every now and then it happens. The state or the system encounters an individual who, bafflingly, maddeningly, absurdly, cannot be broken – Christopher Hitchens

My mother first prompted me into reading Alexander Solzhenitsyn. She loved Russian literature. It was through her that I also came while imprisoned to read Dostoyevsky, of whom it is said Solzhenitsyn, conservative and traditionalist, was a modern reincarnation. It was her view that Russian novelists brought characters to life like no other. She felt the beings created by great Russian writers were so brimming with life that the reader actually came to regard some of them as friends. Often in prison I would look forward to the cell door slamming behind me at night, facilitating the voyage into a different world and the company of Solzhenitsyn.

The three volumes of the Gulag Archipelago, Cancer Ward, First Circle, One Day in the life of Ivan Denisovitch all sent their vital force surging through my mind, crystallising repression and reinforcing the ethical necessity of making a stand against it. Ivan Denisovitch, I read shortly after the end of the 1981 hunger strike when brutal regimes concentrated the mind. How people elsewhere coped with their incarceration had a certain pull for me. I wanted to know if they experienced the same despair and pangs of terror that often visited us or were they some form of far removed, pain-immune creatures. Solzhenitsyn put it right for me. His capturing of suffering and the type of nefarious regime behind its infliction were equally as palpable as I moved through his words. Not much new under the sun in that respect. His words beckoned me back to spend more time with them and often I succumbed in spite of my urge to flick a page, move on and prise open new words that would yield discoveries about the immense potency of this former political prisoner as a writer.

His struggle was against Stalin’s regime of 'breaking the truth.' He survived the ‘meat grinder’, his preferred term to describe Soviet repression. He defiantly refused to yield to the myriad of powers within the Soviet system trying to enforce his silence. Totalitarianism it is said does its dirty work in the dark. In the dark bowels of some Lubyanka it demands a flowing tongue. This contrasts with the darkness of the public sphere which it does not want illuminated by the electrifying power of words. Silence there is a prerequisite for survival. Like a public tramline the only words allowed to travel along the tracks of public discourse belong to the state. And yet, as Christopher Hitchens stressed, Alexander Solzhenitsyn:
kept on writing. The Communist Party's goons could have torn it up or confiscated or burned it—as they did sometimes—but he continued putting it down on paper and keeping a bottom drawer filled for posterity. This is a kind of fortitude for which we do not have any facile name.

When he was the bane of the Soviet system his work was much admired in the West:

In different places over the years I have had to prove that socialism, which to many western thinkers is a sort of kingdom of justice, was in fact full of coercion, of bureaucratic greed and corruption and avarice, and consistent within itself that socialism cannot be implemented without the aid of coercion.

But when expelled by the Brezhnev regime the West which had sang his praises as a Russian dissident, grew disenchanted with him. One reason was the influence of Henry Kissinger who felt that in his world of realpolitik pursuing détente with the USSR was more important than giving Whitehouse platforms to dissident writers. Nor could his Harvard lecture of the mid 1970s have endeared Western officialdom to him with his stress on critiquing Western concepts of freedom and secularism. He disliked humanism arguing that it inevitably led to intellectual chaos that could only be addressed through spirituality. He saw in religion a cure rather than a poison. ‘Untouched by the breath of God, unrestricted by human conscience, both capitalism and socialism are repulsive.’

His sense of patriotism curbed any inclination he might have had to allow Russia to shoulder the blame for Marxism. It was a concept imported into Russia from the West where it had been given life by its first thinkers who were German. Not content to leave it at that he went further, displaying incandescent rage towards suggestions that the offspring of Marxism, Stalinism and Leninism, had peculiar roots in Russian history.

Solzhenitsyn distrusted democratic sentiment, even to the point of preferring the regime of Vladimir Putin to Boris Yeltsin. He defended the foreign policy of Putin, laced as it was with crimes against humanity throughout Chechnya. Criticisms were manifold. His inconsistencies left him open to rebuke and he was ravished for criticising NATO bombing of Serbia while remaining silent when Russian forces bombed the civilians of Chechnya and destroyed the capital Groznyy. As ‘Russia’s last conscience’ his conscience fought a battle with his nationalism and lost.

His nationalism led to accusations of distortionism on the grounds that he hankered after a Russian past that never existed, where writers inhabited a literary environment not ravished by the virus of censorship. His twilight two volume work on the role of Jews in Russian history led to charges of anti-Semitism. Perhaps the most cutting comment came from Richard Pipes: ‘Anyone who disagreed with him was not merely wrong but evil. He was constitutionally incapable of tolerating dissent.’ Hardly something any dissident wants to hear said of them.

It is about 25 years since I last read Solzhenitsyn in book form. But his stature as one of the great literary figures of the 20th Century always made his books feel much closer than that. Cancer Ward is the sole work of his that has a place in the library we maintain at home. No particular reason other than the passing of time for that. In his later years the writing is said to have lost much of its critical edge. It comes with the turf. Dissident writers attack much better than they defend. Their ability lies not in glossing over the deficiencies of a regime but in unmasking them. For the writer a potent energy is unleashed when confronting the crimes of megalomaniacs like Stalin which morphs into a limpness when writing apologetics for autocrats like Putin.

All this said, I am pulled to him for his earlier writings rather than repelled by him for the stances he took in later life. A writer who refused to bend the knee to the censor in the most adverse of circumstances is a beacon whose light must shine beyond the darkness of their death.


  1. Are we talking about the same Alexander Solzhenitsyn who urged Margaret Thatcher not to give in to the demands of the Republican hungerstrikers of 1981?

  2. I have only ever read Alexander Solzhenitsyn's 'Gulag Archipeligo' and that was many years ago as a youth in Hydebank but his accounts of his journey across the bleak landscape in a savage Stolypin carriage made me strangely grateful for my cell.

    At the time when Solzhenitsyn was the Western media's golden boy, the word 'dissident' had extremely positive connotations. The mass media is a lot more unkind to contemporary dissidents. Perhaps due to the mass media's global audience and influence nowadays where it is important to them everyone should know their place and be a good passive audience Solzhenitsyn would be branded a dissident journalist...