Solzhenitsyn: Writer of hidden Russian reality
By Dr. Abdul Ruff Colachal
Discovery of secret grave-yards in Kashmir under Indian military occupation since 1947 showcases clearly the democracy and terrorism planks of secular India, the similar alarming situation could be witnessed in Islamic countries under occupation by US-led forces. While USA, India and Israel are recognized “democracies”, Russia does not get the endorsement from the anti-Islamic West for Russian brand of democracy and humanism. However, like US torture camps and Indian secret grave-yards in Kashmir, Soviet Union also had secret labor camps and, unnoticed by its state-run loyal media. Alexander Isayevich Solzhenitsyn was one among the rarest world prose-writers, who passionately painted Russian reality and courageously exposed the rude Soviet behavior towards its own citizens longing for freedom of _expression, work and life. Braving persecution, condemnations and other nefarious activities against him, Solzhenitsyn exposed the hidden human tragedy of first ever socialist state and he witnessed both the system functioning and its eventual collapsing.
A Nobel Prize-winning Russian author, whose books chronicled the horrors of slave labor camps during Josef Stalin’s reign, Alexander Solzhenitsyn died of heart failure at 89. Michael Sholokhov, another Nobel laureate Russian writer portrayed brilliantly the horrid fallout of the forced collectivization under Stalin that claimed about 20 million rural Russians (and many “disappeared”, a good number of them were Muslims.
Born Dec. 11, 1918, in Kislovodsk, Solzhenitsyn served as a front-line artillery captain in World War II. In the closing weeks of the war, he was arrested for writing about secret camps and what he called “certain disrespectful remarks” about Stalin in a letter to a friend, referring to him as “the man with the mustache.” Solzhenitsyn’s earliest years coincided with the Russian Civil War and by 1930 the family property had been turned into a collective farm. Solzhenitsyn, a graduate from the Department of Physics and Mathematics at Rostov University, while at the same time taking correspondence courses from the Moscow Institute of Philosophy, Literature, and History, as sent to one of these camps in 1946, soon after his arrest.
During World War II, he served as the commander of an artillery unit in the Red Army, was involved in major action at the front, and was twice decorated. In February 1945, while serving in East Prussia, he was arrested for writing about the conduct of the war by Josef Stalin, whom he called “the whiskered one”, “Khozyain” (“the master”) and “Balabos”, (Odessa Yiddish for “the master”). On 7 July 1945, he was sentenced in his absence by a three-man tribunal of the Soviet security police (NKGB) to an eight-year term in a labor camps, three of which he served in a camp in the barren steppe of Kazakhstan that was the basis for his first novel, to be followed by permanent internal exile. Solzhenitsyn’s sentence was served in several different work camps that compelled him to produce masterpieces one after another.
On February 13, 1974, Solzhenitsyn was deported from the Soviet Union to Frankfurt, West Germany and stripped of his Soviet citizenship. The KGB had found the manuscript for the first part of The Gulag Archipelago and, less than a week later, Yevgeny Yevtushenko suffered reprisals for his support of Solzhenitsyn. He then moved to Switzerland before Stanford University invited him to stay in the United States to “facilitate your work, and to accommodate you and your family.”
Solzhenitsyn then made his homeland in America, settling in 1976 in the tiny town of Cavendish, Vermont, with his wife and sons. Living at a secluded hillside compound he rarely left, he called his 18 years there the most productive of his life. There he worked on what he considered to be his life’s work, a multivolume saga of Russian history titled “The Red Wheel.” Some critics saw “The Red Wheel” books as tedious and hectoring, rather than as sweeping and lit by moral fire. Despite spending two decades in the United States, Solzhenitsyn did not become fluent in spoken English.
The Crusader against Terror Camps
Terror Camps remained a central theme in his literary works. The Stalinist era, he wrote, quoting from a poem by Alexander Pushkin, forced Soviet citizens to choose one of three roles: tyrant, traitor, and prisoner. Solzhenitsyn attacked the complicity of millions of Russians in the horrors of Stalin’s reign. In those days the _expression terrorism/state terrorism was not in vogue, but the same activities had been happening around the world under imperialism and colonialism in one form or the other. Solzhenitsyn ridiculed Socialism and communism as mere utopia as they could not be practiced in Russia or else where but the process had created horrible scenes in Russia. In the process of communism building, state terrorism came to replace the humanist approach of Lenin.
Solzhenitsyn depicted the terrible life of people unknown to the outside world. And his works of art inspired millions, perhaps, with the knowledge that one person’s courage and integrity could, in the end, defeat the totalitarian machinery of an empire. He even likened the Soviet society to a cancer ward and endeared the wrath of the leadership in the Kremlin. The accounts riveted his countrymen and earned him years of bitter exile, but international renown. And his account of that secret system of prison camps was also inspiring in its description of how one person — Solzhenitsyn himself — survived, physically and spiritually, in a penal system of soul-crushing hardship and injustice. Through unflinching accounts of the years Solzhenitsyn spent in the Soviet gulag, Solzhenitsyn’s novels and non-fiction works exposed the secret history of the vast prison system that enslaved millions.
Beginning with the 1962 short novel “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” the first fruit of this labor- the story of a carpenter struggling to survive in a Soviet labor camp, where he had been sent, like Solzhenitsyn, after service in the war -Solzhenitsyn devoted himself to describing what he called the human “meat grinder” that had caught him along with millions of other Soviet citizens: capricious arrests, followed by sentences to slave labor camps where cold, starvation and punishing work crushed inmates physically and spiritually. The book was published in 1962 by order of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who was eager to discredit the abuses of Stalin, his predecessor, and created a sensation in a country where unpleasant truths were spoken in whispers, if at all.
His non-fiction “Gulag Archipelago” trilogy of the 1970s shocked readers by describing the savagery of the Soviet state under Stalin. It helped erase lingering sympathy for the Soviet Union among many leftist intellectuals, especially in Europe. Gulag Archipelago was a three-volume work on the Soviet prison camp system. It was based upon Solzhenitsyn’s own experience as well as the testimony of 227 former prisoners and Solzhenitsyn’s own research into the history of the penal system. It discussed the system’s origins from the very founding of the Communist regime, with Lenin himself having responsibility, detailing interrogation procedures, prisoner transports, prison camp culture, prisoner uprisings and revolts, and the practice of internal exile. The appearance of the book in the West put the word gulag into the Western political vocabulary and guaranteed swift retribution from the Soviet authorities. The novel “Cancer Ward”, which appeared in 1967, was another fictional worked based on Solzhenitsyn’s life. In this case, the subject was his cancer treatment in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, then part of Soviet Central Asia, during his years of internal exile from March 1953, the month of Stalin’s death, until June 1956.
The Stalinist era, he wrote, quoting from a poem by Alexander Pushkin, forced Soviet citizens to choose one of three roles: tyrant, traitor, and prisoner. Solzhenitsyn portrayed the life situations in such a way his characters provided a devastating account of Soviet system. It helped erase lingering sympathy for the Soviet Union among many leftist intellectuals, especially in Europe. The novel “Cancer Ward”, which appeared in 1967, was another fictional worked based on Solzhenitsyn’s life. In this case, the subject was his cancer treatment in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, then part of Soviet Central Asia, during his years of internal exile from March 1953, the month of Stalin’s death, until June 1956. Meanwhile Solzhenitsyn continued to secretly and feverishly work upon the most subversive of all his writings, the monumental Gulag Archipelago.
“One Day” brought the Soviet system of prison labor to the attention of the West. It caused as much a sensation in the Soviet Union as it did the West-not only by its striking realism and candor, but also because it was the first major piece of Soviet literature since the twenties on a politically charged theme, written by a non-party member. Politics of the Union of Writers did not support him for fear of the rulers and his anti-Soviet insinuations.
After Khrushchev was ousted in 1964, Solzhenitsyn began facing KGB harassment, publication of his works was blocked and he was expelled from the Soviet Writers Union. But he was undeterred. “A great writer is, so to speak, a secret government in his country,” he wrote in “The First Circle,” his next novel, a book about inmates in one of Stalin’s “special camps” for scientists who were deemed politically unreliable but whose skills were essential. He was arrested again in 1965 on a treason charge and expelled the next day to West Germany in handcuffs. His expulsion inspired worldwide condemnation of the regime of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.
He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, an unusual move for the Swedish Academy, which generally makes awards late in an author’s life after decades of work. The academy cited “the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature.” Already annoyed with his ridicule of Soviet system, Soviet authorities barred the author from traveling to Stockholm to receive the award and official attacks were intensified in 1973 when the first book in the “Gulag” trilogy appeared in Paris. Solzhenitsyn received his prize at the 1974 ceremony after he had been deported from the Soviet Union. He was given an honorary Literary Degree from Harvard University in 1978 and on June 8, 1978 he gave his Commencement Address condemning modern western culture. Over the next 17 years, Solzhenitsyn worked on his cyclical history of the Russian Revolution of 1917, The Red Wheel. By 1992, four “knots” (parts) had been completed and he had also written several shorter works.
Being an outspoken critic of Russian reality, Solzhenitsyn become outcast in Russia and even lost his citizenship. Then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev restored Solzhenitsyn’s citizenship in 1990 and the treason charge was finally dropped in 1991, less than a month after a failed Soviet coup. Following an emotional homecoming that started in the Russian Far East on May 27, 1994, and became a whistle-stop tour across the country, Solzhenitsyn settled in a tree-shaded, red brick home overlooking the Moscow River just west of the capital.
Solzhenitsyn’s assumption that he would become a prophet upon his return to Russia did not play well with the public. His comments on current events were sometimes bizarre. In 1999, he condemned the NATO bombing of Serbia in defense of Albanian Kosovo, action which he described as following the “law of the jungle: He who is mighty is completely right.” He went so far as to assert that there was “no difference in the behavior of NATO and of Hitler.” Yet he did not ask himself whether the Albanians, persecuted by the more mighty Serbs, did not have the right on their side. Nor did he compare NATO’s actions in Kosovo to those of Putin in Chechnya, where the Russian military not only bombed a population that sought independence, but destroyed the region’s capital, Grozny — a city that was part of the Russian Federation. Solzhenitsyn, true to his Russian credentials, never criticized Russian genocide of Chechens nor did he question the validity of keeping Chechnya under Russian control ignoring the struggles of the Chechens for freedom.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, viewed as a political figure, was very much in the Russian conservative tradition — a modern version of Dostoevsky. Like the great 19th-century writer, Solzhenitsyn despised socialism and yet had no use for Western culture with its stress on vague secularism, freedom and legality. Solzhenitsyn blamed the evils of Soviet communism on the West. While accusing the West of imperialism, he seemed quite unaware of the extraordinary expansion of his own country into regions inhabited by non-Russians. He also denied that Imperial Russia practiced censorship or condemned political prisoners to hard labor, which, of course, was absurd.
The West offered him shelter and accolades. But Solzhenitsyn’s refusal to bend despite enormous pressure, perhaps, also gave him the courage to criticize Western culture for what he considered its weakness and decadence. Although free from repression, Solzhenitsyn longed for his native land. Neither was he enchanted by Western democracy, with its emphasis on individual freedom. To the dismay of his supporters, in his Harvard speech he rejected the West’s faith “Western pluralistic democracy” as the model for all other nations. It was a mistake, he warned, for Western societies to regard the failure of the rest of the world to adopt the democratic model as a product of “wicked governments or by heavy crises or by their own barbarity or incomprehension.” Solzhenitsyn also harshly criticized what he saw as the ugliness and spiritual vapidity of the dominant pop culture of the modern West, including television and rock music.
Solzhenitsyn’s warnings about the dangers of Communist aggression and the weakening of the moral fiber of the West were generally well received in Western conservative circles, alongside the tougher foreign policy pursued by U.S. President Ronald Reagan. At the same time, liberals and secularists became increasingly critical of what they perceived as his reactionary preference for Russian patriotism and the Russian Orthodox religion. During the 1990s, his stalwart nationalist views, his devout Orthodoxy, his disdain for capitalism and disgust with the tycoons who bought Russian industries and resources cheaply following the Soviet collapse, were unfashionable.
Russians obviously have little in common with the Oriental nations; by race, religion and high culture, they belong to the West. Therefore, when Solzhenitsyn rejects Western values as inapplicable to his country, he leaves it in a cultural limbo — it belongs nowhere and only to itself. This is a recipe for isolation, and isolation breeds aggressiveness. They have a twin identity: European and Eastern and has caused confusion in the Russian mind.
Russians suffer from a sort of dualism. It is difficult to envisage what kind of a Russia Solzhenitsyn wanted. He disliked what he saw after his return to Russia in 1994, during Boris Yeltsin’s rule, but, strangely enough, he came to terms with then-President Vladimir Putin and his restrictions on both democracy and the free market. Although Solzhenitsyn vehemently rejected communism, in many ways he retained a Soviet mind-set. Anyone who disagreed with him was not merely wrong but evil. He was constitutionally incapable of tolerating dissent.
Earlier, Solzhenitsyn had blamed Jews for playing mischief with 1917 Revolution, but in his last book published in 2003, “Two Hundred Years Together,” an ambitious history of Jews in Russia, Solzhenitsyn unequivocally exonerated the Jewish people of responsibility for the Russian Revolution. The author’s last book, 2001′s “Two Hundred Years Together,” addressed the complex emotions of Russian-Jewish relations. Some criticized the book for alleged anti-Semitic passages. But the author denied the charge, saying he “understood the subtlety, sensitivity and kindheartedness of the Jewish character.”
Back in New Russia
After a triumphant return from exile in the U.S. in 1994 that included a 56-day train trip across Russia to become reacquainted with his native land, Solzhenitsyn published eight two-part short stories, a series of contemplative “miniatures” or prose poems, a literary memoir on his years in the West (The Grain Between the Millstones) and a two-volume work on the history of Russian-Jewish relations (Two Hundred Years Together 2001, 2002). In it, Solzhenitsyn emphatically repudiates the idea the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917 were the work of a “Jewish conspiracy”. Yet he documents the predominance of Jews in the early Bolshevik leaderships, excepting Lenin. While avoiding a partisan political role, Solzhenitsyn vowed to speak “the whole truth about Russia, until they shut my mouth like before.”
When Boris Yeltsin awarded Solzhenitsyn Russia’s highest honor, the Order of St. Andrew, the writer refused to accept it. When Yeltsin left office in 2000, Solzhenitsyn wanted him prosecuted. Yeltsin’s reign, Solzhenitsyn said, marked one of three “times of troubles” in Russian history — which included the 17th century crises that led to the rise of the Romanovs and the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. He was contemptuous of President Boris Yeltsin, blaming Yeltsin for the collapse of Russia’s economy, his dependence on bailouts by the International Monetary Fund, his inability to stop the expansion of NATO to Russia’s borders, his tolerance of the rising influence of a handful of Russian billionaires — who were nicknamed “oligarchs” by an American diplomat.
Yeltsin’s successor Vladimir Putin at first had a rocky relationship with Solzhenitsyn, who criticized the Russian president in 2002 for not doing more to crack down on Russia’s oligarchs. Putin was also a veteran of the Soviet-era KGB, the agency that, more than any other, represented the Soviet legacy of repression. But the two men, so different, gradually developed a rapport. By steps, Putin adopted Solzhenitsyn’s criticisms of the West, perhaps out of recognition that Russia really is a different civilization, perhaps because the author offered justification for the Kremlin’s determination to muzzle critics, to reassert control over Russia’s natural resources and to concentrate political power. Under Vladimir Putin’s 2000-2008 presidency, Solzhenitsyn’s vision of Russia as a bastion of Orthodox Christianity, as a place with a unique culture and destiny, gained renewed prominence.
Putin argued, as Solzhenitsyn did in a speech at Harvard University in 1978, that Russia has a separate civilization from the West, one that can’t be reconciled either to Communism or western-style liberal democracy, but requires a system adapted to its history and traditions. “Any ancient deeply rooted autonomous culture, especially if it is spread on a wide part of the earth’s surface, constitutes an autonomous world, full of riddles and surprises to Western thinking,” Solzhenitsyn said in the Harvard speech. Like Putin, Solzhenitsyn argued that Russia was following its own path to its own form of democratic society.
In his recent political writings, such as Rebuilding Russia (1990) and Russia in Collapse (1998), Solzhenitsyn criticized the oligarchic excesses of the new Russian ‘democracy,’ while opposing any nostalgia for Soviet communism. He defended moderate and self-critical patriotism (as opposed to extreme nationalism), argued for the indispensability of local self-government to a free Russia, and expressed concerns for the fate of the 25 million ethnic Russians in the “near abroad” of the former Soviet Union. He also sought to “protect” the national character of the Russian Orthodox Church and fought against the admission of Catholic priests and Protestant pastors to Russia from other countries.
The author’s last book, 2001′s “Two Hundred Years Together,” addressed the complex emotions of Russian-Jewish relations. Some criticized the book for alleged anti-Semitic passages. But the author denied the charge, saying he “understood the subtlety, sensitivity and kindheartedness of the Jewish character.” In a June 2005 interview with state television, he said Russia had lost 15 years following the collapse of the Soviet Union by moving too quickly in the rush to build a more liberal society.
End of an Era
Following the death of Naguib Mahfouz in 2006, Solzhenitsyn became the oldest living Nobel laureate in literature. Solzhenitsyn, Soviet-era dissident, was laid to rest at the cemetery in Donskoi Monastery in central Moscow. The author, who revealed the horrors of Stalinist repression in his landmark works, “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” and “The Gulag Archipelago,” died at age 89 from heart failure.
Putin’s successor President Dmitry Medvedev sent condolences after news of Solzhenitsyn’s death. Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, at loggerheads with Russia over the breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, said in a condolence message: “That the Georgian people are free today is a merit of the work of Alexander Solzhenitsyn,” Interfax reported. “All of Georgia grieves together with you.” It is hard to imagine that Solzhenitsyn, who struggled for the freedom of others his whole life, would have minded that sentiment as his epitaph.
More than 1,000 mourners, including President Dmitry Medvedev and his wife, Svetlana, traveled to the grounds of the 16th-century monastery to pay their respects to one of the 20th-century’s towering literary and political figures. Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who restored Solzhenitsyn’s citizenship in 1990, attended the funeral, as did Mayor Yury Luzhkov. Putin and Medvedev have studiously avoided referring to Solzhenitsyn’s dissident works in the wake of his death. Unlike Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who attended Solzhenitsyn’s wake, President Medvedev entered the building through a side door and attracted little attention from the assembled crowd.
The students of literature in any Indian university offering courses on Solzenitsin would not have been impressed by his writings, perhaps, because those who taught on the courses were heavily pro-Soviet and the then Indo-Soviet cooperation with enormous nuclearism and arms dealings (almost got free for India) had not offered any scope for any real critical study of Soviet authors in India. But later, as an independent reader of literature, culture, truth and history, I realized the depth and power of Solzhenitsyn’s creativity.
Solzhenitsyn will be remembered primarily for his remarkably courageous resistance to and criticism of the Soviet Union. Solzhenitsyn’s works were the first to be issued from the Soviet Union and, in the case of “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” the first to be published in the Soviet Union. The effect of these works was immense both in the Soviet Union and abroad, helping to discredit morally the communist regime among those who still entertained illusions about it. In this manner, Solzhenitsyn contributed to the Soviet Union’s ultimate collapse. Although Solzhenitsyn vehemently rejected communism, in many ways he retained a Soviet mind-set. Anyone who disagreed with him was not merely wrong but evil. He was constitutionally incapable of tolerating dissent.
Joseph Brodsky, in his essay Catastrophes in the Air (in Less than One), argued that Solzhenitsyn, while a hero in showing up the brutalities of Soviet Communism, failed to discern that the historical crimes he unearthed might be the outcome of authoritarian traits that were really part of the heritage of Old Russia and of “the severe spirit of Orthodoxy” (venerated by Solzhenitsyn) and much less due to the more recent (Marxist) political ideology.
State terrorism is the order of the day now as millions of defenseless people are being massacred and tortured day in and day out by the powerful state terror forces, as Indian atrocities in Kashmir. Solzhenitsyn portrayed the life situations in most possible fascinating ways and inspired the world litterateurs. While the Soviet system collapsed he survived to explain his motives for creating so many lively characters who continue to live in Russian society. World has see if penal system of soul-crushing hardship and injustice continues any where today, both so-called democracies and autocracies, not just in Russia alone. No society can afford to exist now as a cancer ward and harm genuine human aspirations like freedom, independence and welfare of people of all nations, and not just of Russia.