Thursday, 27 July 2017

The centenary of the Russian Revolution is an opportunity to restore the reputation of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Harvard Commencement Address, 1978
(This is an article written for the next edition of The Salisbury Review.) When Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn rose to deliver his Commencement Address at Harvard University in June, 1978, he was arguably the world’s leading cultural figure: a globe-bestriding literary giant in the tradition of Tolstoy; an implacable, grim-faced Old Testament prophet in the mould of Jeremiah; a heroic, seemingly indestructible truth-teller who survived imprisonment, exile and cancer to bear witness to the horrors that ensue whenever Communism is put into practice.

The audience at Harvard that day was probably expecting praise for publishing Solzhenitsyn’s books (which were banned in the USSR), for repeatedly criticising the Soviet leadership for persecuting him, and for offering him unstinting adulation and a safe, comfortable haven after he was unceremoniously bustled out of Russia following the publication of The Gulag Archipelago in the West. Instead, they heard this:
A decline in courage may be the most striking feature which an outside observer notices in the West in our days. The Western world has lost its civil courage, both as a whole and separately, in each country, each government, each political party, and, of course, in the United Nations. Such a decline in courage is particularly noticeable among the ruling groups and the intellectual elite, causing an impression of loss of courage by the entire society.
It got worse. Having bitten the hands of those who regarded themselves as his saviours, Solzhenitsyn proceeded to tear into Western liberalism, the very system this unwilling refugee from totalitarianism might have been expected to celebrate:  “Destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space. Society appears to have little defence against the abyss of human decadence…”

Denied an opportunity for self-congratulation, the West’s left-liberal elites reacted with outrage. President Carter snubbed the writer. Even the First Lady, Rosalynn, publicly repudiated the speech. The Washington Post and the New York Times produced outraged editorials. The West’s reaction was satirised by Private Eye in the Sun-style headline: “Sod off, Solly!”

Faced with the inescapable fact that Solzhenitsyn was a deeply conservative Christian traditionalist who thought them cowards, western intellectuals huffily turned their backs on him and followed the example of the Soviet authorities by virtually reducing his status to that of a non-person. This suited him fine: he wasn’t much interested in the West, never bothered to learn spoken English (although he could read it), and, despite his mistaken belief that the democratic powers were too weak and self-indulgent to overthrow the Soviet regime, remained “inwardly convinced” that he would return to his homeland one day. It would be 18 years before that day arrived, most of which were spent in seclusion on his Vermont estate working on The Red Wheel, a multi-volume fictional work about the Russian Revolution. He continued to grant media interviews to admirers such as Bernard Levin and Malcolm Muggeridge, with whom he sometimes allowed the mask of the stone-faced apocalyptic visionary to slip sufficiently to reveal the engaging, good-humoured, vital human being behind it; on occasion, he positively twinkled.
Solzhenitsyn chats to a loyal fan
When Solzhenitsyn returned to Russia in 1994, I experienced a pang of guilt, realising that I hadn’t read anything new by him since his enthralling memoir, The Oak and the Calf, published in 1980, and nothing substantial about him since Michael Scammell’s splendid 1985 biography. I’d been expecting English translations of the various volumes of The Red Wheel to appear regularly accompanied by fanfares of publicity throughout the 1980s, but there didn’t seem to have been a peep. Between 1994 and his death in 2008, news coverage consisted mainly of disapproving items about Solzhenitsyn’s Russian nationalism and his support for Vladimir Putin, and charges of anti-Semitism following the publication of 200 Years Together, a history of Russian Jewry which remains - as does much of his later work - unpublished in English. French and German translations of his writings have appeared regularly since the mid-1980s, but English translations have been rarer.  An American edition of November, 1916 - the second part of the four-volume work, The Red Wheel - received some respectful reviews when it was published in 1999, but sold poorly. An expanded, restored version of the classic 1968 novel, The First Circle, published in America in 2009 (retitled In the First Circle), was similarly well-reviewed and sold better.
Apart from what was widely regarded as Solzhenitsyn’s ingratitude to the West, his extended bouts of self-imposed isolation, and his espousal of unfashionable political and religious beliefs, how to account for this literary giant’s fall from grace? For a start, the sort of people who keep literary reputations alive in Britain and America don’t much like the essentially conservative quartet responsible for the defeat of Soviet Communism, i.e. Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II - and, of course, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Neither are left-liberal literary types much interested in the sort of books Solzhenitsyn wrote. In many ways, he was a traditional 19th Century novelist whose work doesn’t readily lend itself to modish critical analysis: you don’t need to be an intellectual to “get” One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, or to have an intellectual explain it to you. Then there was the inescapable fact that the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the implosion of the Soviet system - and his choosing the Russian Revolution as the main focus of his later fiction - made Solzhenitsyn’s work seem less burningly relevant to a contemporary audience: one suspects that a novel about life in Putin’s Russia might have generated more excitement than The Red Wheel. (But, then, one suspects Solzhenitsyn wasn’t much interested in appearing on “Best Summer Beach Reads” lists.)
Then you type in LOL, and press "send"
Finally, does the quality of Solzhenitsyn’s books - as literature, rather than as historically-significant documents - justify revisiting his reputation? I suppose it depends on whether, like me, you consider One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Cancer Ward and The First Circle to be three of the finest novels of the 20th Century, which deserve to be read as long as Crime and Punishment and War and Peace are read.

As I write this, the final two volumes of The Red Wheel remain unpublished in the West. As recently as 2010, the author’ son, Ignat, doubted they ever would be: “I don’t even think the sales would pay the cost of the translation.” I’m delighted to report that he was wrong, and that the University of Notre Dame Press will be publishing an English translation by Marian Schwarz of the third volume, March 1917, later this year (it's available to pre-order on Amazon). This would present an ideal opportunity for a revival of interest in one of the 20th Century’s greatest writers: his books deserve it.


  1. At least the left can't tell us One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is really a veiled criticism of his privileged school days. They tried that one on Orwell's 1984 spinning the the idea, it was really about his days at Eton.

  2. 'Two Hundred Years Together' is a masterpiece.