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A writer who lived his life 'as if'

Solzhenitsyn’s widow views his body. “A great writer,” as he put it in The First Circle, is a “secret government in his country.”

Associated Press

Solzhenitsyn’s widow views his body. “A great writer,” as he put it in The First Circle, is a “secret government in his country.”

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

Should they manage to survive, such heroes have a good chance of outliving the state or the system that so grossly underestimated them. Examples are rather precious and relatively few, and they include Nelson Mandela refusing an offer to be released from jail (unless and until all other political detainees were also freed) and Alexander Solzhenitsyn having to be deported from his country of birth against his will, even though he had become — and had been before — a prisoner there.

Two words will always be indissolubly connected to the name of Alexander Isayevich: the acronym GULAG (for the initials of the Stalinist system of penitentiary camps that dotted the Soviet landscape like a pattern of hellish islands) and the terse, harsh word Zek, to describe the starved and overworked inhabitants of this archipelago of the new serfdom. In an especially vivid chapter of his anatomy of that ghastly system, Solzhenitsyn parodied Marxist-Leninist theories of self-determination to argue that the Zeks were indeed a nation unto themselves.

In his electrifying first book, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, he did in a way delineate the borders and customs of an undiscovered country with a doomed and unknown citizenry. He became an anthropologist of the totalitarian in a way not understood since David Rousset's L'Univers Concentrationnaire. If you are interested in historical irony, you might care to notice that any one chapter of Ivan Denisovich, published in Novy Mir during the Khrushchev de-Stalinization, easily surpassed in its impact any number of books and tracts that had taken "Socialist Realism" as their watchword.

The whole point about "realism" — real realism — is that it needs no identifying prefix. Solzhenitsyn's work demonstrates this for all time.

To have fought his way into Hitler's East Prussia as a proud Red Army soldier in the harshest war on record, to have been arrested and incarcerated for a chance indiscretion, to have served a full sentence of servitude and been released on the very day that Stalin died, and then to have developed cancer and known the whole rigor and misery of a Soviet-era isolation hospital — what could you fear after that? The bullying of Leonid Brezhnev's KGB and the hate campaigns of the hack-ridden Soviet press must have seemed like contemptible fleabites by comparison. But it seems that Solzhenitsyn did have a worry or a dread, not that he himself would be harmed but that none of his work would ever see print.

Nonetheless — and this is the point to which I call your attention — he 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. The simplest way of phrasing it is to say that Solzhenitsyn lived "as if."

Barely deigning to notice the sniggering, pick-nose bullies who followed him and harassed him, he carried on "as if" he were a free citizen, "as if" he had the right to study his own country's history, "as if" there were such a thing as human dignity.

And, once he succeeded in getting The Gulag Archipelago into print, even in pirate editions overseas, it became obvious that something terminal had happened to the edifice of Soviet power.

Of course, one cannot have everything. Nelson Mandela has been soft on Daniel arap Moi, Fidel Castro, Moammar Gadhafi and Robert Mugabe, and soft on them even when he doesn't need them anymore as temporary allies in a difficult struggle. When Solzhenitsyn came to the United States, he was turned away from the White House, on Henry Kissinger's advice, by President Gerald Ford.

But rather than denounce this Republican collusion with Brezhnev, he emptied the vials of his wrath over Americans who liked rock music. The ayatollah-like tones of his notorious Harvard lecture (as I called them at the time) turned out not to be misleading. As time went by, he metamorphosed more and more into a classic Russian Orthodox chauvinist, whose work became more wordy and propagandistic and — shall we be polite? — idiosyncratic with every passing year.

His most recent book, Two Hundred Years Together, purported to be a candid examination of the fraught condition of Russian-Jewish relations — a theme that he had found it difficult to repress in some of his earlier work. He denied that this inquiry had anything in common with the ancient Russian-nationalist dislike of the cosmopolitan (and sometimes Bolshevik-inclined) Jew, and one must give him the benefit of any doubt here.

However, when taken together with his partisanship for Slobodan Milosevic and the holy Serb cause, his exaltation of the reborn (and newly state-sponsored) Russian Orthodox Church, and his late-blooming admiration of the cold-eyed Vladimir Putin, the resulting mixture of attitudes and prejudices puts one in mind more of Dostoyevsky than of Tolstoy. Having denounced "cruel" NATO behavior in the Balkans, without ever saying one word about the behavior of Russian soldiers in Chechnya, Solzhenitsyn spent some of his final days in wasteful diatribes against those Ukrainian nationalists who were, rightly or wrongly, attempting to have their own Soviet-era horrors classified as "genocide."

Dostoyevsky even at his most chauvinistic was worth a hundred Mikhail Sholokhovs or Maxim Gorkys, and Solzhenitsyn set a new standard for the courage by which a Russian author could confront the permafrost of the Russian system. "A great writer," as he put it in The First Circle, "is, so to speak, a secret government in his country."

The echo of Shelley's remark about poets being the "unacknowledged legislators of the world" may or may not be deliberate. But it serves to remind us that writers, however much they may disown the idea, are nonetheless ultimately responsible for the political influence that they do choose to exert. Therein lies the germ of tragedy.

Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair.

A writer who lived his life 'as if' 08/09/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 2, 2010 10:38am]
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