Freedom New Mexico
Writers love to believe in the truth of the old maxim about the pen being mightier than the sword, but in their more candid moments have to acknowledge it is seldom literally true.
Every so often, however, a pen appears that is mightier not only than the sword but mightier than the concentration camps, interrogators and even the soul-crushing bureaucracy of a particularly nasty totalitarian state.
Such a pen — sometimes a pencil writing on toilet paper, sometimes a mighty memory remembering something written that was confiscated by prison-camp guards or secret police, eventually more modern implements — was wielded by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. He was the Russian writer who so memorably exposed the cruelty and barbarity that lay at the heart of the communist system in a series of memorable novels and polemics.
Solzhenitsyn outlived the system that tried so hard to crush him by 17 years, dying Sunday in his beloved Russia, a country that both thrilled and disappointed him in its post-communist phase.
Younger readers, and especially those for whom the Soviet system is already a piece of dimly grasped history rather than the pervasive presence in American minds that it was for much of the Cold War, may have difficulty understanding the importance of Solzhenitsyn in that long twilight struggle.
The publication of “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” in 1963, an outwardly simple story of one day endured by a prisoner, or zek, in a Soviet prison camp, was sensational in that then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, during a post-Stalinist “thaw,” allowed it to be published at all. Somehow, perhaps through the very simplicity of its harsh story, perhaps because of the literary sophistication embedded in that simplicity, it captured the attention of people worldwide once it was translated and published abroad.
Khrushchev was replaced by more hard-line leaders and the communist authorities soon turned to persecuting Solzhenitsyn rather than encouraging him. But he kept on writing, kept on insisting on his right to be treated with dignity, and the system was never able to break him.
“One Day” was followed by “The Cancer Ward” and “First Circle,” (perhaps his most insightful novel), the 1970 Nobel Prize for Literature, and then his path-breaking multi-volume literary history of the Soviet prison-camp system, “The Gulag Archipelago.”
“The Gulag Archipelago” tore the mask of progressivism and enlightenment from the Soviet system in a way that made it impossible even for those inclined to sympathize with the system to ignore. One might date the beginning of the dissolution of Soviet power from its publication date of 1974.
Having failed to break Solzhenitsyn, the Soviets finally saw no choice but to exile him. He eventually came to live in Vermont, but he lived more as a recluse than an activist, continuing to explore Russian history.
Some intellectuals became disillusioned with him when he turned out to be an old-fashioned Orthodox Russian nationalist rather than a progressive liberal or libertarian, but true to the character he developed during his own time in prison camps, he never much cared what others thought of him.
Russians seem to suffer in exile more poignantly than exiles from other countries, and Solzhenitsyn was never comfortable in the West. He finally returned to Russia in 1994, where he was briefly a celebrity, then returned to the loneliness of the dedicated writer.
Not without his faults, including perhaps too much tolerance of the czarist regime’s excesses and an eventual endorsement of Vladimir Putin, Solzhenitsyn nonetheless lived to embody the truth of what he wrote in “The First Circle:”
“A great writer is, so to speak, a secret government in his country.”