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Solzhenitsyn Misunderstood

My copy of the Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann seems to have vanished into the ether as a result of my move last November, so I am unable to consult it to determine the context of the observations quoted by Rod Dreher, to the effect that Solzhenitsyn was a Russian romantic, a maximalist who minimized the faults of his nation, loved it above all earthly - and perhaps heavenly - things, confabulated a romantic ideology of Russian messianism, and was consumed by a passionate detestation of all things Western. Honestly, the entire line of critique rings false. That Schmemann, ordinarily possessed of a penetrating discernment, could so egregiously misunderstand Solzhenitsyn, both as an artist and intellectual, only demonstrates the fallibility and partiality that besets each of us. If I had to venture a critical interpretation of Schmemann's incomprehension of Solzhenitsyn, it would center on the disjunction between the former's conviction that modernity posed a serious challenge to the credibility of the inherited forms of Orthodoxy, and that the latter regarded the philosophical underpinnings of modernity as a load of twaddle, the proper response to which was asceticism, self-limitation. Schmemann, I think, regarded the challenges of modernity perhaps too seriously, as something with which we would have to wrestle indefinitely; Solzhenitsyn, having endured Applied High Modernity, perceived it - more profoundly - as a serious challenge proceeding from all the wrong questions. Dismiss the questions, and challenges lose much of their salience; they are no longer properly existential, but more manageably practical.

The accusations of Russian romanticism and utopianism are so preposterous, so utterly at variance with the tenor of Solzhenitsyn's work, that I will pass over them - I trust that anyone who has so much as lightly skimmed one of his works will grasp how he associates the horrors of Soviet communism with the failings of his people, albeit not in the essentialist manner common in the West - and proceed directly to the question of Solzhenitsyn's apprehension of the West. The fundamentals of that critique are found in the celebrated Harvard commencement address: the West is no model for the world, sunken as it is in a vulgar materialism born of Enlightenment rationalism, a despiritualized world-image in which we strive to satisfy our desires to the uttermost, brooking no limitation upon our appetites, which profane every humane, moral, and spiritual good. This theme is revisited in the September 14, 1993 address to the International Academy of Philosophy:

The eighteenth century left us the precept of Jeremy Bentham: morality is that which gives pleasure to the greatest number of persons; man can never desire anything except that which favours the preservation of his own existence. And the eagerness with which the civilized world took up so convenient and precious an advice was astonishing! Cold calculation holds sway in business relations, and has even become accepted as normal behaviour. To yield in some way to an opponent or competitor is considered an unforgivable blunder for the party having an advantage in position, power or wealth. The ultimate measure of every event, action or intention is a purely legalistic one. This was designed as an obstacle to immoral behaviour, and it is often successful; but sometimes, in the form of "legal realism", it facilitates precisely such behaviour. (Snip)

The first trifle which we overlooked and only recently discovered is that unlimited Progress cannot occur within the limited resources of our planet; that nature needs to be supported rather than conquered; that we are successfully eating up the environment allotted to us. (Snip)

The second misjudgment turned out to be that human nature did not become gentler with Progress, as was promised. All we had forgotten was the human soul.

We have allowed our wants to grow unchecked, and are now at a loss where to direct them. And with the obliging assistance of commercial enterprises, newer and yet newer wants are concocted, some wholly artificial, and we chase after them en masse, but find no fulfillment. And we never shall.

The endless accumulation of possessions? That will not bring fulfillment either. (Discerning individuals have long since understood that possessions must be subordinated to other, higher principles, that they must have a spiritual justification, a mission; otherwise, as Nikolai Berdyaev put it, they bring ruin to human life, becoming the tools of avarice and oppression.)

No, a thousand times NO! Solzhenitsyn did not loathe the West. But he perceived clearly that a West enthralled by such reductionisms, such grotesque pleonexia, had little to contribute to the reconstruction of Russia, let alone to the spiritual vocation. In its rationalism, it was but the opposite excess of communism, twinned with it in the mismeasure of man and the created order.

Solzhenitsyn's critique of the West is not the only aspect of his thought which eludes comprehension. His stance regarding the history of Imperial Russia and its relevance for contemporary Russia is also misunderstood. I hope that the reader will bear with me, for I intend to quote a lengthy Stratfor analysis entitled "Solzhenitsyn and the Struggle for Russia's Soul"; it is well worth reading, as it establishes the geopolitical setting of Solzhenitsyn's life and art, and dispenses with many of the superficial dismissals of his work. The trouble with it is that it suggests an affinity on the part of Solzhenitsyn for empire - another absurdity.

There are many people who write history. There are very few who make history through their writings. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who died this week at the age of 89, was one of them. In many ways, Solzhenitsyn laid the intellectual foundations for the fall of Soviet communism. That is well known. But Solzhenitsyn also laid the intellectual foundation for the Russia that is now emerging. That is less well known, and in some ways more important.

Solzhenitsyn’s role in the Soviet Union was simple. His writings, and in particular his book “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” laid bare the nature of the Soviet regime. The book described a day in the life of a prisoner in a Soviet concentration camp, where the guilty and innocent alike were sent to have their lives squeezed out of them in endless and hopeless labor. It was a topic Solzhenitsyn knew well, having been a prisoner in such a camp following service in World War II.

The book was published in the Soviet Union during the reign of Nikita Khrushchev. Khrushchev had turned on his patron, Joseph Stalin, after taking control of the Communist Party apparatus following Stalin’s death. In a famous secret speech delivered to the leadership of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Khrushchev denounced Stalin for his murderous ways. Allowing Solzhenitsyn’s book to be published suited Khrushchev. Khrushchev wanted to detail Stalin’s crimes graphically, and Solzhenitsyn’s portrayal of life in a labor camp served his purposes.

It also served a dramatic purpose in the West when it was translated and distributed there. Ever since its founding, the Soviet Union had been mythologized. This was particularly true among Western intellectuals, who had been taken by not only the romance of socialism, but also by the image of intellectuals staging a revolution. Vladimir Lenin, after all, had been the author of works such as “Materialism and Empirio-Criticism.” The vision of intellectuals as revolutionaries gripped many European and American intellectuals.

These intellectuals had missed not only that the Soviet Union was a social catastrophe, but that, far from being ruled by intellectuals, it was being ruled by thugs. For an extraordinarily long time, in spite of ample testimony by emigres from the Soviet regime, Western intellectuals simply denied this reality. When Western intellectuals wrote that they had “seen the future and it worked,” they were writing at a time when the Soviet terror was already well under way. They simply couldn’t see it.

One of the most important things about “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” was not only that it was so powerful, but that it had been released under the aegis of the Soviet state, meaning it could not simply be ignored. Solzhenitsyn was critical in breaking the intellectual and moral logjam among intellectuals in the West. You had to be extraordinarily dense or dishonest to continue denying the obvious, which was that the state that Lenin and Stalin had created was a moral monstrosity.

Khrushchev’s intentions were not Solzhenitsyn’s. Khrushchev wanted to demonstrate the evils of Stalinism while demonstrating that the regime could reform itself and, more important, that communism was not invalidated by Stalin’s crimes. Solzhenitsyn, on the other hand, held the view that the labor camps were not incidental to communism, but at its heart. He argued in his “Gulag Archipelago” that the systemic exploitation of labor was essential to the regime not only because it provided a pool of free labor, but because it imposed a systematic terror on those not in the gulag that stabilized the regime. His most telling point was that while Khrushchev had condemned Stalin, he did not dismantle the gulag; the gulag remained in operation until the end.

Though Solzhenitsyn served the regime’s purposes in the 1960s, his usefulness had waned by the 1970s. By then, Solzhenitsyn was properly perceived by the Soviet regime as a threat. In the West, he was seen as a hero by all parties. Conservatives saw him as an enemy of communism. Liberals saw him as a champion of human rights. Each invented Solzhenitsyn in their own image. He was given the Noble Prize for Literature, which immunized him against arrest and certified him as a great writer. Instead of arresting him, the Soviets expelled him, sending him into exile in the United States.

When he reached Vermont, the reality of who Solzhenitsyn was slowly sank in. Conservatives realized that while he certainly was an enemy of communism and despised Western liberals who made apologies for the Soviets, he also despised Western capitalism just as much. Liberals realized that Solzhenitsyn hated Soviet oppression, but that he also despised their obsession with individual rights, such as the right to unlimited free expression. Solzhenitsyn was nothing like anyone had thought, and he went from being the heroic intellectual to a tiresome crank in no time. Solzhenitsyn attacked the idea that the alternative to communism had to be secular, individualist humanism. He had a much different alternative in mind.

Solzhenitsyn saw the basic problem that humanity faced as being rooted in the French Enlightenment and modern science. Both identify the world with nature, and nature with matter. If humans are part of nature, they themselves are material. If humans are material, then what is the realm of God and of spirit? And if there is no room for God and spirituality, then what keeps humans from sinking into bestiality? For Solzhenitsyn, Stalin was impossible without Lenin’s praise of materialism, and Lenin was impossible without the Enlightenment.

From Solzhenitsyn’s point of view, Western capitalism and liberalism are in their own way as horrible as Stalinism. Adam Smith saw man as primarily pursuing economic ends. Economic man seeks to maximize his wealth. Solzhenitsyn tried to make the case that this is the most pointless life conceivable. He was not objecting to either property or wealth, but to the idea that the pursuit of wealth is the primary purpose of a human being, and that the purpose of society is to free humans to this end.

Solzhenitsyn made the case — hardly unique to him — that the pursuit of wealth as an end in itself left humans empty shells. He once noted Blaise Pascal’s aphorism that humans are so endlessly busy so that they can forget that they are going to die — the point being that we all die, and that how we die is determined by how we live. For Solzhenitsyn, the American pursuit of economic well being was a disease destroying the Western soul.

He viewed freedom of expression in the same way. For Americans, the right to express oneself transcends the content of the expression. That you speak matters more than what you say. To Solzhenitsyn, the same principle that turned humans into obsessive pursuers of wealth turned them into vapid purveyors of shallow ideas. Materialism led to individualism, and individualism led to a culture devoid of spirit. The freedom of the West, according to Solzhenitsyn, produced a horrifying culture of intellectual self-indulgence, licentiousness and spiritual poverty. In a contemporary context, the hedge fund coupled with The Daily Show constituted the bankruptcy of the West.

To have been present when he once addressed a Harvard commencement! On the one side, Harvard Law and Business School graduates — the embodiment of economic man. On the other side, the School of Arts and Sciences, the embodiment of free expression. Both greeted their heroic resister, only to have him reveal himself to be religious, patriotic and totally contemptuous of the Vatican of self-esteem, Harvard.

Solzhenitsyn had no real home in the United States, and with the fall of the Soviets, he could return to Russia — where he witnessed what was undoubtedly the ultimate nightmare for him: thugs not only running the country, but running it as if they were Americans. Now, Russians were pursuing wealth as an end in itself and pleasure as a natural right. In all of this, Solzhenitsyn had not changed at all.

Solzhenitsyn believed there was an authentic Russia that would emerge from this disaster. It would be a Russia that first and foremost celebrated the motherland, a Russia that accepted and enjoyed its uniqueness. This Russia would take its bearings from no one else. At the heart of this Russia would be the Russian Orthodox Church, with not only its spirituality, but its traditions, rituals and art.

The state’s mission would be to defend the motherland, create the conditions for cultural renaissance, and — not unimportantly — assure a decent economic life for its citizens. Russia would be built on two pillars: the state and the church. It was within this context that Russians would make a living. The goal would not be to create the wealthiest state in the world, nor radical equality. Nor would it be a place where anyone could say whatever they wanted, not because they would be arrested necessarily, but because they would be socially ostracized for saying certain things.

Most important, it would be a state not ruled by the market, but a market ruled by a state. Economic strength was not trivial to Solzhenitsyn, either for individuals or for societies, but it was never to be an end in itself and must always be tempered by other considerations. As for foreigners, Russia must always guard itself, as any nation must, against foreigners seeking its wealth or wanting to invade. Solzhenitsyn wrote a book called “August 1914,” in which he argues that the czarist regime had failed the nation by not being prepared for war.

Think now of the Russia that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitri Medvedev are shaping. The Russian Orthodox Church is undergoing a massive resurgence, the market is submitting to the state, free expression is being tempered and so on. We doubt Putin was reading Solzhenitsyn when reshaping Russia. But we do believe that Solzhenitsyn had an understanding of Russia that towered over most of his contemporaries. And we believe that the traditional Russia that Solzhenitsyn celebrated is emerging, more from its own force than by political decisions.

Solzhenitsyn served Western purposes when he undermined the Soviet state. But that was not his purpose. His purpose was to destroy the Soviet state so that his vision of Russia could re-emerge. When his interests and the West’s coincided, he won the Noble Prize. When they diverged, he became a joke. But Solzhenitsyn never really cared what Americans or the French thought of him and his ideas. He wasn’t speaking to them and had no interest or hope of remaking them. Solzhenitsyn was totally alien to American culture. He was speaking to Russia and the vision he had was a resurrection of Mother Russia, if not with the czar, then certainly with the church and state. That did not mean liberalism; Mother Russia was dramatically oppressive. But it was neither a country of mass murder nor of vulgar materialism.

It must also be remembered that when Solzhenitsyn spoke of Russia, he meant imperial Russia at its height, and imperial Russia’s borders at its height looked more like the Soviet Union than they looked like Russia today. “August 1914” is a book that addresses geopolitics. Russian greatness did not have to express itself via empire, but logically it should — something to which Solzhenitsyn would not have objected.

Solzhenitsyn could not teach Americans, whose intellectual genes were incompatible with his. But it is hard to think of anyone who spoke to the Russian soul as deeply as he did. He first ripped Russia apart with his indictment. He was later ignored by a Russia out of control under former President Boris Yeltsin. But today’s Russia is very slowly moving in the direction that Solzhenitsyn wanted. And that could make Russia extraordinarily powerful. Imagine a Soviet Union not ruled by thugs and incompetents. Imagine Russia ruled by people resembling Solzhenitsyn’s vision of a decent man.

Solzhenitsyn was far more prophetic about the future of the Soviet Union than almost all of the Ph.D.s in Russian studies. Entertain the possibility that the rest of Solzhenitsyn’s vision will come to pass. It is an idea that ought to cause the world to be very thoughtful.

As the essay of historical interpretation, The Russian Question at the End of the Twentieth Century makes manifest, Solzhenitsyn was desirous of some form of political association of Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, and the Ukraine, for reason of shared historical and cultural lineages, but was inveterately hostile towards the notion of empire:

That the Soviet Empire was not only unnecessary for us, but ruinous, is a conclusion I reached in the first post-war years, in the camps. I have long believed this, for half a century. In The Letter to the Soviet Leaders (1973) I wrote: "The aims of a great empire and the moral health of the people are incompatible. We should not presume to invent international tasks and bear the cost of them so long as our people is in such moral disarray". In Rebuilding Russia: "Holding on to a great empire means to contribute to the extinction of our own people. And anyway, what need is there of this heterogenous amalgam? Do we want Russians to lose their unique characteristics? We must strive not for the expansion of the State, but rather for the clarity of our spirit in what remains of it". We do not need to be a world arbiter, to compete for international leadership (stronger volunteers will surface); all our efforts must be directed inwards, towards assiduous inner development. The restoration of the USSR would be a sure path to crush and stifle our people for good.

Andrew Cusack asseverates that, should Solzhenitsyn be remembered centuries hence, it will not be for his opposition to communism:

Communism has ceased to play a part on the world stage, but if Solzhenitsyn is remembered centuries from now I do not think it will be for his criticism of Communism but for his repudiation of the West’s rejection of Christianity and it’s embrace of the Enlightenment. His experience of the prison camps of the East, in which humanity was despised, allowed Solzhenitsyn to see through the vain pomp and glory of the West, in which humanity is worshipped. Solzhenitsyn understood, to the incomprehension of the self-satisfied elites of our time and place, that it was neither communism nor capitalism, neither money nor equality, neither economics nor politics that should be worshipped, but only God.

To this I can add only that, should Solzhenitsyn be remembered centuries hence, it must also be for his defense of particularity, his refusal to countenance the subsuming of particular peoples and their histories into utopian narratives of immanent redemption, be they of the left or the right, socialist or capitalist. If Solzhenitsyn is not remembered, it will likely be because such universalistic narratives, and the processes they are meant to legitimate, will have obliterated particularity, and with it, memory.

Comments (3)

Nice post.

My knowledge of Solzhenitsyn is not great, but it still seems to me that both Schmemann and the Stratfor piece overstate his detestation for Capitalism and the West. You will not find burning hatred in his farewell address to the people of Cavendish, Vermont, but rather its opposite. This book goes to some length to debunk this notion of Solzhenitsyn as an incorrigible reactionary ill-deposed toward everything Western. A sample from the Introduction:

His portrait in August 1914 of Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin’s efforts to establish a constitutional order that would be consistent with Russia’s spiritual traditions and that would keep Russia from falling into the revolutionary abyss contains some of the wisest pages ever written about statesmanship. Solzhenitsyn self-consciously writes as a defender of the “middle line” of social development and in the service of human liberty and dignity.

Why is it so often the case that defenders of particularity are regarded, even by their friends, as cranks and reactionaries?

If anything, I think that George Friedman's estimate of Solzhenitsyn's view of the West is inconsistent. It is assuredly false to state that

From Solzhenitsyn’s point of view, Western capitalism and liberalism are in their own way as horrible as Stalinism.

However, other passages, immediately following such hyperbolic characterizations, vitiate such imagined equivalencies:

He was not objecting to either property or wealth, but to the idea that the pursuit of wealth is the primary purpose of a human being, and that the purpose of society is to free humans to this end.

Solzhenitsyn made the case — hardly unique to him — that the pursuit of wealth as an end in itself left humans empty shells. He once noted Blaise Pascal’s aphorism that humans are so endlessly busy so that they can forget that they are going to die — the point being that we all die, and that how we die is determined by how we live. For Solzhenitsyn, the American pursuit of economic well being was a disease destroying the Western soul.

Solzhenitsyn, on these characterizations, objected to an certain excess, distortion, or debilitation in the Western mentality, an imbalanced appreciation of the benefactions of technological and economic modernity, rooted in forgetfulness - of God, and of the nature of man. The language is properly therapeutic, in the Orthodox sense of the term, meaning that it summons man to return to himself, to his own deepest nature, and to recover that nature from its dissipation in transient and subsidiary goods. This forthrightly religious ontology is, of course, reflected throughout Solzhenitsyn's literary corpus, but I think particularly of the passage of the aforementioned essay on the Russian Question that addresses the botched reforms that followed the abolition of serfdom. Solzhenitsyn manifestly repudiated the sanguinary egalitarianism of the Twentieth Century, and yet, he did not hasten to embrace its mirrored excess, either in the West, or in the self-image of the West. Rather, in that passage, he encapsulates the failure of those reforms, which liberated the serfs and proposed to distribute land among them, yet required them to purchase the land; this necessitated the extension of credit, which most could never hope to repay, and the end consequence was that most found themselves doubly dispossessed in the end. In turn, this botched emancipation, which, through the mediation of inadequate legal mechanisms, only abetted the domination of wealthier landowners, and contributed to the revolutionary ferment of the times. Succinctly stated, it was not so much the market that Solzhenitsyn found adverse to humane goods, but a market bereft of sufficient social contextualization, not property, but concentrated property. On this account, Friedman is entirely correct: culture and society should not be essentially contingent phenomena embedded in a sovereign market, but rather, the market, a necessity, should be embedded in culture, in a just and well-regulated social order, one regulated as much, or more, by the moral and spiritual dispositions of the people, as by legal frameworks.

There are some nice photos of Solzhenitsyn's burial on the web now, showing better understanding than in 1952.

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