On Solzhenitsyn.

Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn died last week.

You thought the reactions to his death in the West were quite interesting.

Considering that people held in prison by repressive regimes the West disapproves of who subsequently spend a lot of time and energy denouncing the same are usually accorded irreproachable sainthood status, some of the commentators were surprisingly grudging.

For example, there was the snittiness with which someone involved in making the film of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich responded when asked what Solzhenitsyn had said about it.

‘Arrogently’ was the epitaph given. Because Solzhenitsyn thought it was ‘true to truth’, without qualifying that what he meant was his truth, apparently.

Of course, perhaps asking someone of Jewish extraction to comment was unwise if what was wanted was not speaking ill of the dead.

However, although That Book about Jewish Russian history probably sealed his fate as a hero with feet, legs and quite possibly torso and arms of clay, he was tarnished, or at least tactfully ignored, long before that.

The mistake the West made was in thinking that he shared their values just because he opposed the Soviet system, something they were firmly disabused of when he thundered away at some Harvard ceremony back in 1978. You are not sure whether it was the direct criticism or the fact that he was only ever interested in commentating on the Soviet Union and Russia in its own terms which offended people more.

Accusing him of bad writing was a bit of a low blow though.

Now you haven’t read That Book* so you absolutely refuse to comment on it. 

However, you personally can’t automatically dismiss the man. What you have read of his stuff had a rather impressive impact on you. Especially The Gulag Archipelago.

Not so much for the revelations about the dark side of the Soviet system. You are, after all, a child of the later stages of the cold war and very familiar with the default status of the USSR as the Evil Empire.

But while Gulag is not primarily a personal memoir, you were very impressed by a number of observations Solzhenitsyn made about how he behaved while in the camps. For you suspect that despite the segacity with which they quote the ‘first they came for the…’ poem, not only do most people secretly believe that not only would they would be able to stand up to repression, but that nationalities who have succumbed wholesale to madness were somehow morally deficient to start with.

Solzhenitsyn rather disabused you of whatever tendencies you may have had towards this kind of thinking, almost in passing, by revealing some of his own story. Particularly memorable was his conviction that had he remained in the ordinary camps for the whole of his term, he would have succumbed to the pressure that had already started to be applied to become a sort of stool pigeon, spying on his fellow prisoners for the guards, as so many others did. Anyone who thinks this is evidence of some kind of deficiency in Solzhenitsyn has not been paying attention to the rest of the book.

You were also struck by the lack of bitterness Solzhenitsyn showed towards the regime that put him through the experience.

Admittedly this is because Solzhenitsyn came to believe that struggle is, on balance, good for the soul, an argument which your hair shirt mentality finds quite seductive.

Even as you suspect that many of his former prison mates (particularly the ones who died) may not agree.


*And are unlikely to do so given that it is unavailable on Amazon or anywhere else reachable via a quick Internet search. Which does rather raise the question of whether anyone else commenting on it has actually read it either…