Towering Witness to Salvation
AMERICANS HAVE FOLLOWED Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's distant struggle with the Soviet government and his final, forced hegira into exile with the kind of awe that might attend the trial and burning of Joan of Arc. He is the world's most celebrated writer. The Gulag Archipelago, with massive printings now pouring its cornucopia of Communist cruelties into book clubs and bookstores all over the U.S., seems about to become his most popular work.
The going literary view, by contrast, is that Solzhenitsyn's fame depends on politics more than art, that he is a great man, but not a great writer. That is probably a shortsighted judgment. In America it will be necessary to wait for firstrate translations of his books, since each succeeding volume (Gulag will be no exception) stirs more than the usual storm about inaccuracies and betrayal of spirit that mars most translations. More important, one will have to see completed the already vast and elaborate mixture of fact and fiction through which he is attempting to restore to his countrymen the history of Russia since 1914. Solzhenitsyn is also clearly working on the creation of a rich, interlocking literary world that will revive a 19th century conception of man, shorn of his fond hopes for progress, but still a creature endowed with conscience and a soul who has need for piety, loyalty, continuity and simplicity in order to survive.
The Gulag Archipelago was written expressly for Soviet readers. Again and again the author says, in effect: We thought the Moscow purges of 1937 were more or less isolated convulsions of terror. Not so. The corruption of Soviet justice did not begin with Stalin as we were taught, but with Lenin, in 1918. Then he goes back to document the successive waves of political prisoners - from engineer "wreckers" of the Revolution and peasants caught up in collectivization right down to whole divisions of Red Army soldiers captured by the Germans in World War II and then returned to the U.S.S.R. All these, from 1918 to 1953, flowed through the ports and channels of the Gulag Archipelago, the Soviet penal state-within-a-state whose myriad prisons, interrogation centers and slave-labor camps stretched from Leningrad to Komsomolsk and variously engulfed some 60 million souls. Gulag also makes clear that Soviet justice evolved in a straight line from Lenin's suggestion that the judiciary be allowed to legalize terror into a system of extrajudicial reprisal in which police, interrogators, judge and jury were all one and the "death penalty was no longer a punishment but a means of social defense."
What kind of shock such a book must be for the Russians who manage to read it is difficult to imagine. For some, Stalin is still a hero. To most, Lenin is close to a political saint. Westerners - courtesy of cold war propaganda, a free press and honest scholarship - regard both men with varying degrees of repugnance. Even to them, much of the cruelty and stupidity will seem dreadful enough. Solzhenitsyn produces moments that are unbearable, breaking through all defenses that the mid-20th century reader is likely to have raised against being afflicted by the pain of others.
The prison world that the author depicts in most of his books is often compared to hell or a nightmare. Yet the author admits,"I have come almost to love that monstrous world."' For, along with bestial cruelty and institutional torment, he found great courage and comradeship among fellow prisoners in the Archipelago. The memory of it has permanently shaped his attitude toward mankind. The "fearlessness of those who have lost everything" encourages him. "Own nothing," he counsels those who have been arrested. A food package, he warns, "transforms you from a free though hungry person into one who is anxious and cowardly ... These material things will keep you from entering the heavenly kingdom of the liberated spirit."
Shorn of hope, power, possessions, he experienced a serene vision of life. Good and evil exist, he concluded. Man knows one from another and even under terrible stress can sometimes find the courage to act upon his knowledge. As a result Solzhenitsyn regards moral relativism as a virulent modern disease though he distinguishes between actions natural to man - some of them violent - and unnatural cruelties. In The First Circle, after a discussion of what is right and what is wrong, a peasant-prisoner named Spiridon remarks: "Wolfhounds are right, cannibals are wrong."
The various implications of these views are familiar enough. Power corrupts and so do possessions. So do pride and pragmatism. "The political genius," Solzhenitsyn writes with savage irony, "lies in extracting success, even from the people's ruin." Similar notions, passionately held, drove Tolstoy to abandon family and property and preach nonresistance as well as noncooperation with any of the institutions of society. Solzhenitsyn resembles Tolstoy in a number of ways. Courage and the willingness to share danger with comrades, however, are among the highest virtues represented in his books - and life. Tolstoy believed that men cannot shape history. In August 1914, Solzhenitsyn steadily tries to refute this view. He believes, besides, that men are morally obliged to fight in defense of their country." Why did you do it?" a girl asks a boy who has just volunteered for the army, in August 1914. Both have been influenced by the doctrine of nonresistance. "I pity Russia," he replies.
So does Solzhenitsyn. His prime historic target is revolutionary ideology, because of its power to subvert private conscience, encouraging men to see their fellow men as "insects" (Lenin's word) to be virtuously crushed for the good of the cause. It was in the name of Marxism-Leninism that the horrors of Gulag were visited upon the Russian people. The book is one of the most overwhelming attacks on the practical applications of that ideology ever written. What Solzhenitsyn urges in another remarkable document, Letter to the Soviet Leaders, is that the Soviet government abandon its ideology entirely. It not only has been a scourge and a failure in the past, he says, but now threatens to lead the U.S.S.R. into a war with China. Shrimps may learn to whistle - as Nikita Khrushchev said in another connection - before such a thing is done by the Soviet government. "Human nature," Solzhenitsyn once wrote, "changes not much faster than the geological face of the earth." The author's suggestion - in Gulag - that the masters of the Kremlin put on trial the men most evidently guilty of the past imprisonment, torture and murder of so many millions of their countrymen will probably be ignored, too.
In the old cold war days, Americans might have joined Solzhenitsyn in his urgings. But detente, the benefits of trade, the establishment of a Chase bank in Moscow, and the hope for arms limitations have made the U.S. more tolerant of the Kremlin. The convergent development of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., though, will not much liberalize Russian society. Like environmentalists here and the economists of the Club of Rome, Solzhenitsyn has also urged his country to turn away from its dream of Western technological progress. Instead, he suggests, it should create in the Northeast territory a vast community in which science might be used to create a way of life closer to the earth, to the customs of ancient Russia.
Even if little comes of his advice, history may yet judge Solzhenitsyn a success - and not merely in the realm of art. For he is surely one of those towering witnesses thrown up by history (or God) in moments of crisis to remind the world that the pursuit of material progress is no way to the peace that passes understanding. For the first time, though, that message may concern survival as well as salvation.