(Wall Street Journal)
"The hammer banged reveille on the rail outside camp HQ at five o'clock as always. Time to get up. The ragged noise was muffled by ice two fingers thick on the windows and soon died away. Too cold for the warder to go on hammering."
Thus did Alexander Solzhenitsyn begin "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," his reveille for the world about totalitarianism. Published in 1962, in the brief post-Stalinist thaw under Khrushchev, the novel about a prisoner in a Soviet prison camp made Solzhenitsyn at first a Russian sensation and later the country's most famous dissident after the Kremlin reverted to brutal form.
Russians found in Solzhenitsyn, who died Sunday in Moscow at age 89, their own story told with clarity, courage and humanity. Ivan Shukhov's prison camp was, in reality, all of the Soviet Union. When "Gulag Archipelago," his monumental history of the Soviet penal system, was published in Paris in 1973, Solzhenitsyn made it impossible for serious people anywhere to excuse Stalin's crimes or the inhumanity of communist totalitarianism. His documentation showed that the commissars had the blood of 60 million victims on their hands. Communism's essence was exposed in relentless detail as slavery, terror and imperialism.
Expelled from his native country soon after "Gulag" came out, Solzhenitsyn's warning was also not always welcome in the West. Amid the trauma of Vietnam, many had begun to doubt the West's own moral purposes, or at least its staying power against Soviet discipline and aggression. "The timid civilized world has found nothing with which to oppose the onslaught of a sudden revival of barefaced barbarity, other than concessions and smiles," Solzhenitsyn warned in his acceptance speech for the 1970 Nobel literature prize.
Sweden refused to let him receive his Nobel at its embassy in Moscow and, after his exile amid the heyday of "detente," President Gerald Ford declined initially to meet with him. It was arguably the worst moment of Ford's Presidency, offset in part by AFL-CIO President George Meany's embrace of the Russian exile and Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson's invitation to speak on Capitol Hill.
For the rest of his life, Solzhenitsyn engaged in what he called "a struggle with falsehood," caring not a whit what his critics thought. His 1978 Harvard commencement speech solidified his reputation as a prickly recluse. But his diagnosis of threats to the West -- not least those from within -- remains bracing.
Solzhenitsyn warned of "an atmosphere of moral mediocrity, paralyzing man's noblest impulses," and a "tilt of freedom in the direction of evil . . . evidently born primarily out of a humanistic and benevolent concept according to which there is no evil inherent to human nature." His own prison-camp experience after World War II told him evil was all too real and had to be confronted.
However dourly Russian his warnings often were, Solzhenitsyn fortified the West with the truth and will to triumph in the Cold War. The great, inspiring irony of "Ivan Denisovich" is that it ends with Shukhov concluding that, even amid his icy prison, the day was "almost a happy one."
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