To die of natural causes at the age of 89 in his home near Moscow, as he did on Sunday, Alexander Solzhenitsyn had to beat nearly insuperable odds. The Nobel Prize-winning writer first had to survive Hitler, whose invading hordes he resisted during the Second World War as a frontline officer. Next he had to survive Stalin, who (for a careless remark in a private letter)made the highly decorated artilleryman a guest in his nightmarish system of labour camps for eight years after the war. And when he was released into internal exile following Stalin's death in 1953, Solzhenitsyn had to survive being treated for stomach cancer in Kazakhstan.
The Soviet regime killed millions who could and would have done it no harm, yet failed to kill one who could and did. The tyrant paid a price for his oversight. Among the individuals who played a key role in pulling down applied Marxism's hideous house of cards, probably only Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II and (inadvertently) Mikhail Gorbachev did more than Solzhenitsyn.
The existence of the gulag wasn't a secret, but until Solzhenitsyn described it in fiction and in fact, it remained an abstraction, expressed in vague or purely geographical terms, such as sending people "to Siberia." This reduced the all-pervasive terror of Soviet reality to something shadowy, unreal, mythic and deniable. By naming evil and giving it a detailed, clinical description, Solzhenitsyn made it visible and vulnerable.
As a writer, Solzhenitsyn combined the eye of a visual artist with the voice of an Old Testament prophet. The chronicler of the gulag was capable of subtleties but had little time for them. In the presence of villainy, he uttered maledictions. Solzhenitsyn was Jeremiah, with a touch of Dante added for good measure, except his inferno wasn't imaginary. His relentless thunder shattered the facade of righteousness the Soviet system had managed to hide behind for decades, at home as well as abroad.
Not content to announce that the emperor had no clothes, Solzhenitsyn painted him in all his ugly nakedness. First he did so for the evil empire's own subjects during the "thaw" of the Khrushchev years in his fictional One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and later for the entire world in his factual The Gulag Archipelago, a monumental work, whose last two volumes he finished only during his American exile.
Solzhenitsyn's tale of Ivan Denisovich's day in the gulag, published in the Soviet Union in 1962, was probably the second blow of the trumpet that would eventually make Jericho's walls come tumbling down. (The first was Khrushchev's "secret" speech to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party in 1956, followed by the Hungarian uprising in the same year.) Khrushchev's thaw was succeeded by Leonid Brezhnev's freeze, but Stalin's deep-freeze never returned to the Soviet Union. Under Stalin, Solzhenitsyn couldn't have published books like The First Circle or Cancer Ward, not to mention Volume One of The Gulag Archipelago, and if he had somehow managed to have any of them printed abroad, they would have cost him his life. Under Brezhnev, they only cost him his citizenship. Expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974, Solzhenitsyn spent the next 20 years in America.
It wasn't a happy sojourn. Solzhenitsyn, much as he despised the Soviet system, wasn't a Vladimir Nabokov, a man of the world with Russian roots. Far from being a cosmopolitan, Solzhenitsyn was a Russian patriot. Even more to the point, in addition to being a Russian exiled to America, Solzhenitsyn was a spiritual man exiled to a material century. His main quarrel wasn't with Stalin but with Erasmus of Rotterdam. He viewed the communist system he despised as an inevitable outcome of humanism. As he told Harvard University's baffled students in a famous 1978 address, the West's mistake was "at the root, at the very basis of human thinking in the past centuries [which] could be defined as rationalistic humanism or humanistic autonomy.
"I refer to the prevailing Western view of the world which was first born during the Renaissance and found its political expression from the period of the Enlightenment," Solzhenitsyn told his astonished Harvard audience, who could barely cope with anticommunism, let alone anti-anthropocentricity. No one was surprised when in 1994 Solzhenitsyn ended his American exile and returned to his native land he had done so much to liberate. Some even said good riddance, though only sotto voce.
To be a great poet it helps to be a schizophrenic; to be a great writer it helps to be Russian. Still, so few can narrate seminal stories in memorable ways that the odds are stacked even against compatriots of the incomparable Nabokov. Russian or not, writers rarely come up with defining tales like Gogol's The Overcoat or Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. The Nobel laureate's collected works show that while an artist doesn't have to be a Renaissance man or a humanist to excel, he had better be on speaking terms with the gods.
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