(Raymond J., Father de Souza)
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Russian Nobel laureate who died Sunday, was born in 1918, a year after Lenin's revolution hijacked a historic nation in service of a corrupt modern ideology. Solzhenitsyn would outlive communism in Russia; the Soviet Union died in 1991, the Russian patriot in 2008.
Vindication is rarely so complete in a single lifetime, even one nearly 90 years long. The Soviet gulag in which Solzhenitsyn had been imprisoned for his anti-communism was dismantled in the 1980s; the entire empire would itself be dismantled soon after. To that happy end, Solzhenitsyn made a decisive contribution.
By the time The Gulag Archipelago was published in Paris in 1973, anti-communism in the West was well-established as a geopolitical and military phenomenon. Yet Solzhenitsyn was a critical voice adding another, more profound dimension -namely, that communism was a moral failure, wicked to its core. Apologists for communism who argued that this massacre or that labour camp were only abuses in an otherwise noble project were thoroughly discredited by the sheer volume of details that Solzhenitsyn produced. His argument was that communism needed the gulag, not as some ancillary measure, but as the logical consequence of its assault on human conscience, dignity and liberty. When Ronald Reagan delivered his evil empire speech ten years after The Gulag Archipelago was published, he was summarizing Solzhenitsyn's argument. Communism was not only economically inefficient, politically destabilizing and imperially expansive--it was evil.
Solzhenitsyn's insistence on this moral dimension accounts for the sometime ambivalence of his reception, both in the West and in his native Russia. Had he been a simple libertarian inveighing against totalitarianism, he would have been easily categorized and easily celebrated. But he was no enthusiast for an easy liberty. Solzhenitsyn never argued for mere laws that recognized liberty, but for a culture that was a worthy end for the energies of a free people.
"I have spent all my life under a communist regime and I will tell you that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed," he said in his famous address at Harvard in 1978. "But a society with no other scale but the legal one is not quite worthy of man either. A society which is based on the letter of the law and never reaches any higher is taking very scarce advantage of the high level of human possibilities. The letter of the law is too cold and formal to have a beneficial influence on society. Whenever the tissue of life is woven of legalistic relations, there is an atmosphere of moral mediocrity, paralyzing man's noblest impulses."
The argument that Solzhenitsyn made at Harvard -the argument he brought with him into his American exile -- was that it is not merely enough to be free, but that freedom must have a purpose. A society that seeks to secure freedoms in law, but nothing more than that, is aiming too low. To be sure, it is better to have freedom than not, but the mere capacity to choose freely does not correspond to our noblest aspirations. It matters what we choose -- that we choose wisely that which is good, and just, and worthy and beautiful.
Not caring what is chosen, but revelling in the capacity to choose from an ever-expanding array of choices is decadence and corrupting of virtue. That is what Solzhenitsyn argued 30 years ago at Harvard, and he continued that argument in Russia after his triumphant return in 1994. The uncritical embrace of all freedoms, without a corresponding sense of responsibility for what had been chosen, created a new Russia in which much of what was chosen was very corrupt indeed. Solzhenitsyn seemed out of step with the Russia he rediscovered, and perhaps he was unsympathetic to those who were more completely destroyed by the ravages of communism. It was Solzhenitsyn's heroic mission to fight communism his whole life, and he emerged purified. Most of his fellow Russians were simply pulverized by the wickedness they suffered. Their aspirations no longer had much nobility about them.
Solzhenitsyn offered a cultural, moral and religious argument against communism. That communism was eventually defeated not principally by force of arms confirmed both his diagnosis and his therapy. On the great question of his time, he was among the few who saw the problem correctly. And he was among the fewer still who found the right solution.
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