Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, R.I.P.

This past weekend, one of the greatest literary figures of modern times passed away at the age of 89.

In 1918, one year after the Bolshevik Revolution ushered in the Communist Era, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was born in the Russian town of Kislovodsk. His father was killed in a hunting accident before he was born, and his grandparents’ property was seized by the Communists and turned into a government-run farm by the time he turned 12.

Near the end of World War II, Solzhenitsyn was arrested for criticizing Soviet war conduct in a private letter written to a friend. After being beaten and interrogated, he was sentenced, in his absence, to 8 years of imprisonment in Siberian labor camps. During those years he became fiercely opposed to Communism, and in the years following his release he began to spend his nights writing a novel – One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich – that depicted life as a Soviet political prisoner.

Because of his criticism, Solzhenitsyn was stripped of his citizenship and deported to West Germany. He eventually moved to the United States, settling in Vermont in 1976 and remaining there for 18 years, during which his books achieved their greatest international renown. Many of them had been secretly written in the U.S.S.R. without being published there. His most famous, The Gulag Archipelago, gave a name to the U.S.S.R.'s labor camp system and finally made its evils well-known throughout the West.

Despite being a strident anti-Communist who lived in America for so long and praised the fact that in America “you can be free,” Solzhenitsyn was Russian to the core in all things cultural. He harbored deep love for his native land and its people, while his loathing was reserved for the Soviet government which sought to cage the human spirit. After the U.S.S.R. collapsed, he returned to Russia in 1994 and observed how decades of Communist rule had ravaged Russia’s national soul and infused it with a sense of hopelessness. Devoutly religious, he spoke out against the spiritual emptiness brought on by the fact that religion was outlawed during all those years of Communism.

And though Solzhenitsyn was constantly on the offensive against Communism, he did not shy from criticizing Western society as well. His religious faith led him to denounce the moral vacuum that results when people focus on the material rather than the spiritual, as he saw happening in the West.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn will be buried tomorrow in Moscow. Here are some of the things he had to say in his remarkable life:

It is characteristic that Communism is so devoid of arguments that it has none to advance against its opponents…It lacks arguments and hence there is the club, the concentration camp, the insane asylum…Communism has never concealed the fact that it rejects all absolute concepts of morality, it scoffs at any consideration of “good” and “evil” as indisputable categories…Communism is anti-humanity.

…humanity is separated from the animal world by thought and speech and they should naturally be free. If they are fettered, we go back to being animals.

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

Literature transmits incontrovertible condensed experience…from generation to generation. In this way literature becomes the living memory of a nation.

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. But a society with no other scale but the legal one is also less than worthy of man. A society based on the letter of the law and never reaching higher fails to take advantage of the full range 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 relationships, this creates an atmosphere of spiritual mediocrity that paralyzes man’s noblest impulses.

…truth eludes us if we do not concentrate with total attention on its pursuit. And even while it eludes us, the illusion still lingers of knowing it and leads to many misunderstandings. Also, truth is seldom pleasant; it is almost invariably bitter.

Violence finds its only refuge in falsehood, falsehood its only support in violence.

No comments: