The world justly celebrates the life of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a great man whose work and witness seems most aptly summed up in a single word: prophetic. But, as prophets are in a habit of doing, he made some people feel the needle who were sure they didn’t deserve it. This was especially so for Western liberals who, in the eyes of Solzhenitsyn, were indifferent to – if not supportive of – communist oppression.
Indeed, there was something in Solzhenitsyn to offend just about anyone, East or West, liberal or conservative, who denied or avoided spiritual realities and moral truths in favor of comfort, worldly success, and a too-easy accommodation with anything that smacked of lies. The writer died on August 3 in Moscow at the age of 89.
Solzhenitsyn had a reputation as “a prophet of freedom,” according to the Rutland (Vt.) Herald, published not far from where Solzhenitsyn took up residence after his banishment from the Soviet Union. But the paper drily observed that "interest in his work and his pronouncements fell off, and though the Russian people celebrated his return in 1994, the severity of his moral judgments about his homeland and about the West caused his influence to wane." The New York Times obituary, citing Solzhenitsyn’s 1978 Harvard address, said the writer’s “rare public appearances could turn into hectoring jeremiads.” The Los Angeles Times, without offering evidence, decreed that Solzhenitsyn’s reputation “dimmed after his repatriation and his diatribes on the denigration of his nation that were at times tainted with paranoia, anti-Semitism, and bigotry.”
What, exactly, was the content of these “diatribes” and “jeremiads”? At Harvard, Solzhenitsyn denounced the “the Western way of life” for its shallowness and mass produced culture, and heaped scorn on an epidemic of “TV stupor and … intolerable music.” (Post-communist Russia has enthusiastically embraced this culture.) But he reserved his sharpest criticism for Western political culture and its secularized intelligentsia, a word of Russian coinage that with Solzhenitsyn carried associations of an effete, self-serving, and mediocre subculture. He charged that Western society “has lost its civil courage, both as a whole and separately, in each country, each government, each political party and of course in the United Nations. Such a decline in courage is particularly noticeable among the ruling groups and the intellectual elite, causing an impression of loss of courage by the entire society.”
Solzhenitsyn accused the American anti-war movement of complicity in the genocides that followed in Southeast Asia after the U.S. military withdrew from Vietnam. He asked: “If a full-fledged America suffered a real defeat from a small communist half-country, how can the West hope to stand firm in the future?” And he laid a heavy charge: "The communist regime in the East could stand and grow due to the enthusiastic support from an enormous number of Western intellectuals who felt a kinship and refused to see communism's crimes."
Writing in 1985, Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz said this accusation “was a species of treason that the liberal intellectuals of the West were not quite so ready to forgive.” And what of the charges of bigotry leveled at Solzhenitsyn? Podhoretz asserted that “the charge of anti-Semitism rests almost entirely on negative evidence. That is, while there is no clear sign of positive hostility toward Jews in Solzhenitsyn’s books, neither is there much sympathy.” Yet, this was also a man who wrote, in defense of the virtues of the nation-state, that “the miraculous birth and consolidation of Israel after two thousand years of dispersal is only the most striking of a multitude of examples.”
Solzhenitsyn’s mission to expose the horrors of Soviet totalitarianism did not lead to support for other forms of government that he believed were unsuited to Russia, with its long experience of autocracy. This non-conversion to Western democracy also earned him the enmity of progressive elites and not a few conservatives. But Solzhenitsyn was never bound by ideology.
What is ideology? It is defined by French historian Alain Besancon as “a doctrine that, in exchange for conversion, promises a temporal salvation that … requires a political practice aimed at radically transforming society.” This definition holds equally true for the two most destructive political ideologies of the 20th century: fascism and communism.
Solzhenitsyn’s critique of modern societies went much deeper than ideology. He drew from a Christian moral tradition, not a political platform. He yearned for a “moral doctrine of the value of the individual as the key to the solution of the social problems.”
The solution for Russia, he wrote in 1974, lay in its willingness to take on a “deliberate, voluntary sacrifice,” not in the name of a collective society but by each and every person, uniquely made in the image of God:
A society so vicious and polluted, implicated in so many of the crimes of these last 50 years – by its lies, by its servility either willingly or enforced, by its eagerness to assist or its cowardly restraint – such a society can only be cured and purified by passing through a spiritual filter. And this filter is a terrible one, with holes as fine as the eye of a needle, each big enough for only one person.
Solzhenitsyn understood this as a national spiritual renewal – even spiritual battle. This, he believed, was how a sick society gained the path to moral soundness. Material well-being, intellectual accomplishments, technological breakthroughs, and captivating new ideologies would not cure the sickness.
In some quarters, Solzhenitsyn’s uncompromising vision didn’t win him any friends. But he had often laid his life on the line for what he believed, and the carping of the intelligentsia was a small thing. Anyway, prophets aren’t interested in popularity contests.