Even as a young boy, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn knew he wanted to be a writer and, as was perhaps fitting for any Russian born in 1918, the year after the Bolsheviks came to power, he wanted to use his pen to honor their revolution. By the age of 10, he was keeping a journal wherein he praised the revolution for, among other accomplishments, liquidating poverty. By 18, he was writing about the events leading to the Bolshevik Revolution, which he called the most earth-shaking event of modern world history—and he meant it admiringly. But then came World War II, military service, and an arrest for writing letters disparaging Stalin.

Sentenced to eight years in prison for his crime, Solzhenitsyn would later write gratefully of the sentence and of his experience in the Gulag, as we now know to call it, thanks largely to him. “I hate to think,” he says, “what sort of writer I would have become (for I would have gone on writing) if I had not been put inside.” The Solzhenitsyn Reader tells us what sort of writer he became. Unlike anyone before or after him, he ensured that the unimaginable horrors the Soviets inflicted on countless millions could now be imagined. But what a task he faced. The monster that was Soviet Communism endured so long and crushed so many lives in so many different ways. Doing justice to those lives meant telling many different stories.

Editors Edward E. Ericson and Daniel J. Mahoney, each of whom has written critically acclaimed books on Solzhenitsyn, say their goal is to make the broad sweep of his work available to English-speaking readers. What a daunting task they faced. The man has written plays, poems, short stories, memoirs, novels, historical analyses and multivolume works that cannot quite be placed in any of the previous categories. More than a quarter of the material they selected has never before appeared in English.

I was, I should admit, at first doubtful that the drama and intensity of Solzhenitsyn’s longer works would come across as powerfully in excerpted form, but I need not have worried. Whichever one you start with, whether it’s The First Circle, Cancer Ward, The Gulag Archipelago, or The Red Wheel, you are immediately absorbed into Solzhenitsyn’s world. In First Circle (newly translated and substantially different from the first English version published in the late 1960s, (which Solzhenitsyn “lightened” in an unsuccessful attempt to get by the censors), tension starts in the opening chapter as Innokentii Volodin, a Soviet diplomat in Moscow, debates whether to place a phone call to a Western embassy to warn that a Soviet spy in New York is about to pick up classified information on atomic technology. If he does as his conscience tells him, he knows it will likely mean, at best, the Gulag. Cancer Ward, another novel, tells the stories of patients and doctors in a medical clinic far from Moscow. It is as haunting as any selection in the book, particularly the chapters devoted to Oleg Kostoglotov. Like Solzhenitsyn, Oleg was a soldier, was in the camps, and was treated for cancer. When his treatment is finished, the former soldier-prisoner-patient is finally released into the outside world. He has little money, his clothes are shabby, and no family awaits him anywhere, yet he is overjoyed by the sights and sounds of his first day in this new world: “Whole months, years of life could not compare with today, this one supreme day.”

While First Circle and Cancer Ward have found large audiences, it is The Gulag Archipelago that made Solzhenitsyn known to the world and rocked the Soviet Union to its foundation. Yet it is not something he wanted to write. Ericson and Mahoney tell us he wrote it out of a sense of obligation to the zek nation, the millions destroyed in the Gulag. Unusual for this kind of work, there are no easy divides, with the fully humans inside the barbed wire and the brutal subhumans on the other side. Early on, he warns the reader not to expect that: “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?” Here, as in his other writings and in his speeches, the role of conscience is a recurring theme.

Inside the Gulag, the prisoner must decide whether he will survive “at any price,” that is, at the price of someone else. Though he acknowledges the majority of prisoners chose to survive at any price, he says many did not, and it was among these, the men of conscience, that he found his friends. When he is eventually freed from prison, he is an utterly changed man. The Gulag had destroyed his faith in Communism, but it restored the religious faith he had abandoned years before. In gratitude for that faith and the friendships he made, he bids a warm farewell to his home of eight years: “Bless you, prison, for having been in my life!”

Having completed the Gulag, Solzhenitsyn turned to other projects, including the work he envisioned as a young man of 18; only now his approach would be very different. The Red Wheel tells the story of the people and events responsible for the Russian revolution. He was in his seventies when he finally completed it (though not all of it has been translated into English). At 6,000 pages, it is a weighty but, from the chapters in this collection, an eminently rewarding undertaking. Solzhenitsyn has described it as “the chief artistic design of my life.”

Of the selections that appear for the first time in English, the ones that will probably attract the most attention are those from Two Hundred Years Together, a history of relations between Russians and Jews. He says he avoided the subject for a long time in the hope that someone else might do it. When no one did, he took on the task himself, even though he says writing about it was “like walking a razor’s edge.” Yet Solzhenitsyn seems to keep his balance. On the role of Jews among the Bolsheviks, he writes how many Russians view these Jews: “Those who wish to prove that the Revolution was un-Russian and of alien stock point to Jewish names and pseudonyms in an effort to clear Russians of blame.” Discussing how Jewish authors treat this subject, he says they “are unanimously of the opinion that these were not Jews in spirit. They were renegades.” Solzhenitsyn agrees. But he then goes on to ask whether a people—Jewish or Russian—should remember its renegades. He answers yes: Every “people must answer morally for all of its past—including that past which is shameful.” Jews and Russians, he says, must take responsibility for their renegades: “For if we release ourselves from any responsibility for the actions of our national kin, the very concept of a people loses any real meaning.” After reading the excerpts from Two Hundred Years Together, one comes away with the impression its most controversial aspect is that it has yet to find an English language publisher.

Also in the collection are many of Solzhenitsyn’s essays and speeches, including his speech accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature and the commencement address he gave at Harvard University. All are worthwhile because they show the man behind the artist. In February 1974, almost twenty years after his release from the Gulag, the Soviets again arrested him and, because he was too well known to kill, the next day expelled him from the country. On the day of his arrest, Solzhenitsyn somehow smuggled a message to his countrymen: “Live Not by Lies!” He implored them to attack the Soviet system at its most vulnerable point: it lies. It may not be, he said, “an easy choice for the body”—it may cost a person his comfortable apartment or even his job—but it is “the only one for the soul.”

In the West, Solzhenitsyn remained Solzhenitsyn. He began his commencement address at Harvard in 1978 by citing the university’s motto, Veritas. Truth seldom is sweet, he said, and then he proceeded to offer, “as a friend, not as an adversary,” some bitter truths, many of which remain as true today as when he uttered them almost thirty years ago. The most striking feature that an outside observer notices in the West, he said, was a “decline in courage,” particularly among the ruling and intellectual elites. But this decline was also marked by “occasional outbursts of boldness and inflexibility … when dealing with weak governments and with countries that lack support …” He also criticized the West for believing that all other countries “are but temporarily prevented (by wicked leaders or by their own barbarity and incomprehension) from pursuing Western pluralistic democracy and adopting the Western way of life.” The Harvard speech cooled America’s admiration for Solzhenitsyn. The New York Times dismissed him as “dangerous” and a “zealot.” The Washington Post sniffed that his views were “very Russian.” George W. Bush is not on record as having any comment on the speech, but no doubt he would have accused Solzhenitsyn of hating America for its freedom.

During his 20 years in the West, 18 of which were spent in Cavendish, Vermont, Solzhenitsyn never ceased offering his truths, about Communism as well as about the spiritual dimensions of man’s life. Technological progress, he acknowledged, had brought man many benefits, many possessions, but he said the endless accumulation of possessions would not bring man fulfillment. Discerning individuals realized that possessions must be subordinated to higher principles. The meaning of earthly existence, he writes in The Gulag Archipelago, “lies not, as we have grown used to thinking, in prospering, but … in the development of the soul.”

In February 1994, following the collapse of the Soviet Union—a collapse, by the way, he had been predicting for years—Solzhenitsyn bid farewell to the people of Cavendish: “Exile is always difficult, and yet I could not imagine a better place to live and wait for my return home than Cavendish, Vermont.”

In May 1994, he arrived back in Russia to a hero’s welcome that he undoubtedly didn’t believe he deserved. Readers of this book will know better. 

Kevin Lynch, a former articles editor of National Review, lives in Arlington, Va.

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