Truth In Exile
Solzhenitsyn spent his exile in America, but he was always Russian, and never Soviet.
Between Two Millstones: Exile in America, 1978-1994, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Notre Dame, 584 pages
When you read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn you know that you are reading and being read by one of the greatest men of the bloody 20th century. The second volume of Solzhenitsyn’s memoirs about his time in the West, Between Two Millstones, recently published by Notre Dame Press, starts with Solzhenitsyn in America in his newly built home, “Five Brooks,” in Cavendish, Vermont, with his tireless wife, Natalia “Alya,” and three sons, Dmitri, Ignat, and Yermolai. During this time, Solzhenitsyn fulfilled his life’s work “to uphold the history of Russia in undistorted form and to protect Russia’s future paths.” In icy, rural Vermont, he would write the ten-volume Red Wheel, a historically informed literary investigation of the events leading to the Soviet revolution.
It was also a time of substantial happiness and meaning for Solzhenitsyn. Alya proved indispensable to his writing by editing closely and typesetting every volume. She was a tremendous friend, as well, to persecuted and suffering Russians by helping direct what was an illegal charitable fund inside the Soviet Union established to aid political prisoners and their families. Solzhenitsyn donated the full royalties from The Gulag Archipelago, which sold tens of millions of copies globally, to fund the organization. Though they were persecuted and imprisoned by Soviet authorities, the fund’s agents persevered in their mission, and it is still operating today, primarily in educational work.
The memoir title alone bears meaning here. Solzhenitsyn reports that he lived between two millstones, painfully grinding him. His perennial “Bolshevik enemies are now joined by the hostile pseudo-intellectuals of both East and West and, it appears, even more powerful circles.” So constant and aggressive were the harangues and slanders, that Solzhenitsyn observes they colored American freedom in a dark light: “here, in America, I am not genuinely free, but again caged.” He didn’t face imprisonment or official persecution, but Solzhenitsyn definitely experienced ideological resistance and a systematic misrepresentation of his writings.
But he wouldn’t be muzzled. In Between Two Millstones, he condemns both communism and the Soviet Union outright, while defending the Russian nation as a fundamentally good and decent civilization, seized and pillaged by a savage regime. We learn in the memoir that even at the end of the Soviet regime, Premier Mikhail Gorbachev refused permission to publishers to print and distribute his writings. Gorbachev knew that Solzhenitsyn’s writings existentially indicted the Soviet Union. As the Central Committee’s head of Ideology, Vadim Medvedev, remarked, “To publish Solzhenitsyn is to undermine the foundations on which our present life rests.” Truer words…
He is also frank. Solzhenitsyn never hesitated to reveal to his readers the truth of things, including his own soul. Many of the western thinkers and journalists who pilloried Solzhenitsyn did not think that the Soviet Union promised the best future for mankind. But they did put their trust in an evolutionary progressiveness, which contained no space for traditional faith, patriotism, family, and decentralized conceptions of democracy. In short, Solzhenitsyn’s basic loves and principles were inconceivable to them, save as irrational despotic longings. They rushed to the worst judgments, refusing to consider context, depth of history, or that political liberty may not simply be a product of the rationalist Enlightenment project. Most of Solzhenitsyn’s enemies, communist and otherwise, were in thrall to ideology and literary politics.
In the chapter “Ordeal by Tawdriness,” Solzhenitsyn details numerous vituperative attacks launched against him by a range of leftists, Russian émigrés, and western accomplices alleging tyrannical elements in his personality and writings. The most repeated and damaging line was that Solzhenitsyn was an anti-Semite. His steadfast appreciation and support of Israel—hardly the views of an anti-Semitic figure—were ignored. It took a lightning rod 1985 essay “The Terrible Question of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn” by Norman Podhoretz in Commentary to point out that whatever Solzhenitsyn’s problems might be, anti-Semitism wasn’t one of them.
The most harrowing of these incidents featured western media employing Soviet-like tactics in an assault on Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914, the first of The Red Wheel volumes. The example is worth dwelling on because it reveals the intensity of the opposition to Solzhenitsyn and contains lessons for how despotic practices can internally shape the politics of free countries.
Publicly funded Radio Liberty in 1984 permitted Dartmouth College professor Lev Loseff to read his review of August 1914 over the airwaves that were broadcast in the Soviet Union. Loseff’s stretched essay contained strange ruminations on Solzhenitsyn’s account of the assassination of Russian patriot and Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin (1906-1911) by Dmitri Bogrov. Loseff ventured that Solzhenitsyn had depicted the Jewish Bogrov as a snake, “In the image of the snake that has bitten and killed the Slav knight, the anti-Semite will have no trouble seeing a parallel with the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” But such depiction was only in Loseff’s mind, not the text. The total lack of textual reference in the novel to the Protocols made Loseff’s reference a bizarre, if not calculated attempt to support a charge of anti-Jewish thinking. Solzhenitsyn quickly faced withering fire as leading newspapers, publications, and news programs discussed his actual anti-Semitism without skepticism or nuance.
Solzhenitsyn, certain voices claimed, had used Reagan’s federal government and Radio Liberty for his anti-Semitic purposes. Specifically, the charge was “that Radio Liberty had somehow broadcast into the USSR (at the American taxpayer’s expense) sympathy with the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” There was, however, the matter of truth. The book had been published only in France and had not been released in an English language version. None of the American voices rushing to condemn it had likely read it. The Washington Post commissioned professor John Glad to translate the disputed bits for anti-Semitic language. He concluded he “found no grounds for accusing Solzhenitsyn of anti-Semitism.” But this judgment didn’t stick. Newspapers continued to make damning charges predicated on an inaccurate review of a book that no one in America had read. Still, the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee considered the charges in a hearing led by Senator Claiborne Pell. The committee met for a single day, March 29, 1985, questioned numerous witnesses, and concluded with little to show for it. James Buckley, Director of the Joint Radio Stations, assured the committee that Radio Liberty’s programs were of great interest to Jewish listeners. Frank Shakespeare, Director of the Board of International Broadcasters, stated that Radio Liberty would have lost credibility by not featuring Solzhenitsyn’s work. However, the impact of this fiasco greenlighted a near ceaseless run of pieces alleging Solzhenitsyn’s anti-Semitism.
Solzhenitsyn drew the appropriate conclusion: the western media was now aping propaganda techniques of the KGB—i.e., condemning books that had not been read or even discussed and “sticking crude political labels onto complex works of literature.” When the English language version finally appeared, the critical appraisals of the book were largely positive and appreciative of the wisdom and humility in the book. But it was already too late. Call it Cold War cancel culture. The episode was also a foreshadowing of the control political correctness would exercise over public discourse in America in the post-Cold War period.
There were, fortunately, numerous favorable speaking and guest invitations issued to Solzhenitsyn during his exile. A remarkable chapter, “Around Three Islands,” details his visits to Japan, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom. Solzhenitsyn referred to Taiwan as Free China, and it is clear from the reception he receives that he was highly regarded there. After delivering a speech, he wonders if he accomplished anything visiting Taiwan. Then in the next sentence we learn that The Gulag Archipelago became required reading in Taiwanese high schools after his visit. Russian high schools have the same pedagogical requirement. Solzhenitsyn sowed seeds that he would not reap. He also knew this, noting that “The Red Wheel’s time will come, and no one will be able to contest its picture of the Revolution.” That observation came in 1987 on the heels of the Washington Post and New York Times publishing pieces that questioned if the old man from Russia was still relevant. The truth was that Solzhenitsyn had finally managed, more or less, by the mid-1980s to turn inward and focus on his work, which did not involve answering every charge against him or constantly responding to interview requests. His relative silence surely irked major press outlets.
Solzhenitsyn’s trip to Britain in 1983 was to receive the Templeton Prize in London, personally awarded to him by the Duke of Edinburgh. There he met with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and then Prince Charles and Lady Diana. When Solzhenitsyn attended Russian Orthodox Easter services in London with Alya, Bishop Constantine insisted that he carry an icon depicting the descent into hell for the Easter Procession. Almost immediately a photographer from the London Times snapped a photograph and presented Solzhenitsyn on the front page in almost caricature form as an odd zealot eagerly practicing his faith in the United Kingdom, as soon as he arrived. He also gave an unplanned speech at Eton after returning from an unplanned trip to the Scottish Highlands. He sent a note later to Prince Charles from Vermont: “My wife and I took a very warm feeling away from our meeting with you, and we are genuinely moved by your fate. I would like to hope that the darkest of predictions when talking to you do not come true.” Solzhenitsyn’s Templeton Prize address was his most dramatic statement about religion and the gifts man owes to creation and to his fellow man because of what he has received from God and the evil that flows from self-deification. It impressed Prince Philip greatly, who later sent a note to Aleksandr: “You still have allies in the West.”
Solzhenitsyn would not stay in the West nor did he accept American citizenship, despite the practical benefits it would have offered him. He was Russian. The only question is when could he return to Russia and would there be anything left to return to as the Soviet regime lost its legitimacy. Russia was now living through February 1917 again, but in a new way, unleashed by Gorbachev and hurled into motion by Yeltsin. He was no friend of Gorbachev, and Solzhenitsyn only circumstantially supported Yeltsin. Solzhenitsyn affirmed Gorbachev’s Glasnost because writers were able to speak more freely. However, both men, Solzhenitsyn thought, had compromised Russia severely in their reform efforts, performed in top-down Bolshevik style whose benefits flowed to regime bigwigs and not to the people at large.
Solzhenitsyn referred to Yeltsin’s disastrous attempts in 1992 to sell state assets to private ownership for more efficient and productive organization as the Russian Catastrophe. Instead, these assets ended up in the hands of oligarchs who were unrepentant communists and who thought they would benefit more from a pseudo-market economy than a communist one. Their gains took away any real chance for stability and peace. Yeltsin removed price controls in markets controlled by monopoly producers. The life of Russia fell apart as its education, health care, culture, morality, and science imploded. Mortality rates for this period spiked. Birth rates plummeted.
It was a horrific price to pay at the end of communism. One might sense that communism’s deprivations of the human soul in Russia had been so severe that freedom and virtue would only be recovered slowly.
Solzhenitsyn had written “Rebuilding Russia” in 1990 for the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda for precisely this moment. In it, he recovered the Russian traditions of small and local democratic government, the art of representation, and indirect election methods that Publius would certainly understand. Solzhenitsyn underscored the habits of citizenship and drew from the rich tradition of western political thought to do so, but he stated that the Russian experience would need to be woven into these western ideas about liberty. He observed that the breakup of Greater Russia with the loss of Ukraine and Byelorussia was done in an arbitrary way, but Solzhenitsyn thought they had a right to leave. The real focus was on Russia resuming and building on its betrayed tradition.
But “Rebuilding Russia” was not heeded, nor was his work widely known or absorbed in the Russian mind at that time. The authorities’ “long years of propaganda against me,” he writes in Two Millstones, had largely worked and “sank its venomous claws, its lies, into so many trusting souls.” He notes that the responses he received after his words started to appear in Russia indicated “[a]lmost no one, even now, saw me as I really was, especially in the full context of my works.”
Solzhenitsyn returned from exile in 1994 to a demoralized and depleted Russia. The memoir doesn’t dwell on the conditions the nation sank to under Yeltsin, which were abysmal. It closes with his hope that Russia will again flourish: “The deep furrows that History has plowed across Russia are unswerving, and that unfailing purpose will eventually appear. Appear later, some kind of long-term effect, after I am gone.” A life spent at war, in Soviet prison camps, isolation and house arrest, and later exile, found its poetry and prose in its suffering and in love. Solzhenitsyn had voiced in The Gulag Archipelago that the primacy of the good prevails over evil ultimately because it is greater in form than its opposite.
Solzhenitsyn’s hope, his lack of hatred despite everything forced on him, was built on faith because “there is no way to escape the truth.”
Richard M. Reinsch II is editor of Law & Liberty, host of the podcast Liberty Law Talk, and coauthor with Peter Augustine Lawler of A Constitution in Full (Kansas Press, 2019).