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Ignat Solzhenitsyn At Notre Dame

Welcome to my live blogging from the University of Notre Dame, where scholar Daniel Mahoney is interviewing Ignat Solzhenitsyn, the conductor and musician who is the second son of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. This is the kickoff event for the university’s Center for Ethics and Culture’s annual Fall Conference. 

I’m going to blog notes and observations from the interview. If you’re just tuning in (it’s 8:26 pm CDT on Thursday night), check out the livestream. I’ll be making notes, though, for those who miss it:

UPDATE: IS reminds the audience that his father wrote “bless you, gulag, for having been in my life” for what his suffering did for him to convert him. IS says that his grandmother — his father’s mother — was devoutly Orthodox, and tried to raise him that way. But by Young Pioneer age, he had been compromised by “the inevitable” — that is, he became a communist.

In the gulag, though, he found he was able to speak freely because he had nothing more to lose. “Without that opportunity to be schooled and to be reminded of the greater truths and the outright lie that dominated — that was the essence of Soviet society — a man like Solzhenitsyn would have still been a writer” but would not have become the man he did.

IS: “For so many people the formative years tend to be the teenage years. Really, for Solzhenitsyn, it was his mid and late 20s. It was that time in prison. All of those aspects of his ignorance, or blindness as he came to see it, were revealed to him at that point — with regard to faith, with regard to Russian history, which by then were really the animating passions of his life.”

“Already at 10 years old, he knew that Russian history had to be dug out somehow. But he didn’t know how.”

UPDATE.2: Mahoney says that The Gulag Archipelago is taught in Russian high schools. There’s a certain difficulty in coming to terms with it. It’s possible for people to interpret it in a too-narrow political sense, e.g., “That’s the past, that’s the Soviet Union, it’s gone.” But it seems to me that George Kennan was right in 1975 when he said that TGA is the greatest indictment of a political regime ever written. But Solzhenitsyn says, “If you think that this book is a mere political indictment, slam the covers shut.” Both, says Mahoney, are true.

Mahoney quotes the famous passage in which AS says the line between good and evil passes through the heart of every human being, and who wants to cut out part of his own heart? The author’s point is that anybody is capable of being the creators of the gulag, and the imprisoners. Mahoney also adds that AS’s widow says TGA is “an epic poem” of the human soul.

IS: “What Solzhenitsyn is interested in primarily is who we are, and how it can be that we perpetrate such acts upon each other. And yes, not that the bad people do it and the good people suffer, but that each one of us has that capability. His experience taught him that it did not take very much to push a person into that darker side. It did not have to be unspeakable torture, which was routine and commonplace in certain Soviet periods. It did not have to be too much in terms of loss — loss of position, loss of family, and so forth — to see what man is capable of. If only it were just the communists. Communism is a specific evil that’s a subspecies of something larger, and that’s what interested him.”

UPDATE.3: Mahoney asks IS to address the belief many in the West have that his father was anti-Western. This, from his famous Harvard speech in 1974 1978, in which he criticized the West, though AS said he was criticizing the West as a friend to it.

IS: “First of all, what is the weakness of the West? Primarily at that moment it was the domino effect of the communist red wave sweeping across the world. So much of the focus in the Cold War was on Europe, but it wasn’t only Europe. It was Africa, Vietnam, Latin America, and so forth. In Europe, Portugal and Greece on the brink. It was very much up for grabs how quickly communism would spread, and indeed [if] if would win. Plus there was a time of what is universally recognized now, in America, was ‘malaise.’ … It was not a time of Western confidence in its own civilization. … In one sense this was a warning to the West: ‘Wake up! You don’t know what you’re dealing with. Too many of you are asleep at the switch.'”

“Another aspect was his sense that the Russian path had, already for a thousand years, let’s not say messianic, let’s not say unique, but the point is it was its own path He wanted to open some space for Russia to develop as it survived communism, and to build some kind of post-communist future. That Russia should not blindly imitate what comes from the West.”

“The final piece of the puzzle is in the Harvard Address most clearly, and most famously, he studies that common heritage of humanism and communism — two lungs of the same organism. That’s what he suspected, and I think time has proven him correct. Not that they were the same thing, but that they had something in common.”

Mahoney: AS said so many Western intellectuals were sympathetic to Soviet communism because they saw it as a more complete version of anthropomorphic humanism.

UPDATE.4: Mahoney reminds the audience that Solzhenitsyn had a lot of admiration and respect for John Paul II, the Slavic pope.

IS: “For S., and I think for every person from under the communist yoke, his election really was seen as a miracle. To have a man who already had such a track record of strength and courage and unwillingness to compromise on what really mattered.”

“He was a great man, and someone who Solzhenitsyn admired without reservation.”

Mahoney says that AS was upset that so many people in the West believed that the Russian people were the same thing as the Bolsheviks, as the communists. Mahoney says he’s on the board of National Review magazine, and he’s constantly struggling with fellow US conservatives to have some sympathy for Russia, and not to see contemporary Russia as simply a new version of the Soviet Union. Mahoney says few people in the West really understand the good things that have happened and are happening in Russia. Why is that?

IS: “It’s a profoundly vexing question, to which I don’t have an answer, but it does lead one to ask in turn whether the enemy really was communism. Now, on the left, I think it’s a different conversation. … But on the right, American conservatives and centrists — anyone who wasn’t a fellow traveler of communism — one thought stood against communism, stood against militant atheism, and so on. The lack of free markets, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, etc, etc. If that was the case, why has almost nothing changed since the Cold War? Either that means Russia hasn’t changed, which is manifestly not true, or it means that the real enemy was always Russia — the geopolitical space.”

Mahoney: Part of it is the cultural divide. Russia today is worried about transgenderism, gay marriage, all the things that are seen as the advance edge of postmodernity and progress.

IS: “I can’t resist saying that President Obama was against all those things in 2013.”

IS goes on to say that while it’s true that AS believed that Russians were in a sense the first victim of communism, but he also believed that Russians were also the first perpetrators of communism. The great shame of Russians of Solzhenitsyn’s generation was Budapest 1954 1956 and Prague 1968. “He felt profound guilt as a Russian for the evil we’ve brought to all these people in Europe, and for that matter in Asia and elsewhere. But he also thought that we Russians have the right to say that we’ve suffered — yes, from ourselves, we did this to ourselves, but don’t deny us.”

UPDATE.5: Now questions and answers from the audience.

A Chilean professor asks about an AS passage about the cowardice of the West, “that people don’t dare say the truth.” He goes on to ask in Ignat’s opinion, “Which truths are being suppressed today, and that we are being cowards not to tell the truth?”

IS: “Truths about who we are. The nature of humanity, the nature of the human condition. How, I suppose he would say, how little we change, even as our history involves, and our technology moves forward, and we supposedly live better and better.”

[Note from Rod: He totally dodged that question! Which is pretty interesting, if you think about it.]

New question: What advice would AS give to young Russians today?

IS: “Don’t be so quick to cast off entirely this patrimony that, through this whole nightmare of the Soviet years, somehow you still inherited. Don’t assume that everything that comes from the West is worthy of imitation. … Allow some room for an original Russian way, modest as it might be.”

New question: What about your father’s dealings with Gorbachev?

IS: “He did not think much of Gorbachev, it’s not secret. Although history gives all of us perspective as we live on. In certain ways, Gorbachev has looked better to Russians. He’s always looked great in the West. … I don’t think they ever met. Certainly there was no substantive meeting. Gorbachev actively resisted not just the return to Solzhenitsyn’s citizenship and right to return, but most importantly to him the publication of his books. He fought tooth and nail for that not to happen, until finally, as in so many things, he gave in to the enormous pressure.”

Said that as late as 1989 Gorbachev was still saying that Solzhenitsyn has no place in Russian society.

New question: “Theology, history and literature are important to any culture. Which of those three would your father say is most important in rebuilding a Russian cultural identity in the wake of communism?”

IS: “I think for a writer, the language was always first and foremost. He writes about that in several essays: so much of what defines a person, despite protestations to the contrary, is nationhood. What defines nationhood is not blood, but is identity. Actually Solzhenitsyn believed strongly that being Russian, or Jewish, or American, or anything, was more than anything self-identification. Who do I love? Where do I belong? Language, literature … he was no theologian, but of course he recognized the importance of theology. On history, he was a historian by default. I doubt he would agree to removing any of those three.”

Mahoney said that we Christians see the Christian themes in AS’s work, but he was really reticent to lay out theological beliefs. He was “a partisan of the soul, but not a theologian.”

New question: “Do you think your father would see the East and the West as fundamentally reconcilable in theology and culture?”

IS: “Absolutely, yes. Two sides of the same being, two lungs of the same organism. Unlike Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn didn’t see this unrelated path for Russia, that ‘everybody leave us alone, and we’ll leave everybody else alone.’ No.” Said Solzhenitsyn would have thought about a “partnership” with the West. A 1994 Forbes interview in which AS spoke of “the coming realignment of the world” as it seemed to him, in which the West may need Russia as an ally in the face of other rising forces in the world.

“Russia and the West have a shared, if not a fused, destiny. At least I would like to think so.”



about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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