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Solzhenitsyn Wasn’t Western

The Soviet dissident was Russian and Orthodox to the bone—and no admirer of liberal democracy.

In Invisible Allies, his tribute to those Russians who, at considerable risk to themselves, helped to further his work while he was under constant surveillance by the KGB, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn told of the support that came his way with the publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich—and how soon it was withdrawn. “Throughout this time,” he wrote, “I simply did not realize that the support I received from ‘progressive society’ was but a passing phase based on a misunderstanding.” Communist faithful who had become disillusioned with the Soviet regime had assumed that, though anti-Stalinist, the former zek—gulag prisoner—remained a socialist.

Solzhenitsyn’s reception in the West traced a similar trajectory. Universal approval of his courage in confronting the Soviet leaders soon gave place to outspoken disapproval of what Western bien pensants considered to be his unenlightened view of the world. Disapproval turned to outrage when, on June 8, 1978, the Russian delivered a commencement address at Harvard University in which he indicted a West that showed unmistakable signs of decadence. The West’s freedom, he declared that day, had degenerated into license, its media filled minds and souls with gossip and nonsense, its popular culture served only to coarsen and degrade, its people exhibited an unthinking sympathy for socialism and an inability to recognize evil. All of this, he concluded, was rooted in a view of the world that “was born in the Renaissance and has found political expression since the Age of Enlightenment.”

Overnight, those who had lionized Solzhenitsyn cast him into the outer darkness and adopted in his place the nuclear physicist and Western-oriented dissident Andrei Sakharov. A good and courageous man, Sakharov was a secularist and self-proclaimed socialist who had mastered the language—“democracy” and “human rights”—of Western liberalism.

Daniel Mahoney is well aware of this shift in allegiance, and in a book entitled Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The Ascent From Ideology he opined apologetically that Solzhenitsyn sometimes weakened his case by overstating his claims; he insisted, however, that the Russian writer’s combativeness was the result of his long struggle against the mighty “oak” of Soviet power. Mahoney’s purpose in both of his Solzhenitsyn books—including this latest, The Other Solzhenitsyn—is to argue that the unrelenting attacks on the Harvard address and on the man himself were primarily the result of misunderstandings.

Mahoney has little difficulty dismissing the charge, regularly leveled by Solzhenitsyn’s cultured despisers, that he was a Russian nationalist and imperialist. In fact the great writer was a patriot who loved his country and expected others to love theirs; he explicitly repudiated nationalism and imperialism. More important, Mahoney recognizes that “a burning love for one’s motherland [is] compatible with humility before God and deference to a universal moral order.”

On such a view, a nation is like an icon—it is not itself the universal but rather a window through which the universal may be glimpsed. Dostoevsky made a similar point in the famous address on Aleksandr Pushkin that he delivered in June 1880. “For what else is the strength of the Russian national spirit,” he asked on that occasion, “than the aspiration, in its ultimate goal, for universality and all-embracing humanitarianism?”

Mahoney also demonstrates that Solzhenitsyn was far from being an opponent of political reform. In The Red Wheel, the novelistic history that he considered his most important work, Solzhenitsyn championed Pyotr Stolypin, the reform-minded Russian prime minister of the late imperial period. In his judgment, the assassination of Stolypin in 1911 destroyed Russia’s last chance to avert war and revolution. Had that wise leader lived to create an independent peasantry and institute his full program of reform, he might have saved Russia and the monarchy. In short, Solzhenitsyn could have written what Burke did write: “A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.”

In a chapter on Solzhenitsyn’s Two Hundred Years Together, a two-volume study of the often troubled relationship between Russians and Jews, Mahoney responds to the accusation, routinely raised against the Russian, that he was an anti-Semite. As in his treatment of the Harvard address, Mahoney seems too quick to apologize for Solzhenitsyn’s “impolitic” passages in a work on an incendiary subject that no one else was willing to tackle. Relying heavily on studies by Jewish writers and scholars, Solzhenitsyn resolved, no matter the cost, to seek the truth concerning both nations.

Volume II of Two Hundred Years covers the period from the February 1917 Revolution to the 1970s’ mass emigration of Russian Jews to Israel—that is, the Soviet era. Because of Solzhenitsyn’s experiential knowledge of that time, the volume surpasses in interest Volume I’s less personal survey of the period from the three partitions of Poland in the late 1700s—which brought more than one million Jews under Russian rule—to 1916.

Solzhenitsyn placed blame on Jews and Russians for the sins of some of their number during the revolutions of 1917, the Civil War (1918-21), and the long years of Soviet rule. If anything, as Mahoney observes, he was more critical of Russians than of Jews; the former, he concluded, had brought about the Revolution in February that prepared the way for the Bolshevik coup d’état in October. And although Solzhenitsyn did not hesitate to call attention to the large number of Jews who acted as Cheka (secret-police) agents, he held Russians primarily responsible for Bolshevism’s murderous career. Both nations, he concluded, had need of repentance in preparation for what he hoped would be a future that would place spiritual before material development.

Mahoney is less convincing when he insists that Solzhenitsyn was a proponent of democracy. It is quite true, and Mahoney makes the point repeatedly, that Solzhenitsyn looked with favor on self-government at the local level. He observed its workings in Switzerland and New England. Moreover, he believed that zemstvos, organs of rural self-government in late imperial Russia, had held out significant political promise. At the same time, he was skeptical of democracy at the higher reaches of power. One need not, he recognized, hold a degree in political science in order to arrive at informed judgments about local matters, but only those qualified by education and experience were competent to guide policy, domestic and foreign, at the national level.

It is true, as Mahoney points out, that Solzhenitsyn was more or less resigned to some form of democratic order in post-communist Russia, but like Tocqueville he was far from welcoming it. In Rebuilding Russia, written a year before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Solzhenitsyn observed that “Tocqueville viewed the concepts of democracy and liberty as polar opposites. He was an ardent proponent of liberty but not at all of democracy.”  thisarticleappears

One of the reasons for Mahoney’s insistence upon his subject’s commitment to democracy is his fear that the Russian might be classed as an authoritarian. In his Letter to the Soviet Leaders, Solzhenitsyn had, after all, written that “it is not authoritarianism itself that is intolerable, but the ideological lies that are daily foisted upon us.” Mahoney insists, however, that “Solzhenitsyn nowhere endorsed authoritarianism as choice-worthy in itself.”

Nor, however, did he rule authoritarianism out as a legitimate form of government, as long as it was neither ideological nor tyrannical in nature. Mahoney is so determined to deny this that he plays down Solzhenitsyn’s oft-stated support of Vladimir Putin, a leader who exercises greater authority than that belonging to his office and who, like Stolypin (whom Putin admires), does not always insist upon strict adherence to the law. “As we proceed,” Mahoney writes, “we will see that Solzhenitsyn is critical of aspects of Putin’s rule. I think that Solzhenitsyn would be more critical of Putin today, especially of his refusal to give up power.” This is wishful thinking, especially in view of what Solzhenitsyn told an interviewer for Der Spiegel a year before his death in 2008: “Putin inherited a ransacked and bewildered country, with a poor and demoralized people. And he started to do what was possible—a slow and gradual restoration.”

Mahoney writes with similar regret of “Solzhenitsyn’s markedly negative judgments about Boris Yeltsin, the figure nearly universally viewed as a democrat throughout the Western world.” This troubles him primarily because he seems to believe “liberal democracy” to be the form of government. He subtitled one of his books Defending Democracy Against Its Modern Enemies and Immoderate Friends and in a review of Chilton Williamson’s After Tocqueville: The Promise and Failure of Democracy he wrote that “Williamson needs more confidence in the promise of democracy.” Mahoney should have added that the same could be said of the Founding Fathers and the host of major thinkers, beginning with Plato, who judged democracy to be among the worst forms of government.

Mahoney’s effort to make Solzhenitsyn a defender of democracy is but an aspect of his effort to situate him in the Western tradition. In a chapter on Solzhenitsyn and Raymond Aron, the distinguished French liberal, Mahoney acknowledges the two men’s differences but insists that they “did not belong to completely different spiritual families.” Yet although Solzhenitsyn shared Aron’s anti-communism, knew Tocqueville’s Democracy in America well, and held views similar to those of Burke, he was deeply rooted in a Russian tradition that looked to Gogol, Dostoevsky, and the contributors—Nikolai Berdyaev, Sergei Bulgakov, Pyotr Struve—to Vekhi (“Landmarks”), the 1909 collection of essays that caused a sensation by defending the religious basis of life and attacking Russia’s atheist and socialist “intelligentsia.”

Nor was Solzhenitsyn a “philosophical,” “non-sectarian,” or Western Christian—to read Mahoney is almost to believe the Russian to have been a Roman Catholic. To be sure, he never shared Dostoevsky’s darkly antagonistic view of Catholicism, and he “was an admirer of the Polish pope, John Paul II”—though when the two great Christians met, Mahoney notes, there “was a brief exchange about Roman Catholic efforts to ‘take advantage’ of Orthodox weakness in the border lands of the Soviet Union in the 1920s.”

Although he never spoke disparagingly of other branches of Christianity, Solzhenitsyn was committed to Orthodoxy, which is deeply embedded in the Russian soul. He made regular confessions and attended Divine Liturgy at his private chapel—dedicated to St. Sergius of Radonezh, one of Russia’s most venerated saints—or at Holy Resurrection Church (in Claremont, New Hampshire). It is worth noting too that he liked to schedule publication and other important events for Orthodox feast days. For Solzhenitsyn, in sum, Orthodoxy was inextricably intertwined with the Russia he loved and to which he gratefully returned, leaving behind a dying civilization fatefully wedded to a democratic ideology.

Lee Congdon is completing Solzhenitsyn: Russia and the West.



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