The news hits suddenly and hard, despite the expectation given his age. Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, Nobel Prize winner and Soviet dissident, is dead. He was 89 years old.
We casually toss around the phrase “witness to history” but so few are able to accurately see and describe their world. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn saw, described, and compelled us to witness with him. From the Gulag Archipelago:
Every man always has handy a dozen glib little reasons why he is right not to sacrifice himself.
Some still have hopes of a favorable outcome to their case and are afraid to ruin their chances by an outcry. (For, after all, we get no news from that other world, and we we do not realize that from the very moment of arrest our fate has almost certainly been decided in the worst possible sense and that we cannot make it any worse.) Others have not yet attained the mature concepts on which a shout of protest to the crowd must be based. Indeed, only a revolutionary has slogans on his lips that are crying to be uttered aloud; and where would the uninvolved, peaceable average man come by such slogans? He simply does not know what to shout. And then, last of all, there is the person whose heart is too full of emotion, whose eyes have seen too much, for that whole ocean to pour forth in a few disconnected cries.
As for me, I kept silent for one further reason: because those Muscovites thronging the steps of the escalators were too few for me, too few! Here my cry would be heard by 200 or twice 200, but what about the 200 million? Vaguely, unclearly, I had a vision that someday I would cry out to the 200 million.
But for the time being I did not open my mouth, and the escalator dragged me implacably down into the nether world.
And when I got to Okhotny Ryad, I continued to keep silent.
Nor did I utter a cry at the Metropole Hotel.
Nor wave my arms on the Golgotha of Lubyanka Square.
When we think of Solzhenitsyn, we think of the dissident, first as the prisoner of Stalin then the exile of Brezhnev’s regime. But in the West, Solzhenitsyn was also the symbol of our inability to confront Soviet expansionism in the 1970s. Surely the low point of the Cold War was not Hungary in 1956, or Czechoslovakia in 1968, but when President Ford refused to invite Solzhenitsyn to the White House (something Ford’s successors failed to do as well). Arnold Beichman wrote of the controversy in Insight in 1993.
Ford, on the advice of Kissinger, had declined to invite Solzhenitsyn in 1975 when the Russian writer was to be honored at a dinner in Washington, tendered by then-AFL-CIO President George Meany. Solzhenitsyn could easily have taxied over to Pennsylvania Avenue before or after the dinner. Not only was no such invitation forthcoming, but also, on behalf of Ford, Kissinger forbade Cabinet members from attending the Solzhenitsyn dinner.
To their everlasting honor, three Cabinet members defied the secretary of state's edict and attended the dinner. They were: Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, Labor Secretary John Dunlop and U.N. Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
Solzhenitsyn was also a historian, but more. He was the Russian peoples’ memory. His Red Wheel series gives the history student the personal forces that led to the destruction of the Revolutions of 1917, the assassination of Stolypin, the 1905 revolution, the stumbling into the Russo-Japanese War and World War I by Tsar Nicolas II, the imperial family connections (and betrayals). It’s a rejection of the materialist (which is to say, Marxist) view of history by example, and it is powerful.
Each of his works has a purpose. If the Gulag Archipelago explained how so many could be swept away in the purges of Stalin and Lenin, including the author, then One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich humanized the suffering. In Denisovich, we are given a man whose aspirations are reduced to a little extra bread in the labor camps. It was published during the Khrushchev thaw following Stalin, the only book of his to be published in Russia before the fall of Communism.
Last year Der Spiegel interviewed Solzhenitsyn and asked him about the possibility of dying.
SPIEGEL: In 1987 in your interview with SPIEGEL founder Rudolf Augstein you said it was really hard for you to speak about religion in public. What does faith mean for you?
Solzhenitsyn: For me faith is the foundation and support of one’s life.
SPIEGEL: Are you afraid of death?
Solzhenitsyn: No, I am not afraid of death any more. When I was young the early death of my father cast a shadow over me -- he died at the age of 27 -- and I was afraid to die before all my literary plans came true. But between 30 and 40 years of age my attitude to death became quite calm and balanced. I feel it is a natural, but no means the final, milestone of one’s existence.
SPIEGEL: Anyhow, we wish you many years of creative life.
Solzhenitsyn: No, no. Don’t. It’s enough.
He suffered so much and endured, asking more of him is unconscionable. Yet, we suffer a great loss to history and to literature. He goes now to a God his tormentors denied ever existed. RIP.