Breaking The Golden Cage

Centenary of Solzhenitsyn

Gleb Morev

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the last world-recognised classic writer, entirely belonging to Russian literature (and not Russian-American, like Joseph Brodsky), turned 100 years old. In Russia, the anniversary year of Solzhenitsyn has been declared, museums and monuments are opening, and scientific conferences are being held. It would seem that everything goes according to the standard scenario. This, however, is not the case.

Over the past 11 years that have passed since the death of Solzhenitsyn, news feeds bring messages about conflicts related to his name. In Vladivostok, a monument to the writer has been desecrated, residents of Solzhenitsyn, Rostov-on-Don, refuse to install a monument to him, and just recently a scandal initiated by local activists around Solzhenitsyn's portrait appeared in Tver. The Internet and media are full of "deconstructing" texts and even a video about the writer, not only and not so much casting doubt on his artistic gift, but mostly accusing him of lying, distorting history and betrayal of the motherland. Social networks, current substitutes for salons and living rooms, are full of emotional attacks on Solzhenitsyn, and from various sides. The "patriots" cannot forgive him for anti-Sovietism, the liberals—a cup of tea drunk with Putin. Imagine such a passion in 1921 or in 1928. The centuries of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, the Russian classics of the same as Solzhenitsyn, of a "teaching" type, are absolutely impossible.

At the same time, paradoxically, for all the bitterness of the controversy around Solzhenitsyn, the vast majority of the disputants are in captivity of the old, post-Soviet, or new, post-Soviet mythology about it. And the political mythology, which has very little to do with literature. In fairness it must be said that this perspective of perception is set by the writer himself, his biography.

One of the widespread misconceptions about Solzhenitsyn is the universal conviction that the publication of the "One Day of Ivan Denisovich" in 1962, or the "Archipelago GULag" in 1973 brought him fame worldwide. Meanwhile, the Nobel Prize in Literature was absolutely no accident awarded to Solzhenitsyn in 1970, after almost simultaneous release in 1968-1969 in the West, two of his novels—"Cancer Corps" and "In the first circle." The award crowned the Solzhenitsyn 1960s—the only literary decade of its public activities.

The formulation of the Nobel Committee is extremely accurate—the prize was awarded to Solzhenitsyn "for the moral force with which he followed the immutable traditions of Russian literature." For the whole world, these traditions were embodied in the second half of the XIX century. "Big Russian novel" with its independence and public relevance. Most fully, these qualities are personified in the figure of Leo Tolstoy, whose artistic gift was combined with journalistic and moral pathos, which led the writer to conflict with the state and the Church. After the brutal terror that struck Russian literature when the Bolsheviks came to power, many figures of Russian culture who were in emigration expressed themselves in the sense that this Russian literary tradition was interrupted forever and the new Tolstoy was impossible under Soviet conditions. Texts of Solzhenitsyn, and above all, his large-scale novels, returning the letter from Procrustes' bed of socialist realism to the traditional critical, signalled to the world about a kind of revival of Russian literature, overcoming the Soviet trouble. Not by chance since the mid-1960s, the 47-year-old Solzhenitsyn in Korney Chukovsky's house, "never," according to Solzhenitsyn, "who didn't lose a sense of literary heritage and literary scale," was called a "classic"—it was this artistic design and the scale of their realisation that distinguished it from the everyday Soviet level. In 1970, the Swedish Academy only confirmed this status won by Solzhenitsyn at home—and he became the last Russian author to this day who won the Nobel Prize while living in Russia.

Resurrected in Soviet Russia in the 1960s the figure of an independent author, Solzhenitsyn inevitably encountered difficulties: after 1966, not one of his works could pass the Soviet censorship. Having decided to disregard censorship bans, Solzhenitsyn inevitably went into the plane of politics. "I had, when I put my novels into practice, to take on the functions of a public wrestler," he wrote. Established in the USSR since the late 1920s, the rules did not allow for the existence of an uncensored writer in a public field and prescribed punishment for such a person discovered underground. The entire corpus of texts, officially recognised by the state as "literature", could be located exclusively in the space of the Union of Soviet Writers (CSP).

The uniqueness of Solzhenitsyn's role is that he was the first member of the SSP in history who openly rebelled against the current system. According to the apt expression of the French journalist Bernard Beer, "Solzhenitsyn succeeded in the 60s, to destroy that "golden comfort" with which the power surrounded and stifled Soviet literature". His letter to the Fourth Congress of Writers (1967) was the first public protest not only against censorship, but also against the complete subordination of the BSC to the state. One of the main points of accusation of Solzhenitsyn against the officials from the literature was that they did not defend hundreds of members of the BSC, who were tortured in Stalin's camps or shot during the years of terror.

Of course, the question of communist terror, which continued in Russia / USSR from 1917 to 1956, was—like in Germany after 1945 the question of the heritage and practices of the Nazi regime—central to Soviet social development after the Twentieth Party Congress. One of the components of the classical type of Russian writer, which was established in pre-revolutionary Russia, which Solzhenitsyn undoubtedly was oriented on, was always uncompromising attention to social problems. It was impossible to circumvent the topic of the Gulag for him, especially since the prison and camp experience, he acknowledged, shaped him as a writer. The result of the work of Solzhenitsyn with this national trauma was the "Gulag Archipelago"—a three-volume "experience of artistic research", built on eyewitness testimonies, personal experience and the then available documents. This text, innovative in art and extremely radical in ideology, was completed in 1968 and was hidden by the author for security reasons. The capture by the KGB of the manuscript of the "Archipelago" in the fall of 1973 and the equally "forceful" response of Solzhenitsyn (his immediate publication in the West) became a turning point not only in his personal fate, but also—a very rare case in the history of literature—in the world socio-political process. Translated into dozens of languages, the Gulag put an end to the pro-Soviet sympathies of Western intellectuals.

At the time of the publication of the "Archipelago", Solzhenitsyn was an unprecedented example of a one man-institution for the USSR, whose actions were completely autonomous from the state—and this is in a state that claims total control of its citizens.

In addition to the ideological confrontation of the Soviet authorities, Solzhenitsyn led a consistent work to overcome the Soviet repressive taboos and revive the normal (essentially pre-revolutionary) forms of cultural life: he was the first writer living in the USSR since 1929 who openly established contact with foreign publishers in 1970 which he passed on his texts for publication, bypassing the Soviet censorship; on his initiative, he was revived (again for the first time since 1918, when the successor of Vekh, a collection From the Depth, was printed in Moscow) the genre of an uncensored collection of social and philosophical ideas that united opposition authors of the Soviet ideology (From under the blocks, 1974). But, of course, in terms of sharpness, none of this could compare with the "Archipelago"—a text-testimony openly raising the question of the inhuman nature of the non-Stalinist regime.

The release of the "Archipelago" in the West, accompanied, on the one hand, by the broadest campaign of support for the Nobel writer being persecuted at home, and on the other—by an attack on all Soviet media that was unprecedented in scope, ended with another unprecedented event and the whole life of Solzhenitsyn consists: on February 13, 1974, he was arrested and expelled from the USSR. The memory of the Soviet people kept only one such event, relating to 1929,—the expulsion of Leon Trotsky. Putting the writer on the same board with the disgraced leader of October, the state signed its helplessness and, in fact, the loser in the duel that Solzhenitsyn himself would ironically designate in the title of his memoirs—"The calf with an oak".

The time of the "Gulag Archipelago" and the expulsion of Solzhenitsyn from the USSR is a period not only of its highest world fame, but also of the greatest public support among the Soviet intelligentsia, disappointed and irritated by the conservative turn of the authorities after 1968, creeping restanalisation and growth of repression against dissidents. "So everyone yearned to strike state power in the face, which was completely incomprehensible for me, even if someone else's, and for several years I walked along the crest of this wave, pursued by one KGB, but supported by the whole society," Solzhenitsyn recalled.

Once in the West, Solzhenitsyn actually announces the end of the writing activity in its traditional sense—he intends to devote the rest of his life to his novel, about the Russian revolution, conceived in his prewar years.

The "red wheel", which is often blamed for its traditional character, is a typically modernist utopian project whose tasks are far from literary ones. Solzhenitsyn sees his task as "not to write, but to restore the truth", to restore the Russian history distorted and slandered by Bolshevism "in its entirety". Hence, the exorbitant amount of "narration", which was designed to almost physically compensate for the time period reconstructed by the author—from the 1910s to the 1930s. The utopian task will soon become clear to Solzhenitsyn, who will abandon the original plan to bring the story to 1936, interrupting it on April 17th. Formed by 1973, already at the very beginning of work on the Red Wheel and studying the experience of the Russian revolution, the value system will determine Solzhenitsyn's public and political position until the end of his life. As this position is made public, the writer's followers are getting smaller.

The fall of communism was a surprise for Solzhenitsyn. As promised in the mid-1970s, he returned to Russia after the wide publication of his texts. The revolutionary events in the USSR—the restructuring and disintegration of the Union—he perceived through his experience of deep immersion in the realities of the fall of Russian statehood in 1917, trying to warn the young Russian democracy from the mistakes made by the Democrats of the Provisional Government. Welcoming the collapse of the Soviet empire, Solzhenitsyn urged the Russians to focus on their own development, leaving aside great-power ambitions. Criticising the national borders of the republics conducted by the Bolsheviks, Solzhenitsyn foresaw inter-ethnic conflicts of the 1990s and 2000s. By the mid-1990s, Russia's present position was characterised by him as "Russia in a landslide"—in his thought, the wreckage of communism brought down new statehood, bringing the country to a critical state. The highest state award of post-Soviet Russia—the Order of St. Andrew the First-Called—Solzhenitsyn refused to accept from the hands of President Boris Yeltsin.

In the ninth decade, Solzhenitsyn looks at the renewed power after Yeltsin's departure with hope. He never came to the Kremlin, but twice received President Putin on his territory, in a house near Moscow, stressing that for him he was a former intelligence officer, not an investigator of the KGB. Interviews with Putin, as far as can be judged, were typical of Solzhenitsyn's preaching character—he tried to convince the interlocutor of the value of Stolypin's reforms and the local government's experience of local government. With all the correctness underlined, Solzhenitsyn pedals his independence and distance from power until the end of his life.

Solzhenitsyn understood patriotism as "saving the people", who had abolished the trauma of communism through moral self-purification and repentance, but not at all as foreign policy expansion, aggressiveness and propaganda simulation of past and present "imperial" greatness. In upholding the rights of Russians, Solzhenitsyn has always called for the avoidance of violence—and one can imagine the horror of the Russian-Ukrainian war with tens of thousands of victims. It seems that no territorial acquisitions would be capable of justifying it—and even the always-venerated Solzhenitsyn Russian Crimea.

It is not surprising that the name of Solzhenitsyn, who completed the main body of his artistic texts in the early 70s, last century, and in the year of the century continues to cause the most violent disputes in Russia. The tragic knots of Russian history, the description and understanding of which he devoted his life, remain unbound.

The author is a historian of literature, a journalist.

Vol. 51, No.30, Jan 27 - Feb 2, 2019