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20 November 2012

Alexander Solzhenitsyn: a contrary opinion

On the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s classic, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, when even the BBC is remembering the event, I think it might be appropriate to remind readers of one of the most important rules of language etiquette—indeed all etiquette—which is to respect the freedom of civilised people to express honestly held opinions without fear that they might be beaten senseless with metal bars, sent to jail for a couple of years, or cut in Bond Street or on the Tverskaya.
     In that spirit I would like to reproduce a diary entry about Solzhenitsyn from Auberon Waugh (son of Evelyn Waugh, the author of Brideshead Revisited etc.) which was published in Private Eye, the English satirical magazine, thirty years ago. I think it is self-explanatory: 

     With hindsight, dear reader, do you think that is (or was) fair?


  1. Not fair, at all.
    "Throughout their history they have done nothing but tyrannise each ohter..."
    Very british phrase.

  2. Perfectly fair not to say prophetic. I was subscribing to Novy Mir at the time, so have a copy of the original. Just going to blog about it now..

  3. Well, it is armchair speculation is the problem. Keep in mind that in Russia, no one can criticize Russia but a Russian. While no one can argue about how many sad faces you see in the streets of Moscow, it is their right. If you smile in the street in Moscow you are considered a fool, an idiot or maybe a drug addict -so, sad faces keep you out of trouble.

    I do not think "suspecting" anything about Solzenitsyn is a good position - just fuel for half-baked arguments.

  4. And it is the Enlish gentleman who calls us "gloomy buggers"? Well well well,
    aren't they the brits who are famous for their gloomy mood and, of course, buggery?
    Pardon my French, but I'm just practising the right of free speech here...
    Salut from Dorian Gray to Sir Elton John and, please, don't get offended. Mr. Waugh is certainly different.

  5. Let's not lose sight here of the true nature of Solzhenitsyn's greatness or significance. Some salient points that should never be forgotten:

    1. The Gulag Archipelago was an achievement little short of the miraculous, given the circumstances under which the information was collected and digested, and given the obstacles that stood in the way of the work's seeing the light of day. The book did more than any other publication to cause the scales to fall from the eyes of those who had been tempted to believe that communism would have been fine, had it not been perverted from its true course by Stalin. Solzhenitsyn showed the way in which, once accountability has been set aside, as it was set aside by Lenin in 1918, and once society had as a result been conscripted to a single goal, with all institutions gathered up into the collective advance, it is not "corruption" that leads to the triumph of evil. The conditions are now in place for evil to prevail, since there is nothing to prevent it.
    2. Solzhenitsyn did not see totalitarianism as the ultimate source of the evil that it promotes. Rather totalitarian government is the great mistake, made for whatever noble or ignoble purpose, of putting the final goal before the present dilemma. It is this which gives evil intentions the same chance as good ones, which enables the criminal and the psychopath to compete on a level with the saint and the hero. Despite this, in totalitarianism the evil belongs to the human beings, and not to the system. This is the remarkable message that Solzhenitsyn, crawling from the death-machine, carried pressed to his heart.

    4. Solzhenitsyn drew the contrast between the revolutionary way of confronting evil, by seeking the "system" that would lead mankind towards perfection, and the example set by Christ, who confronted evil by refusing to adopt its weapons, and by offering himself as a sacrifice. Not surprisingly therefore, Solzhenitsyn tuned his prophetic spirit, as Dostoevsky and Tolstoy had tuned theirs, to the Christian message.

    In short, Waugh's "criticisms" of this truly great writer seem shallow and inane when set against the astonishing depth and value of Solzhenitsyn's message. He was a writer who embraced and expounded the greatest and most noble of themes, despite conditions and circumstances so horrific that they must surely be incomprehensible to the modern reader.

  6. Dear Anonymous,
    Your point 3 seems to have been omitted. What was that? I ask since the rest is so interesting.
    Yours sincerely,

  7. Not even interesting. The old trash about gloomy Russians. The fact is that in (tacitly prescribed) Russian etiquette a smile is an intimate thing. It's what you do to your friends and close relatives, not in the street. In smaller towns, a woman's smile in presence of a man can even be read as consent to having sex with him. I had this experience personally.
    Well, I am a young Russian and I don't like this tradition. I like smiling people. But such is the state of things in the 21st century. Luckily, in Moscow this tradition has much worn off now.