Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s first great novel started with these words: “Reveille was sounded….”
Yes, reveille was sounded for One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich the same way it was sounded for every other one of the “three thousand six hundred fifty three days like this in his sentence.” But rather than being routine, the reveille that Solzhenitsyn sounded for the Western world was extraordinary and singular in its import and its effectiveness. Solzhenitsyn, who died on Sunday at 89, told the story from inside the gulag that the great British historian Robert Conquest had told from outside: how brutal it was, how senseless, and how it was meant to dehumanize. As Solzhenitsyn said in his famous 1978 commencement address at Harvard, “socialism of any type and shade leads to a total destruction of the human spirit and to a leveling of mankind into death.”
It was for his witness to the evils of socialism/communism that American conservatives treasured the great Russian writer. Nobody wrote against the Evil Empire with more courage or more moral force. Nobody spoke more boldly. And nobody other than Ronald Reagan did more to scold American elites for their cowardly kowtowing to the communist menace. It was instructive that when Solzhenitsyn finally made it to the United States, President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger refused to give him an audience at the White house — something about “detente” and “realpolitik,” more correctly known as sniveling flapdoodle — but Reagan wrote columns welcoming the great Russian and North Carolina’s Jesse Helms welcomed him to the Senate. It was American conservatives who recognized moral imperatives, while the supposedly sensible centrists were mired in cynicism.
In his Harvard address, Solzhenitsyn condemned the Ford approach (without referring to Ford by name) by describing it as the attitude that “the world situation should stay as it is at any cost, there should be no changes.” But, he warned in the very next sentence, “This debilitating dream of a status quo is the symptom of a society which has come to the end of its development.”
Here, though, is where not just the conservative appreciation for Solzhenitsyn but also the more general Western appreciation of him became more difficult to sustain. Oh, sure, conservatives were thrilled that Solzhenitsyn railed against the communists. And even European “social Democrats” ended up very glad that he blew the whistle on the Soviets who menaced them. But anti-communism was only part of the Russian Nobel laureate’s message. As harsh as he was in denouncing the gulag, he was almost as harsh in denouncing not just the diplomatic weakness (up until then) of the West but also its moral decrepitude. Again in the Harvard speech, here’s what he said:
“It is time, in the West, to defend not so much human rights as human obligations. Destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space. Society appears to have little defense against the abyss of human decadence, such as, for example, misuse of liberty for moral violence against young people, motion pictures full of pornography, crime and horror. It is considered to be part of freedom and theoretically counter-balanced by the young people’s right not to look or not to accept. Life organized legalistically has thus shown its inability to defend itself against the corrosion of evil.”
Somewhere between the age of Churchill and today we lost the idea that freedom obliges us, all of us, to expend “blood, toil, tears and sweat.” Somewhere between the rationing of World War II and the Age of the Shopping Mall we forgot that a 5.7 percent unemployment rate after eight rocky months is a phenomenal achievement rather than a crisis. And somewhere along the way we forgot that while every one of 4,000 American deaths in a foreign land is a tragedy, they are collectively the mark of a nation that protects its soldiers amazingly well while freeing the world from a dangerous megalomaniac. Solzhenitsyn himself probably saw, personally, at least as many of his compatriots killed in any one of several bad weeks while fighting on the front lines against the invading Nazi death machine.
Thirty years before Phil Gramm complained that we have become a nation of whiners, Solzhenitsyn said much the same thing. One can almost hear him sneer as he noted to the Harvard grads that “the center of your democracy and of your culture is left without electric power for a few hours only, and all of a sudden crowds of American citizens start looting and creating havoc. The smooth surface film must be very thin, then, the social system quite unstable and unhealthy.” One wonders what he made of the looting after Hurricane Katrina, and of the political buck-passing that accompanied the botched responses thereto.
And way back 30 years ago, Solzhenitsyn also offered criticisms of the press that sound eerily prescient today:
“Thus we may see terrorists heroized, or secret matters, pertaining to one’s nation’s defense, publicly revealed, or we may witness shameless intrusion on the privacy of well-known people under the slogan: ‘everyone is entitled to know everything.’ But this is a false slogan, characteristic of a false era: people also have the right not to know, and it is a much more valuable one. The right not to have their divine souls stuffed with gossip, nonsense, vain talk. A person who works and leads a meaningful life does not need this excessive burdening flow of information.”
Solzhenitsyn clearly was no fan of consumerist American modernity. He said that it in its own way it was as dehumanizing — or, perhaps more accurately, as de-spiritualizing — as almost anything the gulag could engender. Yet in all of his complaining, in all of his cultural criticism of both the Free World and the communist one, this great Russian thinker’s underlying message remained redemptive. As truly awful, by ordinary standards, as Ivan Denisovich’s day in the labor camp had been, Ivan went to sleep thinking that “nothing had spoiled the day and it had been almost happy.” After all, “he’d had a lot of luck today. They hadn’t put him in the cooler….He’d finagled an extra bowl of mush at noon….And he’d gotten over that sickness.”
With God’s help, human beings have a remarkable capacity to find hope in the thinnest gruel. We have the capacity, he believed, to get over our sickness.
Likewise, Solzhenitsyn concluded his address at Harvard with these words:
“If the world has not come to its end, it has approached a major turn in history, equal in importance to the turn from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. It will exact from us a spiritual upsurge, we shall have to rise to a new height of vision, to a new level of life where our physical nature will not be cursed as in the Middle Ages, but, even more importantly, our spiritual being will not be trampled upon as in the Modern era. This ascension will be similar to climbing onto the next anthropologic stage. No one on earth has any other way left but — upward.”
Upward, indeed. One imagines that such is the direction Solzhenitsyn himself has finally and eternally traveled.