Monday, August 4, 2008

Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn, R.I.P.

From National Review Online:

"When 1999 turned into 2000, a lot of people asked, “Who was the Man of the Century?” And many answered, “Solzhenitsyn.” That was a very solid choice.

Born in 1918, Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn became the voice and conscience of the Russian people. There was no greater or more effective foe of Communism, or of totalitarianism in general. His Gulag Archipelago was a crushing blow to the Soviet Union — after its publication in the mid-1970s, the USSR had no standing, morally. The book was effective because it was true.

Because he was such a great and important man, it is sometimes overlooked how great, versatile, and prolific a writer he was. He wrote novels, novellas, short stories, poems, memoirs, essays, speeches, and more. The Gulag Archipelago, he called “an experiment in literary investigation.”

The First Circle, a novel, is many people’s favorite book. So is another novel, Cancer Ward.

He wrote no more gripping or beautiful work than The Oak and the Calf, his literary memoir. The title refers to an old folk image of a calf butting its head up against an oak: This symbolizes futility. And that was a writer — a lone, persecuted, hounded writer — trying to bring down the Soviet state. Yet the oak fell.

With this memoir and The Gulag in mind, Norman Podhoretz once wrote, “[Solzhenitsyn] is returning [to the Russian people] their stolen or ‘amputated’ national memory, reopening the forcibly blocked channels of communication between the generations, between the past and the present . . .” Few writers have written under such pressure. He would receive mail saying, “Look after your health, Aleksandr Isayevich — we are all depending on you.”

In his later years — after age 50 or so — he had the support of a wonderful family, consisting of three boys and his wife, Natalia. Their exile home in Cavendish, Vt., was kind of Solzhenitsyn, Inc.: They all helped with the many tasks of writing and publishing. Out on the grounds of their home is a large rock — a boulder. Solzhenitsyn used to tell the boys, when they were little, that this was a magic horse, which would fly them back, when Russia was free.

Solzhenitsyn returned to his homeland in 1994.

Like everyone else, he had his critics: He was accused of being a megalomaniac, a Slavophile, a right-wing nationalist, an anti-Semite. He was too humane for any of that.

Read it all.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this piece. His passing has generated countless attempts to "summarize" the meaning of this man. I watched a ten-minute television segment that made no mention of his faith, and inferred that he had become passe. God help us if this prophet's words go unheeded! Our unrepentant pursuit of human autonomy and materialism will take us to disaster - and his vindication. Rest eternal grant to him, O Lord. Jim, Portland