Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn has been dead twelve and a half years. But he is going to continue to be important to us forever. Today I just want briefly to discuss a handful of his books.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was a Russian writer. He was born Dec. 11, 1918, at the beginning of the Russian Revolution, and died Aug. 3, 2008, almost seventeen long years after the end of the Soviet Union in December of 1991. He was instrumental in the overthrow of that communist totalitarian state.
Before we examine a few of his books, let’s listen to Solzhenitsyn about why the disastrous things connected with the Russian Revolution all happened. It is a brief summary.
‘Over a half century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of old people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.” Since then I have spent well-nigh 50 years working on the history of our revolution; in the process I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own toward the effort of clearing away the rubble left by that upheaval. But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous revolution that swallowed up some 60 million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.”‘
The U.S. has been having some wretched things happen. If we ask why, is not Solzhenitsyn’s answer–it was also the answer of old people when he was growing up!–really the answer for us as well? “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.”
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962). This was the short novel that brought him fame. It recorded an ordinary day in the life of prisoner Ivan Denisovich, a man trying to survive in one of Stalin’s prison camps. If you have never read anything by A. Solzhenitsyn, here is something short to get you started.
In the First Circle (1968/2009). 1968 marked the publication under the title The First Circle; the latter date marks a more recent edition under a slightly different title, with some of material left out of the first edition restored. I have read both versions. Either one will work, but I would recommend the second version, as it is more faithful to S’s original intent. This is a novel about men who are in the Soviet prison system, but are favored by their position in that system. Scientists, they are being treated better than men like Ivan Denisovich, so that they will use their knowledge and skill to help further Soviet scientific projects. S himself spent time in a place like this. The first circle means the first circle of hell–it is indeed hell, but it is not as horrible to endure as circles lower down.
The Cancer Ward (1968). Another novel. This is my personal favorite of the books by S that I have read so far. S himself spent time in a cancer ward, before he became a famous writer. His life was threatened by cancer, but God preserved him. God preserved his life for S, but He also preserved his life for the rest of mankind. Thank God that He allowed this man to live and to bring us numerous thought-provoking books.
The Red Wheel (1971-1991). This is a long cycle of novels comprised of several works. August 1914 was followed eventually by November 1916 and March 1917 with Lenin in Zurich also fitting in there somewhere. I have read only 1914 and Lenin, and both so long ago that I need to begin again at the beginning with 1914 and press on to the end. These books discuss the days just before the Russian Revolution.
The Gulag Archipelago (1971-1975). Three long volumes. Solzhenitsyn called this, in his subtitle, An Experiment in Literary Investigation. He investigate the Soviet prison system from 1918 through 1956. The research done is monumental. S was always an incredibly hard worker. He had to work very hard to compile, write, and protect these books. I used to say that if I could encourage people to read one book, it would be volume one of The Gulag Archipelago. It would teach people so much history, plus it would alert them to how easily man becomes wicked. I see no reason to revise my recommendation. My second reading of volume one, a year or so ago, was rewarding again. The other two volumes I have read only once, but they are excellent also.
The Oak and the Calf (1975). This is a memoir of S’s battles against the Soviet state. How many writers are equally gifted in writing fiction and non-fiction? Surely only a handful. S is one of the few. This is a wonderful book.
Warning to the West (1976). This is a book comprised of five speeches gathered together in one short book, in which S tries to warn the West of our own problems. Yes, the Soviet Union was wretched in its treatment of people, but that did not mean that we in the West necessarily had everything figured out. Those of us who are old enough can remember the West’s arrogant assumption that we were more sophisticated and wiser than S. However, he nailed us. A generation later it is obvious how empty of Christian wisdom was and is the West. Our emptiness was on display in our childish response to S’s warnings. Not everyone was so foolish, of course. But it was visibly obvious that our “elite” was childish and arrogant and ignorant, even four and a half decades ago.
From Under the Rubble (1975). This was a book which contained essays by several men. S contributed only three essays and a forward. I list it here because I am going to quote from one of his essays, “The Smatterers,” below as I close.
Between Two Millstones: Book I: Sketches of Exile 1974-1978 (2018). Thrown out of the Soviet Union, S traveled several places before he ended up in the Vermont woods–working as hard as ever to get his books out. I felt this was a magnificent book. I got carried away in reporting on it. I devoted eight blog posts to covering this book, March 5, 2020 through April 23, 2020. Rather than read my eight segments discussing Between, it would be simpler for you just to read the durn book. You won’t regret it. You’ll learn a lot about not just S, but also about the U.S.A., and the West in general. The news is not all bad!
Between Two Millstones: Book II (2020). I have not read this yet, but I hope I will be able to do so soon.
“The Smatterers” is a long essay, but I want to quote just a small part. S gives his Russian people advice. This, remember, was in 1975, sixteen years before the Soviet Union fell. The Soviet Union in 1975 was a totalitarian state. S tells his readers what needs to be done.
“And if we set out in capital letters the nature of the examination we are going to set our fellowmen: DO NOT LIE! DO NOT TAKE PART IN THE LIE! DO NOT SUPPORT THE LIE!–it is not only the Europeans who are going to laugh at us, but also the Arab students and the ricksha-drivers in Ceylon: is this all that is being asked of the Russians? And they call that a sacrifice, a bold step, and not simply the mark that distinguishes an honest man from a rogue?
“But it is all very well for the apples in another barrel to laugh: those being crushed in ours know that it is indeed a bold step. Because in our country the daily lie is not the whim of corrupt natures but a mode of existence, a condition of the daily welfare of every man. In our country the lie has been incorporated into the state system as the vital link holding everything together, with billions of tiny fasteners, several dozen to each man.
[. . . .]
“What does it mean, not to lie? It doesn’t mean going around preaching the truth at the top of your voice (perish the thought!). It doesn’t even mean muttering what you think in an undertone. It simply means: not saying what you don’t think, and that includes not whispering, not opening your mouth, not raising your hand, not casting your vote, not feigning a smile, not lending your presence, not standing up, and not cheering.” (pp. 275-277; my ellipsis in brackets; italics and capitals are those of S)
I think you see where this is going. History may not repeat itself exactly, but it does rhyme. We ordinary people in the U.S. have come to a time in our national history in which the Powers That Be are pressing upon us a Narrative. The Narrative is a lie. (Example: Black Lives Matter is an honorable group. That is an example only; The Narrative has many facets, all of them lies.) If we go along, we can get along. If we refuse to go along (to lie), we may be “cancelled.” It could cost us our job. We could be called moral monsters.
Countless people are going along with The Narrative. Many of them have managed to persuade themselves that The Narrative is true. S, a brave man himself, who took on the entire establishment of the Soviet Union–while also offending most the elite of the West–is not asking too much of us. (Or is he?) He just tells us not to lie, not to go along with the lie. That is going to take courage, however, as he well knows.
You and I are apples in our own barrel, and we know how we can be crushed. It is going to take courage on our part to refuse to go along with the lie.
But note this encouraging fact: as powerful as the Soviet Union was in 1975, by late December 1991, the Soviet Union had disbanded. As powerful as the Powers That Be in the United States are right now, as our elite pushes The Narrative on us via the media, education, politics, Hollywood, sports celebrities, and whatever else, those Powers That Be may not be as powerful as we think. Just maybe, if we refuse to support the lie, we can have an honest public scene someday, and sooner than we think. If that means the break up of the U.S. (remember that the Soviet Union broke up), so be it. A few non-Narrative zones are better than what we have now.
S, I think, was correct. He was a prophet, a truth-teller. A key for us is if we can develop the courage to refuse to lie. He wrote “The Smatterers” for the Russian people, but really he wrote for all mankind. He wrote for us in the United States. May God grant us the courage not to lie.