This is the fourth segment of my discussion of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Between Two Millstones: Book I: Sketches of Exile 1974-1978. The two millstones between which S was being crushed were the Soviet Union (in which the KGB was powerful and dangerous) and the “often frivolous forces” of the West (Foreword by Daniel J. Mahoney, p. ix). This is a book we all need to read. The frivolous forces are more dangerous than ever in 2020, and we are going to have to learn how to defend Christian civilization. Admitting we have gotten ourselves in a pickle, with our careless thinking, would be a good start. S’s book warns us.
S saw his true duty as being his writing. He was not a politician. He understood, however, that a sort of contradiction was taking place in his life. His duty and his temperament would have to work out how to get along!
“I do not want to be dragged into never-ending political debates, into a series of issues that to me are redundant–what I want is to choose my issues and when I will discuss them. My temperament leads me not to remain aloof, to hide in the wilderness, but on the contrary to enter the densest crowd and shout with the loudest voice.” (p. 113)
S said that those struggling in the Soviet Union never ignored the West, but at the same time “we had no sense of how things really work in the Free World.” (p. 115) S had long acknowledged the brave and self-sacrificing help of ‘”invisible allies”‘ who were instrumental in assuring that his books were available to the world. Eventually he would publish a book with the title Invisible Allies, in which he paid tribute to those people. This self-sacrifice eventually was touched by the corrosion of greed,
“but it came from a Western world set up according to a very different set of rules. It might also have reared its head in our oppressed world, but surprisingly it did not. In our hopelessly rotten society, as it is often called, greed, betrayal, and defilement did not come among us.
“While we fought unto death, suffering the weight of the Soviets’ idol of stone, from the West a unanimous cry of approval came to me, and from that same West there stretched grasping hands, seeking to make a profit from my books and my name, not caring a fig for my books or our struggle.” (pp. 115-116)
S had expected that the main problem in getting his books published in the West would be in smuggling them out. That proved to be incorrect. The smuggling was “simple enough” eventually.
“what was difficult, but vital, was to find honest hands in which the manuscript would land, individuals who would further the book without trampling on the author, without skewing him in their rush for sensation and profit.” (p. 116)
One thing he learned while still in the Soviet Union was that journalists could change the thrust of an interview, by commentary they added to the interview. This taught him “the importance of expressing ideas that mattered to me in my own articles and statements, rather than relying on journalists.” (pp. 117-118)
When back in the Soviet Union, S had been shocked at how slowly publication of his books occurred in the West, with nothing getting done for long stretches. Things were done differently in the West. Everything had to be on a solid financial basis That was strange to the ears of those suffering under Soviet tyranny. In the Soviet Union,
“it was impossible to imagine how incompatible our boundless, self-sacrificing straightforwardness was with the mistrustful, corrosive, litigious approach in the West.” (p. 125)
After a time he began to see that publishers had reasons for caution. (pp. 125-126) Meanwhile, translations were often very bad. This was shocking. S and colleagues were risking their necks, expecting “trusted friends in the West” were standing with them, but the reality was considerably different. (p. 131) “These two so different worlds could simply not understand one another!” (p. 133)
Making the right choice in whom to trust is quite difficult. (p. 135)
“That any step, the simplest step, you take in the West can lead to a court case was a complete surprise to me, and extremely unpleasant: this tense atmosphere of civil suits was something we lacked altogether.” (p. 137)
S was puzzled at the Western world, and “simply could not get used to the cold wind of litigation in the West.” (p. 160) Happily he would eventually find publishers who “did keep to a moral compass” (p. 160), but not quickly or easily.
The ways in which S’s Russian Social Fund, generously set up by him to aid Russian prisoners, was cheated, makes depressing reading. (pp. 160-162)
S landed in the West in Canada. But finding a place to settle down proved impossible. “You must listen to your heart, it helps you intuit the right place to live.” (p. 168) In fact, his experience with Canada made him more open to the idea of settling in the U.S.! (p. 171)
In Oregon he found some Russian Old Believers. At a meal they had excellent conversation, but S and his wife were seated with the children rather than the adults! This was the result of a three hundred year old divide between Old Believers and others of the Orthodox faith. S does not complain about this; he simply notes it. (p. 177)
“The children–that was the challenge! They were particularly preoccupied by the problem of raising their children here, and we talked about that a great deal. Notwithstanding the power of spiritual influence from within the Old Believer families, the children inevitably went to American public schools, and were assailed from all sides by every kind of permissiveness. How else were these children going to engage in American life one day?” The Old Believers tried to strengthen the children spiritually at home. (p. 177) My response is: jolly good luck with that! When will Christians of any type, Old Believers or the rest of us, accept the fact that we are responsible to educate our own children at our own expense? Then maybe we can avoid having our children be assailed by every kind of permissiveness. And we will also be setting an example as to the practical necessity and value of obeying the Eighth Commandment, ‘”You shall not steal.”‘ (Exodus 20:15)
Back in Canada, S still felt unwilling to try to live in that country. He suggested they should look in the United States. Vermont was very close.
“Every time I cross the border from Canada to the United States I have the impression of entering an ordered, well-managed space. It was becoming clear that the United States was the right place for me to settle down; and it was not at all crowded, as I had imagined it to be, not in the least! Nature here is robust, and the forests have not been logged and are in excellent condition.” (p. 182)
We will hope to continue this discussion of Between Two Millstones: Book I, next week. If you want to eliminate the middle man, you can obtain a copy of this important book for a moderate sum. Anyone who loves freedom and responsibility and honesty will love this book.