The full title of the book is Between Two Millstones: Book I: Sketches of Exile 1974-1978. It was written by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Russian writer who may be the most important man to live in the twentieth century. He was born in the Soviet Union on Dec. 11, 1918 (a year after the communists took over in 1917) and died in Russia–the Soviet Union died on Christmas day, 1991–on August 3, 2008, age 89. How fitting that the Soviet Union would die on Christmas Day! God probably was having His little joke at the expense of the communist murderers. God and His Christ had overthrown the evil Soviet Union. God uses means, however, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was a large part of the means by which the Soviet Union was overthrown.
Solzhenitsyn is one of the rare writers who is equally gifted in both fiction and non-fiction. Millstones is non-fiction. The first English publication is very recent–2018. Kudos to the University of Notre Dame Press for taking on this project. Book I is an impressive hardcover edition, translated from the Russian by Peter Constantine.
Until very recently, this book was quite pricey to obtain. That is changing, I am glad to say. Today on Amazon the book could be obtained for about $16.58 (total, not counting sales tax). Still not cheap, but much better than a year or so ago. If you think the book might be something you would want to read, and you feel a temptation to read it for free via inter-library loan, nip the temptation in the bud. Many books are usefully obtained by inter-library loan, but not this one. There are too many passages you will want to underline. If you own the book, you can underline away. It’s worth paying out a few dollars to own this important book.
Here’s more good news: Book II is scheduled to be published on Nov. 15, 2020. The pre-publication price is, you guessed it, once again pricey, even worse than was Book I a year or so ago. Hopefully with a little patience that volume also will be available at a reasonable cost. I think I can out-wait and out-live the high price. We’ll see.
Solzhenitsyn did not want to leave the Soviet Union. The authorities threw him out in 1974. They had tried to kill him via the KGB, at least once, but he recovered. In 1974 the Soviet authorities said he had to go, and put him on a plane for the West.
The two millstones are one, the KGB, and two, the Western intelligentsia. The latter was corrupt even then. Yes, it is even more corrupt now, but looking back we can see that things were horrific even then. Perhaps we should not be surprised. After all, Roe v. Wade came in 1973, to the joy of our “elite.” An intelligentsia which is willing to kill unborn children is already pretty far gone morally.
One of the encouraging things about the book Millstones is the contrast between the Western intelligentsia and the ordinary people. Many of us in Flyover Country respected and loved Aleksandr Solshenitsyn, and AS discovered that as time went on. A very early example comes on page 12. In a store in Switzerland, AS “chose a good magnifying glass, but the shopkeeper categorically refused to take any money from me; we kept protesting, but I finally had to accept the gift, which was to become such a valued object.”
Millstones is typical of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. He speaks the truth as he sees it. That truth includes the folly of his enemies, but it also includes his own mistakes. Moreover he doesn’t whine. He somehow always was optimistic that the Soviet Union would die and that he would be able to return to Russia one day. Bullseye. The phrase I long ago concocted for him, many years before the fall of the Soviet Union, is that he is a springtime writer. He senses the spring coming, even in the depths of winter, and he is able to convey that feeling to the rest of us. It is a lesson all of us in the bedraggled Christian West need to learn: spring can and does come, despite the winter. God is sovereign, and wins in the long run. I don’t say it is an easy lesson to learn. Our wicked acquiescence in dispensationalism, amillennialism, pietism, and antinomianism have disarmed us intellectually and emotionally. Solzhenitsyn’s example encourages us to take up arm again, and to hope.
Here are two of the keys to the character of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: 1/he loved truth; 2/he was incredibly diligent to work. The results were spectacular. He wrote numerous books which will live forever, and which helped in the overthrow of the Soviet Union. Few of us can match his intellectual and artistic brilliance. Fine. Readily granted. But if we only love truth, and work hard, might we ordinary people also accomplish a great deal more than one might expect given our modest gifts? I really think we could. AS’s example is out there. He did it, despite life-threatening opposition. He did it, despite the mindless attacks of the powerful Western intelligentsia.
What I plan to do in writing about Between Two Millstones, Book I, is to quote large portions of the book. I will move at a leisurely pace, and simply have a lot of fun quoting things that struck me. I’ll begin with a comment from the Foreword by Daniel J. Mahoney:
‘Solzhenitsyn thought Americans welcomed criticism but soon discerned that intellectual elites only welcomed criticism that came from the Left. Yet he received many encouraging letters from the American heartland, from ordinary Americans who had not forgotten the indispensable moral foundations of democracy. So once again, Solzhenitsyn held on to a “glimmer of hope” that the truth could win out over the cultured despisers of the “rich reserves of mercy and sacrifice” that defined both Russia and the West at their very best.’ (p. xiv)
Now I will begin with a quote from AS himself. He was in Switzerland at the time.
“Then it was time for the whole party to have lunch, and I surprised everyone (except Betta) by refusing to go to a restaurant. I found the sedate atmosphere of restaurants, the laborious and sluggish cult of dining, savoring–a waste of time and extremely exhausting. In all my fifty-three years of Soviet life I believe I was in a restaurant only two or three times, and then because I had to go. (Besides, I had always lived on the sidelines and was constantly short of money.) For me to appear in an elegant restaurant now that I was the center of attention filled me with shame.” (p. 12)
They ended up going to some sort of factory cafeteria.
Enough for today. I hope to add several more parts to my discussion of Between Two Millstones, Book I.