The Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918–2008) was equally gifted in fiction and non-fiction. The book I want to discuss today is one of his non-fiction works, Between Two Millstones, Book 2: Exile in America, 1978-1994 (2020).
Kudos to the University of Notre Dame Press, for getting this book in print more than a decade after the author’s death. It was worth waiting for.
A couple years ago I spent eight segments of this blog (Mar. 5, 2020 through Apr. 23, 2020) discussing Between Two Millstones, Book 1: Exile in America, 1978-1994. (I got carried away!) This time I will try to dispose of Book 2 in one segment. That is not, however, because Book 2 is a lesser book than Book 1. It is just as wonderful. It is just that, enough is enough. I said most of what needed to be said in the first eight posts; this is only a supplement.
These are crucial books which should be read by anyone who is interested in how the world is put together. Ignore my reviews, long (eight segments) or short (one), and experiment with reading the books for yourself. I can give only a sort of flavor of what Solzhenitsyn says.
The insights crowd one another off the page, in both volumes. But here I will stick to Book 2.
When talking about all the different invitations he received while in the U.S.–“never fewer than twenty in a month” (p. 39)–Solzhenitsyn points out that if he gave himself up to many of them, his time writing would be cut into dramatically. Very understandable. But he also points out that he rarely wrote the refusals himself. Why? “If I answered myself it would dry the writing juices out of my hand” (p. 39). It is almost a throwaway line, but how much truth there was in that point! A writer–at least a writer of world historical importance–needs to protect his writing energy. If S. spent time writing polite refusals to thousands (at least 20 a month) of invitations, his “writing juices” would be dissipated on something insignificant. Usually he had his secretary write the refusals. Wise decision.
It reminds me a little bit of Nehemiah, who rejected a request to meet with Sanballat and Geshem. ‘”I am doing a great work and I cannot come down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and come down to you?”‘ (Nehemiah 6:2-3) The circumstances are somewhat different, admittedly. Sanballat and Geshem were definitely wanting to do harm to Nehemiah, which was not true of countless of the people inviting Solzhenitsyn to things. Still, we can see the parallel. Solzhenitsyn was doing a great work–his writing–and he was wise to protect his time as well as he could.
It is fascinating to speculate why Solzhenitsyn has been so viciously and dishonestly attacked by so many of our elite leaders, intellectuals and politicians. I think part of the answer is that these people simply cannot understand that a fully honest person is possible. They resent Solzhenitsyn for that reason–they don’t think he is even possible! Their conscience is seared, but they still feel a pinprick of pain when they view a man like this. He doesn’t parrot trite cliches about democracy, therefore there must be something reprehensible about him.
I think a passage devoted to discussing the biographer of Solzhenitsyn, Michael Scammell, does much to help us understand why Solzhenitsyn has had such criticism from our “elites”. Solzhenitsyn is appalled by much of what Scammell writes. The words in brackets are Solzhenitsyn’s.
‘Yes, when you lack artistic taste and personal tact, it’s hard to plod through a writer’s life. There’s no point looking for a spiritual dimension, worldview, or outlook on history here, much less for the meaning of my books themselves. Scammell didn’t even understand the straightforward articles published in From Under the Rubble–he reduced it all to hackneyed politics. He wants to rise above his subject–but slithers ever lower, vulgarizing everything in succession. He hasn’t spent a minute in the spiritual world I have inhabited all these years. It is beyond his ken to believe it genuinely possible to have a sense of duty to the dead, of duty to Russia. Being himself a tangle of small-minded features, he has no chance of explaining my life, even if he wanted to.
‘In fact, Scammell himself writes (in an attempt to make the “authoritarian” Solzhenitsyn see sense) that freedom lies in being “trivial, sensational, irresponsible as well as [in being] serious and objective.” Exactly; it was inevitable that a quasi-literary vulgarizer would turn up to write my biography–and one most certainly did.’ (pp. 246-247)
I think that gets at the root of the contempt for Solzhenitsyn, among our elites. They, like Michael Scammell, haven’t spent a minute in the spiritual world of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. It is a warning to us: cultivate our relationship with the triune God of the Bible, or risk becoming becoming like the “deeply shallow” “elites” who are currently helping Christian civilization into a quiet grave.
Solzhenitsyn writes in both volumes about how dishonorable is the West’s court system. In the following line, he speaks specifically of England, but in the two books we see that it is the West in general which is at fault, not just England.
“I cannot think of the English legal system without a sense of loathing” (p. 203).
The above passage was written as he contemplated the cover-up of English war crimes in World War II, and how the courts facilitated that cover-up. (We needn’t preen ourselves; the U.S. was involved in many of the same crimes against displaced peoples.)
Here is Solzhenitsyn on his years in Vermont. He was writing in about 1987, before those years were completed, but we know from history that he parted with Vermont just as graciously as these words indicate he would.
“Throughout all our years in Vermont, eleven now since 1976, I never ceased to feel them to be heaven-sent, a safe haven, despite the succession of external vexations and calumnies.” (p. 295)
In the same paragraph he said that during that time he was “taking a genuine step away from the blind alley of the modern age.” (p. 295) Another warning: our modern age is indeed a blind alley. We are going to have to find our way, and we will have to work to get back out into the light of Christian honesty.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is a gifted writer, with a style which the ordinary person can understand and appreciate. He is also a prolific writer, which means there is lots of good work by him, out there. Both of his memoirs about his time in exile are superb.
These books are not cheap. This morning I checked out Internet prices for used copies of both Book 1 and Book 2. Book 1 is available in the low $20.00s. Book 2 is in the middle $20.00s. AbeBooks, Alibris, and Amazon seemed similar in price. Inter-library loan is an option, but makes underlining impossible.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s books and his life are a treasure, a blessing to us.
“By faith Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained the testimony that he was righteous, God testifying about his gifts, and through faith, though he is dead, he still speaks.” (Hebrews 11:4)
Though he is dead, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn still speaks.