Comes now the great Daniel J. Mahoney, author of penetrating intellectual biographies of Bertrand de Jouvenel, Raymond Aron, and Charles de Gaulle, among other books, to discuss his latest work, The Other Solzhenitsyn. Mahoney, co-editor ofThe Solzhenitsyn Reader, provides us in this discussion a tremendous introduction to the Russian dissident writer’s corpus of writings and a rebuttal to his many critics.
We might say that most western writers who, from their position of faux outrage, frequently critique their governments, societies, and cultures have Solzhenitsyn envy, earnestly desiring that their work could perform something even close to the role of the Russian anti-communist writer par excellence. Not that they admire Solzhenitsyn’s political and moral philosophy, and his belief that freedom is ultimately born of spiritual commitment, but that no one will ever say of their work that it put a “sliver in the throat of power.” Such was the praise given Solzhenitsyn after the publication of One Day in the Live of Ivan Denisovich in 1962.
But if that short account of prison life was a sliver, then The Gulag Archipelago represents the single most consequential writing delegitimizing Soviet Communism. This “experiment in literary investigation” reports on his eight years in Soviet prison camps, recalling the sufferings and the lies of communism that are told and knowingly accepted by its slaves, lies that are required to keep an ideological regime going. Mahoney quotes the Swiss scholar Georges Nivat’s observation that in this work Solzhenitsyn is “the Homer of the subterranean world inhabited by the zeks, a world of camps, repression and death, but also of spiritual renewal that he famously named “the gulag archipelago.””
Yet, there are many negative opinions and characterizations of Solzhenitsyn’s person and his work. Are these analyses of Solzhenitsyn as anti-democratic, theocratic, and pro-Putin, to name a few, accurate and revealing of something many of his admirers have missed? Or is it the case that many Western writers fail to understand the nature of Solzhenitsyn’s critique of both Communism and the materialism and unbound freedom of late-modern western democracies, to say nothing of their understanding of the Russian nation and culture, and the type of political freedom that Solzhenitsyn advocated for after Soviet Communism fell? Mahoney’s discussion of these questions and ideas is fascinating.
Some might wonder why we need to listen to the words of Solzhenitsyn given that communism failed. One answer might be that we have been unable to deal with the monstrous legacy of communism. Why? Solzhenitsyn’s reasoning that communism was the fulfillment of philosophical modernity surely merits consideration on the question of our diffidence in confronting communism’s record of death and destruction.