Commentary Magazine


Solzhenitsyn

To the Editor:

I was astonished to see Abraham Brumberg, in his review of Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, Volume III [Books in Review, February], joining the campaign that has been going on for two or three years to discredit, or perhaps to tame, Solzhenitsyn. Given the initial impression made by Solzhenitsyn in the West, such a campaign could only take the form of trying to separate the wheat from the chaff. And here it is: “It would be as inexcusable to ignore its flaws as to underrate its searing [of course!] achievements.” What are the searing achievements? Apparently that Solzhenitsyn has written “the most monumental indictment of Stalinist despotism.” But every alert reader in the West has known for twenty years now that Stalin’s regime was inhumanly savage. If the importance of Solzhenitsyn consisted only in this, he would not be of any deep interest. Such a view of Solzhenitsyn would have its uses; it would assimilate him, amoeba-like, to the respectable consensus of American opinion since the 50’s, neatly removing any need to think about his other, sometimes surprising, opinions.

It is easier for Mr. Brumberg to dismiss the “flaws” in Solzhenitsyn’s thought because he can identify them with the “pervasive ethos” of the Soviet Union—as if flaws in a nation’s political institutions somehow reproduced themselves in the psychological “ethos” of its writers. A low opinion of Bismarckian Germany does not imply a low opinion of Nietzsche—not even if one thinks they had significant traits in common, because we demand different excellences from a thinker and from a system of government.

In any case, Mr. Brumberg is able to achieve this identification of Solzhenitsyn with the ethos of the regime through a view of the Soviet political order that is as conventional and smug as the reception of Solzhenitsyn it is intended to bolster. The Soviet Union’s pervasive ethos consists of “intolerance, lack of historical perspective, a tendency to see the world in Manichean terms, a search for ideological (or religious?) absolutes, a zeal for crusades.” These are terms familiar from descriptions of extremism in the United States. But do they describe what is uniquely characteristic of the USSR? Intolerant the USSR certainly is, but to use that word alone misses its distinctiveness: most intolerant regimes in history have no secret police chief known for his contacts with certain selected dissidents. In fact, the kept rebel—like Yevtushenko—is now an institution of the Soviet Union.

I am not sure what “historical perspective” would be, or the lack of it, but there are few regimes so obsessed with history. The USSR dotes on Lenin, on the Revolution, on the “Great Patriotic War” (World War II) in a way that we dote on nothing in the past. “A zeal for crusades?” Perhaps, but into one’s account of these crusades one must incorporate the Hitler-Stalin pact, the wartime negotiations for a separate peace with Nazi Germany, the betrayal of the Greek Communists to Churchill, the abandonment of North Korea—one could go on and on, perhaps ending when the Soviet ruling groups responded to the mining of Haiphong by giving the U.S. President a state dinner in the Kremlin. Is this behavior evidence of “a tendency to see the world in Manichean terms, a search for ideological . . . absolutes”?

Turning to domestic policy, when the Soviet regime made anti-Semitism, the rallying cry of the White counterrevolution, into a political platform after 1946, did it give evidence of a Manichean search for absolutes or of a depth of opportunism never observed in any Western country?

I cite these incidents in Soviet history only to indicate how inadequately considered, and how conventional, is the basis upon which Mr. Brumberg wishes to separate the parts of Solzhenitsyn that we should take seriously from those we should not. I am afraid that we may miss something by such a hasty winnowing. Like many Americans, I do not know exactly what to think of Solzhenitsyn, and some of the things he has said were not what I most wanted to hear. But that seems all the more reason to consider them thoughtfully. Mr. Brumberg’s review, on the other hand, is not only thoughtless but a call for thoughtlessness.

Charles H. Fairbanks, Jr.
Yale University
New Haven, Connecticut

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To the Editor:

. . . I think Abraham Brumberg has overstated Solzhenitsyn’s presumed resignation over his fellow countrymen’s lack of will to resist Soviet tyranny. Solzhenitsyn described . . . exactly this will to resist many years before writing Volume III of The Gulag Archipelago. In One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich—that is, in those passages censored by Glavlit when the novella was allowed to appear in the pages of Novy Mir in 1962—Solzhenitsyn discloses his zek-hero, Shukhov’s, inner thoughts about one day getting revenge for the inhumane treatment of the labor-camp prisoners. About the civilian bureaucrat, Der, who tyrannizes over the zeks, Solzhenitsyn has Shukhov say to himself: “Here he is again. One should get the blood of this bastard. . . If only the zeks would not backbite each other so much . . . the authorities [would have] no power over them.” . . .

From exhaustive reading of Solzhenitsyn’s writings, I would suggest that the great Russian author finds relative non-resistance among his countrymen to be the result not of flagging courage or flaccid resignation—for which there would be grounds for some sort of apology if it were a characteristic of the Russian people—but rather a consequence of the overwhelming power of that incinerator of human souls, the Soviet “Sewage Disposal System,” or simply, the “System.” Even so, Volume I recounts numerous instances of unauthorized strikes and peasant unrest in the civilian population in the early years of Soviet rule. By the time of Stalin, . . . the state and party machinery for repressing and terrorizing the people had been so perfected that resistance became foolhardy and sacrificial.

“Rational courage,” as Plato once said, is far more effective and commendable than the reckless sort. Of the former sort of courage, today’s Russian dissidents give numerous examples. For his own courage in the post-Stalin period of relatively relaxed brute terror by the regime, Solzhenitsyn not only does not have to “atone,” but should be eminently and justifiably proud. . . .

Albert L. Weeks
New York City

_____________

 

To the Editor:

Abraham Brumberg finds it difficult to reconcile “the Christian moralist par excellence” who wrote From Under the Rubble with the . . . man who cannot forgive a young camp guard for remaining at his service; the Solzhenitsyn who faults Western liberals for their overestimation of Soviet subservience; the opponent of tyranny and historian who can be ambivalent, if not contradictory, in his accounts of the Vlasovites.

Mr. Brumberg’s difficulty, I believe, stems from his failure to grasp the consistent spirit which manifests itself in “the contradictions that emerge from [Solzhenitsyn’s] writings.” The ground of Solzhenitsyn’s essay, “Repentance and Self-Limitation,” is, in fact, not Christian moralism but self-knowledge: the knowledge gleaned from an empirical study of present and past which leads to the conclusion that few individuals and no nations are free from vice and error. This argument is made precisely to combat the Soviet ethos of intolerance inspired by an ideological absolute. Since the necessary beginning of the regeneration of morality and truth is reflection on experience, why can Solzhenitsyn not deny forgiveness to the camp guards who have seen for themselves the characters of both inmates and overseers and have failed to test Soviet propaganda by empirical reality? Mr. Brumberg himself cannot forgive the Vlasovites, who could not be defended in Volume I until the reader had been exposed to the full horror of Soviet tyranny. But they were no less creatures of enduring Russian anti-Semitism, and they had no time to form judgments about comparative atrocities. Finally, Solzhenitsyn faults Western liberals not so much for their liberalism as for their failure adequately to defend liberty in fact and principle. . . .

Delba Winthrop
Radcliffe College
Cambridge, Massachusetts

_____________

 

Abraham Brumberg writes:

I think my critics would be well advised (1) to reread my review (Albert L. Weeks); (2) to reread certain passages of The Gulag Archipelago, Volume III (Delba Winthrop); (3) to refrain from speculating about my motives for criticizing Solzhenitsyn (Charles H. Fairbanks, Jr.).

  1. I do not see how I could have “overestimated Solzhenitsyn’s presumed resignation about his fellow countrymen’s lack of will to resist Soviet tyranny” while dwelling on precisely the opposite—that is, on Solzhenitsyn’s tribute to his countrymen’s struggle against Soviet tyranny.
  2. Solzhenitsyn is eminently “consistent,” writes Miss Winthrop, in condemning the former camp guard and exonerating—indeed, praising—the Vlasovites. The former, after all, had had ample time “to test Soviet propaganda by empirical reality,” while the latter were “creatures of Soviet propaganda” with “no time to form judgments about comparative atrocities.” Does this blissful ignorance, I wonder, exculpate the Vlasovites from their own atrocities, about which Solzhenitsyn says nothing? At any rate, the Vlasovites were apparently not all that uninformed. They “knew,” says Solzhenitsyn in Volume III of The Gulag Archipelago, that Soviet totalitarianism was infinitely more savage than “even the regime of its pupil Hitler.” They had the right, therefore, to assume that “the Western allies had entered this war” not “only against Nazism,” but in order to bring about the downfall of the Soviet dictatorship. Yet what, he observes, could you expect of the “same allies for whom Russians had died in World War I, and who then, too, had abandoned our army in the moment of collapse, hastening back to their comforts?” I cannot believe Miss Winthrop is serious in considering this nonsense an example of “knowledge gleaned from an empirical study of present and past.”
  3. I don’t know what and whom Mr. Fairbanks has in mind when he speaks darkly of a “campaign . . . to discredit, or perhaps to tame, Solzhenitsyn,” but I should like to assure him that I, for one, have no interest in it. Nor could I care less about “the respectable consenus of American opinion.” What does interest me is the striking contradiction between Solzhenitsyn’s brilliant gifts as an observer of human suffering and courage, and his penchant for thunderous anathemas and tendentious generalizations; or, if you will, between Solzhenitsyn the artist and the prophet. Since my review dealt with the third volume of Gulag, it was this book that I singled out both for its “flaws” and for its “searing achievements.” It simply won’t do for Mr. Fairbanks to say that in my opinion “the importance of Solzhenitsyn consists only” in having written “the most monumental indictment of Stalinist despotism,” and then to claim that this opinion is inspired by manipulative considerations (it “would have its uses”). Neither statement is in accord with the facts.

The central problem raised by Mr. Fairbanks—whether Solzhenitsyn truly reflects the “pervasive ethos” of the Soviet Union—is certainly complex and one that my brief remarks could not do justice to. Any systematic attempt to understand the Soviet ethos, for instance, would have to consider the extent to which it has been influenced by certain traditional patterns of Russian political culture. Mr. Fairbanks is right in asserting that the traits I listed (intolerance, absolutism, and so on) are only part of the story. But he is wrong when he implies that opportunism is incompatible with extremism, that an adversary relationship precludes rampant cynicism and flexible accommodations, or that obsession with history is synonymous with historical objectivity (indeed, in the Soviet example the reverse is patently the case).

It would be preposterous for me to suggest that all these distinctive features of Soviet political institutions have “somehow reproduced themselves” in Solzhenitsyn’s political “ethos.” But it is dismaying to note, as one reads Solzhenitsyn’s numerous public statements over the past five years, to what extent his views and attitudes have been shaped by his political-cultural background. Solzhenitsyn’s recent interview with the BBC (the Listener, London, February 22, 1979) is illustrative. The reader will find it bristling with sweeping condemnations of recent Soviet émigrés who burn with “a fierce hatred, not of the Soviet system, but of Russia itself, of its very people”; of American intellectuals “almost all of whom” (this should be of interest to the readers of COMMENTARY) have an abiding “sympathy for socialism and Communism”; of “Western scholarship” which (pace Mr. Fairbanks) “for 55 years . . . knew nothing about the Gulag” and “did not believe that it existed.” They will find it, in short, permeated with the very “ethos of intolerance inspired by an ideological absolute” (Miss Winthrop’s words) which the author of The Gulag Archipelago and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich had set out to combat.

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