The Solzhenitsyn Question
To the Editor:
I am delighted I stimulated Norman Podhoretz to write such an excellent article [“The Terrible Question of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn,” February], but I don’t differ from him on the nature of Solzhenitsyn’s talent quite as much as he seems to think. He writes that I “seem to regard [Solzhenitsyn] as a major artist in the line of the great 19th-century novelists, in some respects resembling Tolstoy and in others Dostoevsky.” This is not quite so. I point out that this is the way he regards himself. I also point out that the secret of his literary freshness and novelty for Soviet readers was that he invoked and imitated the classics in order to overturn Soviet aesthetics and show them up for the shoddy goods they were. But I don’t think I state anywhere that Solzhenitsyn was necessarily as good as his models.
To tell the truth, I had originally intended to devote more of my book to the literary aspect of Solzhenitsyn’s works, but that was before I realized how much I had to say on other matters, and saw what a monster I had spawned. If I had done so, perhaps I could have made my attitude clearer (though my criticism of August 1914 is pretty forthright, I think). In fact, I rather agree with Mr. Podhoretz’s assessment that Gulag and The Oak and the Calf will stand as his very best works. However, I think Mr. Podhoretz still underrates Ivan Denisovich, Matryona’s Place, and the best pages of The First Circle. In this respect, I tend to the opinion of the late Arkady Belinkov, whom I quote in my book, who compared Solzhenitsyn to the painters of the Renaissance. Their inspiration was the classical past, but what they produced was something new and fresh, and with it they swept away the decayed forms of the Middle Ages. Solzhenitsyn’s literary achievement was less grandiose (he was only one man, after all) and took place within an infinitely shorter time span, but on a miniature scale the analogy holds. He swept away the dead weight of Socialist Realism and reminded Russian writers of a past that they had not exactly forgotten, but had come to regard as a museum culture. More importantly, he showed them ways of drawing creatively on that past and using it in their work in the present. It was no mean achievement, and any appreciation of Solzhenitsyn’s role in 20th-century Russian history must take account of this important literary dimension.
Woking, Surrey, England
To the Editor:
I think Norman Podhoretz’s piece on Solzhenitsyn is one of the finest things I’ve ever seen. Congratulations.
William F. Rickenbacker
Lake Charles, Louisiana
To the Editor:
. . . Norman Podhoretz’s article is simply the best short piece—or long piece for that matter—on Solzhenitsyn that I’ve ever read. His comparison of Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn is, to my mind, right on the mark. Solzhenitsyn’s best books are easily those in which he sees himself as a prophet, and The Oak and the Calf—aside from One Day in the Life—is the most readable. He’s right too about the major works of fiction; they are inert. . . . I also agree exactly with Mr. Podhoretz’s discussion of Solzhenitsyn’s anti-Semitism. And, of course, with his final paragraphs about Solzhenitsyn’s challenge to us.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
To the Editor:
As one of those who have read all the translated works of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn—and the Michael Scammell biography as well—I want to thank Norman Podhoretz for helping me to clarify my feelings about this great man.
I agree completely with what Mr. Podhoretz says about Solzhenitsyn’s meaning for the West, and with his subtle but pointed criterion: i.e., the combination of megalomania and selfishness as a psychological precondition for artistic greatness.
But I’m not sure I agree with what he says about The First Circle and Cancer Ward. Though these books are labeled “novels,” the characters therein (and especially that of Stalin) “lived” for me and seemed to be in the same genre as Ivan Denisovich Shukhov and those in the Gulag (Solzhenitsyn himself described Gulag as an exercise in history written in “novel” form).
I am no authority on literature, but I’m not sure that Solzhenitsyn should be categorized or pigeonholed as a novelist . . . though he wishes, as Mr. Podhoretz points out, so to categorize himself. His importance, even genius, is beyond such narrow categorization; perhaps “writer” is the only adequate term. . . .
New York City
To the Editor:
I was impressed by Norman Podhoretz’s wonderfully perceptive and judicious article on Solzhenitsyn, which does full justice to a man who is one of the great figures of our time. Few people, I am sure, can write with more authority on Solzhenitsyn than Mr. Podhoretz has.
I heartily agree with Mr. Podhoretz’s judgment on The Oak and the Calf, but Cancer Ward meant more to me than it apparently did to him. Whether it is a well-constructed novel I am in no position to judge, but as a demonstration of the survival of decency, sympathy, and kindness—I hesitate to use the word “compassion”—under the most difficult conditions, it is a great human document.
Regnery Gateway, Inc.
To the Editor:
Norman Podhoretz’s article is at once informative, reassuring, and a great disappointment. Having read all of Solzhenitsyn’s books that have been translated into English, I was naturally compelled by the subject. Since I am in complete agreement with Mr. Podhoretz’s well-known views on the Soviet regime, . . . I sat down to read the article with great anticipation.
Mr. Podhoretz provides a wealth of fascinating biographical information which one is hard put to find elsewhere. In addition, his deep respect for Solzhenitsyn’s “superhuman” courage comes through loud and clear. He also hit the mark perfectly in his defense of Solzhenitsyn against such epithets as “anti-democratic Slavophile.” I also agree that Solzhenitsyn is an implicit rather than an overt anti-Semite, though I have not read his latest volume. . . .
On these points and on questions of political interpretation in general, I heartily agree; it is Norman Podhoretz the literary critic who loses me altogether.
Having also read all of the English translations of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy I, like Mr. Podhoretz, cannot help comparing Solzhenitsyn with these past giants but, unlike Mr. Podhoretz, I believe Solzhenitsyn’s stature is equal to theirs. . . . When dealing with writers as complex and prolific as these, any generalizations must be supported by at least a few specifics. . . . Yet Mr. Podhoretz asks us to accept his sweeping statement that Solzhenitsyn is not even “a true novelist.” Mr. Podhoretz thus brushes aside thousands of pages of fiction, calling it dead weight, saying it “fail[s] to live,” without giving so much as a shred of specific criticism. If by “failing to live” Mr. Podhoretz means that Solzhenitsyn’s characters are flat and inexpressive, without souls. dead, then he certainly should have supported his assertions with at least one example.
In the classic Cancer Ward, where Solzhenitsyn sensitively portrays the suffering of cancer patients, what reader can forget the dignified portrayal of Oleg Kostoglotov? He is a simple man, a man of great kindness and empathy. In the closing pages, Kostoglotov is finally released, only to be crammed into a freight train, headed for certain death. Yet there is an optimistic note as well, for Kostoglotov is glad finally to be free to “feel the sun.” Kostoglotov is as fully portrayed and unforgettable a character as Prince Myshkin in The Idiot or Stepan Verkhovensky in The Possessed . . . .
I would also like to comment on Mr. Podhoretz’s praise of The Gulag Archipelago. Here we go from dead weight to hero worship. How is it that The Gulag Archipelago is so vastly superior to Solzhenitsyn’s other achievements when all of these books contain much of the same raw material? Instead of one long story, The Gulag Archipelago is composed of a myriad of tiny stories. And who can say that the material for Cancer Ward or The First Circle, etc., is not drawn as much from reality as The Gulag Archipelago? Solzhenitsyn himself states toward the end of the second volume of The Gulag Archipelago that the subject by its nature has become mercilessly redundant. In fact, by the third volume one is no longer shocked and outraged but simply numbed by such vast horror. . . .
Solzhenitsyn’s greatness lies in his ability to breathe life and humanitarian ethos into history. In each of his novels, he has compiled a mass of information and sculpted it into vivid lifelike experience, all with great sensitivity.
A literary figure as prominent as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn deserves more specific critical attention than the drubbing he received from Mr. Podhoretz. . . .
Kurt R. Sax
To the Editor:
It was a delight to read Norman Podhoretz’s powerful essay on Solzhenitsyn, and on Michael Scammell’s new biography, which he rightly describes as “wonderful.” A small quibble: personally, I would rank Solzhenitsyn’s novels distinctly higher as literary achievements. I even belong to what appears to be the minority within a minority that both read and admired August 1914. Perhaps the novels’ mixed reception is due to some extent to the fact that, on top of all his obvious and transcendent themes, Solzhenitsyn seems to have retained an engineer’s interest in fairly obscure technical issues. Cancer Ward was partly a rather somber meditation on the nature of medical knowledge, and August 1914 meant a lot more to readers who have spent time worrying about the problems of writing military history. On the other hand, his biographer reports that Solzhenitsyn is reworking much of The Red Wheel and appears to be having difficulty completing it. So perhaps his own view is secretly closer to that of Mr. Podhoretz!
New York City
To the Editor:
In my recent experience there has been no more striking confirmation of the adage that there is no accounting for tastes, even among the most like-minded, than Norman Podhoretz’s “The Terrible Question of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.” In several years of reading COMMENTARY I have found nothing to disagree with in Mr. Podhoretz’s articles, at least nothing that would send me to my typewriter. But having read the works of Solzhenitsyn as steadily as those of Mr. Podhoretz, I was struck by the fact that I hold views on Solzhenitsyn’s novels that are the direct opposite of his. I found The First Circle the most gripping work written in my lifetime; August 1914 a novel I could not put down, for its sweep, tension, and lessons; and Cancer Ward a literary expression of human values that makes them come to life like nothing else I know. The First Circle and Lenin in Zurich provide portraits of Lenin and Stalin that bring them to life as venal little men in a way a dozen biographies have not captured, while August 1914′s treatment of Samsonov, the Russian commander at Tannenburg, makes real a Russian utterly hidden from the 20th century by its historians.
I am sure there is a good explanation of why Mr. Podhoretz and I have such different views about these works. But with due respect for his learning, I can only conclude that literary criticism, even of Mr. Podhoretz’s coherent and informed kind . . ., is really just the expression of unadjudicable taste at best, with a status quite inconsequential in comparison to the literature it seeks to understand and appraise. . . . Probably there is no question of right or wrong, truth or falsity when it comes to literary criticism. How otherwise can I square my respect for Mr. Podhoretz with my profound moral and aesthetic debt to Solzhenitsyn?
My debt is a moral as well as an artistic one, for it was through those works of Solzhenitsyn which Mr. Podhoretz “rightly” prizes, the three volumes of The Gulag Archipelago, that I and others were brought to the view of the Soviet Union, and of the monstrousness of Marxism, that we share with Mr. Podhoretz. To put it briefly, it was reading Solzhenitsyn that led me to take COMMENTARY seriously. In the magazine’s pages, off and on, writers have wrestled with the “terrible question” Solzhenitsyn presents to us. It is not a question about Solzhenitsyn, as Mr. Podhoretz’s title suggests, but a question of whether our secular institutions, and the toleration of all viewpoints (even those inimical to humanity) spawned by our ideological and religious skepticism, is really a viable middle ground between the inevitable totalitarianism Marxism requires and the religious authoritarianism to which Solzhenitsyn has been driven.
Syracuse, New York
To the Editor:
It certainly surprised me that Norman Podhoretz considers Solzhenitsyn’s rank as a novelist to be one of the “terrible questions.” It never occurred to me to take him seriously in that category. . . . Perhaps that’s why I never made the effort to get and read the first volume of his war book, on which Solzhenitsyn himself seems to place so much importance.
Yet I find even the question of whether War and Peace is the towering novel so many people think it is not to be the point here. After all, Tolstoy himself considered Shakespeare a terrible writer, and wrote at great length about his false preeminence among playwrights. . . . I myself, in a modest and obscure way, found nothing in War and Peace more wonderful than the combined effect of the great short works like The Death of Ivan Ilyich; it is merely longer. In any case, such comparisons are not in my opinion of much use.
I think Mr. Podhoretz . . . is too much inclined to respect biographies. What could Scammell . . . tell me that would either make me revere the great man more, or temper my admiration? As men we are all flawed, but I regard Solzhenitsyn as does Malcolm Muggeridge, who called him “the noblest human being alive.” For those of us, and I think Mr. Podhoretz is one, who agree with Sidney Hook that “the question involved [of one's attitude toward Communism] is probably the central political-cultural-intellectual problem of the 20th century,” Solzhenitsyn is the incarnation of the biblical witness. He is unique and invaluable in our time. So even if he himself is a bit vain, and mistakenly so, about his novelistic powers, to me it matters hardly at all. . . .
About The Oak and the Calf, I did not think when I read it that Solzhenitsyn was a “megalomaniac,” but quite interested in his own importance. Aren’t all great authors? I compare Solzhenitsyn’s relationship to Tvardovsky with Mr. Podhoretz’s tribute to another exiled writer, Milan Kundera [“An Open Letter to Milan Kundera,” October 1984]. From that point of view, The Oak and the Calf may be even more remarkable than he says it is. Those American critics who have found Solzhenitsyn “ungrateful” and unable to recognize the contribution made by Tvardovsky to literary expression in that horrible country are only looking for some way to depreciate Solzhenitsyn.
From almost the very beginning I found, unlike Mr. Podhoretz’s view of the matter, that the Left-liberals were hard at work to depreciate and devalue Solzhenitsyn’s writings. So when he tells us that there are “staunch anti-Communists who oppose him because he espouses a species of Russian nationalism that is explicitly antidemocratic and implicitly anti-Semitic,” I have little sympathy. To me it is a fact that Jews were among the most numerous and active perpetrators of Communism in Russia, and have always been among the majority of its supporters in this country. What is to be gained by denying it? There is even a Communist faction in Israel. . . .
Mr. Podhoretz has chosen a quotation from Solzhenitsyn concerning “the failure to understand the radical hostility of Communism to mankind as a whole” that . . . is to my mind precisely right. To set against it a possible tinge of anti-Semitism that may or may not be in Solzhenitsyn’s writings is to my way of thinking to be fundamentally wrong about both Solzhenitsyn and Communism. And it makes me suspicious of those “staunch anti-Communists” he alludes to.
I seem to have lost track of the “terrible question.” I guess I don’t find any. That Solzhenitsyn is not a great novelist I will concede. But before the novelists Richardson and Fielding and Tolstoy there were many great writers. Swift and Dr. Johnson and many others have served the cause of freedom and enlightenment without being novelists. Perhaps Mr. Podhoretz’s “terrible question” was intended ironically. Solzhenitsyn is hardly a lovable personality. But I cannot conceive in our times of a more admirable one. . . .
Coram, New York
To the Editor:
Norman Podhoretz’s stimulating essay on Solzhenitsyn contains many shrewd observations but also a number of statements that are highly debatable. Among the latter is the extraordinary praise bestowed upon Michael Scammell’s recent biography of the Russian writer. The book is said to be “wonderful,” and it is even claimed that, as a biographer, Scammell has fulfilled the injunction of Matthew Arnold “to see the object as in itself it really is.”
Such a conclusion is unfortunately wide of the mark. I say this as a cousin of Natalia Reshetovskaya (Solzhenitsyn’s first wife) and Solzhenitsyn, and as one of the individuals extensively interviewed by Scammell for his book. For despite the prodigious labor that obviously went into the writing of this biography, it cannot serve as a reliable guide to the life and personality of Solzhenitsyn.
Most of the omissions and distortions that mar Scammell’s text stem from his inordinate dependence on the views of Reshetovskaya, as expressed both in her published writings and in a series of letters which she volunteered to send to Scammell from Moscow. Scammell is well aware that Reshetovskaya had earlier collaborated with Soviet authorities in their campaign to discredit Solzhenitsyn, yet he persists in accepting her version of events in a manner that can at best be called recklessly uncritical. As even one example will demonstrate, this attitude bears on more than the narrow question of the personal relationship between Reshetovskaya and Solzhenitsyn.
Scammell has described in elaborate detail the various stages of the divorce proceedings during 1971-72, noting even the fine nuances of Reshetovskaya’s moods. But then, incredibly, he has chosen to skip over the stormy events of 1972: two court hearings in Ryazan (in June and July); the appearance of a manipulated lawyer, Alexeyeva; the false testimony of Alexeyeva and Reshetovskaya in court; and finally the direct intervention of the KGB and the resultant scandalous publicity in August. These circumstances were widely known in Moscow at the time, and it is hard to believe that Scammell could have been unaware of them. No doubt Reshetovskaya would prefer silence about these less than savory episodes, but surely Scammell has an obligation to report how gross political machinations were injected into the divorce process with Reshetovskaya’s concurrence. As it stands, the picture Scammell presents is radically incomplete and hence misleading. (Readers can get an inkling of the true situation from the recently published memoirs of Galina Vishnevskaya, who witnessed a dramatic confrontation among Reshetovskaya, Solzhenitsyn, and Alexeyeva in the summer of 1972. See Galina, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984, pp. 414-19.)
The above example is by no means unique. Worse, it fits into a disturbing pattern of Scammell following Reshetovskaya’s lead whenever she attempts to dismiss or make light of Solzhenitsyn’s suspicions concerning the KGB. This inclination reaches a climax in Scammell’s comments on a meeting between Reshetovskaya and Solzhenitsyn during the extremely tense period after the manuscript of The Gulag Archipelago had fallen into the hands of the authorities.
The regime’s hysterical reaction to the subsequent publication of the work is surely proof enough that the authorities were more than a little worried about Solzhenitsyn. Yet Scammell blindly follows Reshetovskaya once again, dwelling approvingly and at length on her charge that in this context Solzhenitsyn’s fear of surveillance must be ascribed to a vigorous literary imagination.
It is difficult to say why Scammell’s critical acumen seems to desert him entirely when dealing with Reshetovskaya. Part of the reason seems to have been a misguided sense of loyalty to her. . . . The result is a biography that is very far indeed from the hope expressed by Matthew Arnold.
I should add that the text has other serious flaws, including an utter lack of sympathy for the writer’s religious convictions, and a less than honest portrayal of Scammell’s own relationship with Solzhenitsyn. There is also a scattering of factual errors, including incorrect identifications of eight photographs (e.g., the picture said to be Solzhenitsyn’s mother is of another woman).
A book on Solzhenitsyn worthy of Norman Podhoretz’s encomium has yet to appear.
Jersey City, New Jersey
To the Editor:
Since I have published my own review-essay of Michael Scammell’s biography of Solzhenitsyn (Catholicism in Crisis, February 1985), I shall not comment on various details of Norman Podhoretz’s article, though I certainly do not share his assessment that “it is a wonderful book” or that Scammell’s “scholarship is scrupulous.” Rather, I shall confine myself to Mr. Podhoretz’s remark that Solzhenitsyn “espouses a species of Russian nationalism that is explicitly anti-democratic. . . .”
Without the evidence for them, which I could offer in a full-length article, I present these five assertions about the complex subject of how Solzhenitsyn views democracy:
- He never urges the states of the West to abandon democracy.
- He speaks freely of the faults of modern Western democracies, but his criticisms are always of the faults and not of democracy per se.
- He fears the social upheaval which he expects would be the likely result if democracy were suddenly to be introduced into the political life of the Russians, who in their thousand-year history have known democracy (and then only abortively) for six months.
- He imagines that, as a substitute for the totalitarianism of the Soviet Union, authoritarianism might be preferable to democracy at the present moment.
- Most important, he has not declared, ever, a theoretical preference for authoritarianism over democracy.
From my scrutiny of every reference which Solzhenitsyn has made to the subject of democracy, I am convinced that the received opinion that he is explicitly anti-democratic is quite wrong.
Edward E. Ericson, Jr.
Grand Rapids, Michigan
To the Editor:
In “The Terrible Question of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn” Norman Podhoretz writes that the primary reason why critics in this country reject Solzhenitsyn is his harsh attacks on Western foreign policy since 1945. Solzhenitsyn seemingly leaves open no possibility for negotiation to compromise with Marxist regimes. [He] indicts the West’s failure to perceive the true nature of the adversary—an adversary which he describes as “irredeemable.” . . . American foreign policy, however, has consistently operated on the assumption that the adversary is not “irredeemable,” but may be “reformed.”
The controversy arising from Solzhenitsyn’s indictment of postwar American foreign policy can perhaps be resolved by a reexamination of the foundations of American policy beginning with a careful rereading of the early postwar works of George F. Kennan, the author of “containment” and the principal intellectual architect of American postwar policy. In his famous 1947 article, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” Kennan assured us that there are absolute limits which are “binding even for the cruelest dictatorship,” and that we could promote a “gradual mellowing” or perhaps even the breakup of the Soviet regime through a policy of containment and by presenting to the world the example of our own economic development, spiritual vitality, and moral and political leadership. All of this could be accomplished if “the Western world finds the strength and resourcefulness to contain Soviet power over a period of ten to fifteen years.” . . .
In contrast to Solzhenitsyn’s vision of an “irredeemable” Soviet totalitarianism, we have Kennan’s vision of redemption in “ten to fifteen years” (which takes us from 1947 to, at the latest, 1962). From its inception, containment rested upon the dubious democratic faith that a totalitarian regime cannot last long and that such regimes are amenable to moral example, to compromise and restraint, and to the Western liberal reform tradition. From FDR’s naive faith that he could charm Stalin, to “containment,” . . . to “one man, one vote” in Vietnam and “the TVA on the Mekong,” to “détente,” the bankruptcy of the liberal tradition in foreign policy is abundantly clear.
It is this bankruptcy . . . which Solzhenitsyn’s criticisms have served to illuminate. What annoys his critics is that they don’t like being told how mistaken they have been. Solzhenitsyn has made two fundamental charges against the West: first, that Western foreign policy has been, and continues to be, a failure, for which the West will pay dearly; secondly, that Western intellectuals and policy-makers have unwittingly (and in some instances knowingly) aided and abetted Marxist totalitarianism not only in his own country but in other nations as well. Those who criticize Solzhenitsyn on the grounds that he is a Slavophile Russian nationalist, an anti-democratic Czarist autocrat, or a Christian mystic are simply resorting to ad hominem attacks as a means of ducking the issue.
Mr. Podhoretz correctly states that “our main business is with his [Solzhenitsyn's] challenge to us.” What is most dismaying is that we should have needed Solzhenitsyn to point out so graphically and candidly all of the failures of Western policy toward Marxist totalitarianism. Perhaps it was necessary that a Russian render this vital service because Americans have always viewed the world through the blinders of their own democratic experience. . . .
Some means whereby the American democratic experience can be reconciled to the requirements of realism in foreign policy is crucial and has long been needed. Solzhenitsyn’s grim message has only made more urgent a resolution of this vital America dilemma.
James E. Salyers
To the Editor:
I read Norman Podhoretz’s article on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn twice and found it very thorough, penetrating, and fair. Readers should remember the last paragraph for the rest of their lives! However, in dealing with Solzhenitsyn’s alleged anti-Semitism, Mr. Podhoretz uses qualifiers . . . which dilute his defense of Solzhenitsyn to the point that it almost becomes an accusation.
It is my judgment as a Russian-American that American misconceptions and biases about Russians play right into the hands of international Communists. The Russian people will have a crucial role to play in liberating the Soviet Union and its satellites from Communism. The Russians were the first to raise arms against the Bolsheviks, and despite sixty-eight years of coercion, terror, and propaganda, still do not accept Communist teachings. My own four-year stay in the Soviet Union (1978-82) confirms this. I also learned that Russian intellectuals know much more about attitudes in the United States than I thought they would.
What they are looking for is American recognition of the distinction between the Russian people and the Soviet regime. They want our moral and ideological support for their struggle for freedom and human dignity in the Soviet Union. What can we offer these people? Academics espouse a convenient and false theory that Communist totalitarianism is simply a continuation of Czarist absolutism. “Liberals” proclaim that Russians corrupted and deformed the otherwise respectable theory of Communism. The United States government officially accuses the Russian people of subjugating everyone else in the Soviet Union (see the Captive Nations Law of 1959). The media equate Russia with the Soviet Union, Russians with Communists and Bolsheviks, and sometimes go even further by reversing roles (“Soviet” ballet versus “Russian” tanks). The American public absorbs all this as truth, and this can lead to extreme reactions. In the fall of 1983, a young Russian-American woman—Tania Zelensky—was killed in Vermont by a criminally-confused American “patriot” merely because of her Russian background.
Liberals of this nation accept national pride and patriotism as attributes of all nations but become very uneasy about Russian patriotism, which they automatically brand as authoritarian, anti-democratic, chauvinistic, imperialistic, etc. The ruling junta in the Soviet Union cannot ask for better propaganda than this, but freedom-loving Russians experience disappointment and bitterness. This is unfair to the Russian people as well as counterproductive and dangerous to the cause of freedom and democracy in the world.
Alexis B. Bogolubov
To the Editor:
When the rulers (not leaders) of the Soviet Union were confronted with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, they did not back down or collapse, contrary to what Mr. Podhoretz asserts. Rather, they acted intelligently to neutralize a threat when they expelled him. Solzhenitsyn’s opinions, which he is too honest to conceal, have alienated people in the West and discredited the Russian dissident movement here. Nothing so useful as this could have been accomplished by sending him back to the Gulag or into internal exile. It is instructive to compare the treatment of Solzhenitsyn with the treatment of Andrei Sakharov, a genuine democrat whose opinions are congenial to us. Sakharov has been silenced, with the minimum necessary force—but silenced. . . .
Sioux Falls, South Dakota
To the Editor:
When an influential group of American intellectuals, liberals and neoconservatives alike, has united against one man, a Russian scribbler who has taken refuge in a New England town, there ought to be something big at stake. Their own explanation is that Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn is a reactionary, a social conservative, an anti-democrat, a 19th-century romantic or paternalistic type, a strong statist, a nationalist, and whatever else.
There is an irony about this case, because true social conservatives like Patrick Buchanan, paternalistic statists like George Will, religious romantics like Malcolm Muggeridge, and extreme political right-wingers like James Burnham, are not really ostracized by the entire intellectual community. One probably should not take the interested parties’ explanation in the Solzhenitsyn case at face value. An economist would rather think that Solzhenitsyn in some way did damage to the sense of existence and corporate welfare of the intellectual elite regardless of political persuasion and far beyond narrow Russian issues.
Perhaps a simple example can hint at the underlying reason. Jeane Kirkpatrick argued for the comparative advantage of an authoritarian state in some less developed, overpopulated countries of Latin America in the 1980′s. Solzhenitsyn argued for the comparative advantage of an authoritarian state in Russia in the 1900′s-1910′s and in the hypothetical transitory period after Communism. Yet Kirkpatrick is acceptable, at least to neoconservatives, and Solzhenitsyn is not. The only explanation for the differential treatment I can see is that a corporate body of American intellectuals identifies itself with the power-sharing aspirations of Russian intellectuals of the 1900′s-1910′s and 1980′s-1990′s, while most Latin American intellectuals are integrated into their authoritarian political system anyway. Solzhenitsyn hit where it hurts most: he explored the issues of the costs of ideas, ideologies, and social arrangements of intellectuals to ordinary people.
I would argue that, from an economic perspective, Solzhenitsyn, contrary to the conventional wisdom, is an original and distinctive libertarian. Indeed, he is the only important libertarian who has ever published in the Russian language. (Libertarianism is alien to the Russian intellectual tradition. As Solzhenitsyn has noted, the Russian intellectual community was very special in never having understood true classical liberalism.) . . . In addition, I would argue that Solzhenitsyn is one of the most far-reaching modern libertarian thinkers on the issue of individual freedom and the sources of its curtailment above and beyond institutions. There is a special niche for Solzhenitsyn in modern social theory. It deals with the costs of ideas and the primacy of ideologies in the truncation of freedom and dehumanization of man.
Economists have long recognized the crucial role that ideas, and intellectuals as producers and transmitters of ideas, play in establishing restrictions on freedom. . . . As John Maynard Keynes put it in his celebrated dictum:
The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by very little else. Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from academic scribblers of a few years back.
From this perspective most economists of different schools would be on Solzhenitsyn’s side in his dispute with the majority of Soviet experts on the origins of Communist terror and the Gulag. Solzhenitsyn went to some length to elaborate and document his basic proposition: the main source of terror and forced labor on a mass scale is the imposition of ideas on people via ideological states. Solzhenitsyn’s books, and The Gulag Archipelago in particular, are all about the price of ideologies to people. The precedence of ideologies to institutions of power and to groups in power constitutes Solzhenitsyn’s case against Marxism and other socialist doctrines.
Unlike various pre-capitalistic economic systems and despotic states in the past, the modern socialist economy is built on a foundation of ideology. Past socialist-type systems, dubbed by the Marxists “the Asiatic mode of production” (better known in Western literature as Oriental despotism) regulated already existing economies and life styles; they did not invent new ones. When Russia slipped in 1917 from liberal socialism to Communism, the economy was built upon an ideological model.
Economic historians are familiar with the fact that on the second day of the revolution, Lenin summoned an amateur economist, Yuri Larin, an expert on the German economic model of War Socialism, and ordered him to establish and expand the model in Russia. Within three years, 1917-1920, the system of collective transactions known as War Communism was built. Gross National Product declined to the range of 4 percent to 20 percent of the prewar level (estimates vary). Famine began in 1918 and continued through 1921-1922, although the system had to be suspended in early 1921. The official Soviet data reported the famine-related death toll in 1921-1922 in the range of 4.9 to 5.1 million. Elsewhere I have published my calculations of the human losses during the War Communism period between the censuses of 1917 and 1920: they amounted to 15.6 million.
The process of implementing the ideological model requires not only oppression of individual political opponents but, first and foremost, the mass destruction of whole social classes and ethnic groups who do not fit the new system. Previous, non-ideological despotic systems imposed constraints on human activities, but did not try to impose a new model which would require fundamental changes in behavior itself. Lenin’s error, corrected later by the unappreciated economic whiz of the century, Joseph Stalin, lay in the fact that one cannot change basic modes of human behavior without making a so-called cultural revolution which would try to change human minds, human ways of doing things, individual preferences, and human nature. Until and unless this is done, the implementation of ideological designs on human guinea pigs reduces itself to negative selection, to the mass slaughter of unfit groups of human raw material. From Lenin’s and Pol Pot’s experience we know that the more ideologues hurry, the more they kill. The era of détente, when the USSR, Rumania, Poland, and East Germany began to exchange their undesirable subjects for Western subsidies, instead of murdering them, brought about an implicit liberal-conservative consensus that the slave-trade economic mode is a progressive one compared to uncorrupted idealistic Communism.
That is why conventional analogies between Communism and various despotic regimes in the past, whether in Russia or elsewhere, yield shallow results. The Communists or the Nazis may not seem to be much different from past tyrants, or even from the Chicago gangsters of the 30′s for that matter, but this does not explain one crucial difference neglected by all theoreticians of continuity with the past. To wit, the despots’ business is robbery, not murder. Murder is only the means of securing submission from the next in line to be robbed. Institutional robbery is but an extreme form of taxation. As good businessmen, despots make sure that their benefits exceed their costs, and thus they do not want to waste their taxpayers. Ideologues in a hurry to build a new economic system, on the other hand, opt for mass murder even if they destroy their sources of robbery. They allow the costs to exceed the benefits and forgo future gains because their main benefits are intangible and non-monetary ones. Their business is the imposition of ideologies, not taxes. Unlike even most conservatives, let alone liberals, Solzhenitsyn insists that Communism is not about power. Power for Communists is only a means for imposing ideologies on people.
Solzhenitsyn deprives intellectuals of the legitimacy of their professional alibi. They habitually blame the results of implementing ideologies on various despotic precedents which they can easily find in the past history of any country. They consistently ignore the above-mentioned factor of the non-ideological, non-invented nature of pre-capitalist economies. Solzhenitsyn emphasized that Russia makes an especially difficult case for the theoreticians of continuity with the past. Russia was for all practical purposes a capitalist country, although most peasants did not own their land until the Stolypin agrarian reform of 1906-1910. However, most of its economic and social relations were based on laissez-faire individual transactions, and the general trend of development of the country was toward universal freedom.
Like leading neoclassical liberal economists, Solzhenitsyn argues for the preeminence of economic freedom and economic development over the political freedoms of interested groups. . . . Precisely this approach is at the center of his analysis of the economic and social policies of the Czarist government versus those of the democratic provisional government of 1917. The crucial issue is that of the Russian rural commune.
Solzhenitsyn interprets the commune as a more significant form of serfdom than feudal serfdom itself. The commune meant the predominant economic power of the state, not just of landlords, over the peasantry via taxes imposed on rural settlements collectively, with the ensuing absence of private ownership of land on the part of peasants. The collectivist system of the commune constrained peasants’ incentives and economic development.
On many dozens of pages of the new two-volume version of August 1914, Solzhenitsyn describes how the Czarist government, under the premiership of Peter A. Stolypin, worked hard in the period 1906-1910 to abolish the rural commune institution and to establish private land property for peasants so that they would become a new class of farmers. Solzhenitsyn also describes how most of the parties of the newly emerged Russian parliament, both Left and Right, and most of the intellectual community, resisted this preeminent capitalist reform of Russian history.
The truth of the matter—a most unpleasant truth for Western admirers of the Russian intelligentsia and representative institutions—is that the alleged Russian liberals were not liberal at all in the sense of classical liberalism. In his preface to the Russian edition of The History of Liberalism in Russia, 1762-1914 by Victor Leontowitch, Solzhenitsyn endorsed Leontowitch’s analysis showing that the only liberal force, however inconsistent, in modern Russian history was the Czarist government. And the most anti-liberal, anti-capitalistic force was the Russian intelligentsia. Here, of course, is one of the painful points for Western critics of Solzhenitsyn, who have a natural affinity with Russian intellectuals and their fight against Czarism. When in February 1917 Czarism was finally overthrown, one of the first acts of the liberals who came to power was the abolition of the Russian parliament whose right to power-sharing they had ostensibly championed against the Czarist government for years.
The long-sought dictatorship of liberal intellectuals was established, known in Western literature as the short-lived Russian democracy. At that time one could really speak out, without fear of pejorative associations, and the first post-revolutionary issue of the Journal of the Constitutional-Democratic Party (Vestnik Partii Narodnoi Svobody) acknowledged in an article by the most sophisticated ideologue of Russian liberals, A. S. Izgoev, that the Russian liberal movement was in effect, in all of its objectives, a socialist movement. Victor Leontowitch noted that the program of the Constitutional-Democratic party did not mention the right to own private property on its long list of basic rights. (Interestingly, during the revolutionary year of 1917, the liberals of the Constitutional-Democratic party went even further than the radical socialists. In their agrarian program for the elections to the Constituent Assembly the liberals requested, in addition to the abolition of private land ownership, also the prohibition of land lease and rent among peasants.)
On the laundry list of proofs that Solzhenitsyn is anti-democratic, a major item is his critique of the February 1917 revolution and of that short-lived Russian democracy. As a matter of fact, this was not a freedom-oriented government, but a system that provided the highest degree of exclusive freedom for intellectuals in the entire course of Russian history. I would concede that socialism with a human face can and did exist; several cases are available, and Russia of 1917 was a textbook example. There was little economic freedom; land property rights were suspended for good; most prices were imposed by the government; grain was virtually confiscated from producers; the country was run by various arbitrary committees of competing intellectuals; there was unlimited political freedom for anybody to the Left of Center and a tolerable sliding scale of freedom for those to the Right of Center; there were political prisoners, though, mostly former Czarist officials, some of whom were kept in solitary confinement; former Prime Minister Boris V. Shturmer happened to die in jail a few days before the Communists took power, his main crime being that he was of German origin.
The most significant act of the liberal-socialist provisional government took place on June 28, 1917. On that day the government suspended the Stolypin agrarian reform, prohibited all land deals and transactions in Russia, and actually cancelled all previous land contracts, that is, in effect, abolished private ownership of land by peasants throughout the nation. . . . The great socialist experiment began, months before the Communists seized power, and it is no wonder that Solzhenitsyn is not particularly fond of this pseudo-democracy.
Solzhenitsyn suggests that scholars who ignore the historical facts of the Russian free-market economy, including its destruction under the liberal-socialist government, and derive Communism from Czarism and various Russian oppressive institutions are actually in search of a scapegoat. These authors want to salvage the general right of well-meaning intellectuals to impose their preferences on ordinary people—a right they confuse with freedom of expression. In this substitution of two rights, intellectuals ignore the costs of ideologies to ordinary people on whom social designs are imposed. Here we are at the heart of the matter. Intellectuals perceive Solzhenitsyn’s case against ideology, socialism, and Marxism as a general assault on intellectual freedom. As Richard Pipes magnificently put it, it is horrifying to blame a German scribbler who died a hundred years ago for what happened to Russia many years after his death.
Professions have become more and more risky. Doctors are afraid of the epidemic of malpractice suits. Journalists are frightened by the tidal wave of libel suits. We hire lawyers to sue other lawyers for legal malpractice. As though this were not enough, along comes Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn with what many perceive as a case against wordsmiths for instigating mass murder. Naturally, the entire corporation, regardless of political persuasion, feels endangered. As individuals, many intellectuals still admire Solzhenitsyn. The recent hostility toward him across ideological borders is a corporate response. And it is a correct response because Solzhenitsyn is indeed against the corporate power of ideas, that is against ideologies.
Solzhenitsyn raised the issue, unexplored by economists as yet, of the hidden costs of ideas to people. Ideas are goods having two unique properties. First, they are both private goods, for they can in a sense be licensed, and public goods, for they can be used by others at no cost. Therefore, individual ideas may have tremendous hidden benefits for many generations. But ideas can also be abused by others at no cost to them and at real costs to the third parties. Therefore, individual ideas may also have tremendous hidden costs to the public. Ideas are public ills just as they are public goods. One cannot be sure with respect to any idea what its eventual effect may be. Ideas are thus time-bombs.
Secondly, those who produce and transmit ideas enjoy doing it. They circulate their merchandise even without any real market demand for it. Naturally, they would like to generate a demand for their goods. At the same time . . . their dealers are aware of the hidden costs to the public. There is always a danger that the costs of public goods or ills can be applied to the dealers in ideas. Historical precedents are abundant.
Some wordsmiths, myself included, can live with these sad facts of the market, namely low demand and potential bills. Others tend to circumvent the market. In order to do so, they incorporate ideas into loose or not so loose arrangements. These arrangements are ideologies. . . .
Ideologies, or Ideas Incorporated, substitute collective transactions between groups, classes, or nationalities for individual transactions. Ideologies work as collective arrangements, both within the network of intellectuals and when imposed on the public at large. Ideologies create collective behavior according to collective ideas and values which, in turn, should replace individual preferences. Here is the crucial matter for Solzhenitsyn: depotisms impose constraints, ideological systems impose changes on individual preferences, on human nature.
Precisely in order to impose themselves on people, incorporated ideas and corporate networks of intellectuals need to employ institutions and institutionalize themselves in the state. There is no other way for the ultimate implementation of ideological designs. This explains the great irony of why intellectuals, who as individuals need freedom more than anything else, settle for and impose upon the world the curtailment of freedom when acting as a corporate entity.
When collective behavior is substituted for individual behavior, the value of human life declines correspondingly. There are no limits in terms of human costs for ideological states. Once ideologies work as collective arrangements and constitute collective behavior, they take upon themselves the price an individual would otherwise pay for his or her actions. An individual murderer has a constraint: he may not be able to afford the price of murder, be it punishment, monetary penalty, revenge, or just expulsion from the market. Ideologies relax individual constraints, replacing them by collective constraints. Ideologies, Solzhenitsyn insists, provide an environment for mass slaughter and for any crime against humanity. People turn either into guinea pigs or henchmen. Ideologies contain within themselves and provide for their corporate members the very justification for enslavement and unlimited brutality. This applies, according to Solzhenitsyn, not just to Marxism alone, but to all ideologies, to all ideas which opted for incorporation into ideologies: Christianity, superiority of Western civilization, patriotism, Nazism, etc.
Solzhenitsyn’s major conclusion is that the main source of evil in the world is the very existence of ideological arrangements. This is a very discomforting conclusion for all intellectuals as professional wordsmiths, much more disconcerting than economic philosophy at large which only relates various assaults on freedom to ideas and ideologues, but does not make a cost-benefit analysis in this respect. The dealers in ideas do not want to bear individual responsibility for their unpredictable and precarious goods, nor risk having their goods stored without being used on dusty shelves. They complain that Solzhenitsyn is out to get them. Actually, what Solzhenitsyn wants is to bring them back on the market.
This is what he proposed in his widely misunderstood Letter to the Leaders of the Soviet Union: separation of ideology and state.
The dealers in ideas complain that Solzhenitsyn is after intellectual freedom and is therefore against freedom as such. But Solzhenitsyn is only against collective free riders on peoples’ backs.
Mikhail S. Bernstam
Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace
To the Editor:
. . . Solzhenitsyn has, by his life and works, . . . presented an accurate depiction of a Soviet hierarchical structure devoid of moral directive. . . . Because the scope and breadth of the Soviet controls sap all but the most meager attempts at rebellion or redirection, courage is not absent, it is only the means to convey and expand it that are wanting. . . .
Any writer creates a certain following and a certain level of critical opposition if he is of any significance. Solzhenitsyn spurs controversy . . . more severe than most. . . . Yet he offers almost the only voice . . . that carries sufficient clarity and strength to be heard. His singular recognition as Russia’s conscience has survived, but only through his personal courage and vision. . . .
Kinsley F. Nyce
To the Editor:
Norman Podhoretz’s unflinching examination of “Solzhenitsyn’s brand of Russian nationalism with its authoritarian coloration and its anti-Semitic potential” imparts a new and constructive direction to the long-running debate over the Nobel laureate’s presumed attitudes toward democracy and toward the Jews. Mr. Podhoretz is right: in terms of political action, the debate is irrelevant; we must deal with Solzhenitsyn’s life-or-death message to the West on its merits. To dismiss or ignore Solzhenitsyn’s warnings because we see them as tainted by his “anti-democratic Slavophilia” is more a betrayal than a defense of democracy.
To be even-handed, the anti-Israel remarks that accompanied the recent anti-apartheid message of another Nobel laureate, Bishop Desmond Tutu, at the Jewish Theological Seminary very properly did not deter Jewish lay and professional leaders from responding to his message with protests against South Africa’s official racism directed at that country’s embassy and consulates. Nor should the Bishop’s expressed dim view of Jews and Israelis blunt in any way our active opposition to apartheid.
As a footnote, the controversy over Solzhenitsyn’s attitude toward the Jews, now well into its second decade, is far from settled. The individual experts appear unable to arrive at a conclusive judgment. Jeri Laber sees the author as “affected by the attitude of paranoid suspicion toward everything foreign that pervades Soviet society.” While conjecturing that in Solzhenitsyn’s ideal Russia, Jews would enjoy equal rights if thoroughly Russified and converted to Orthodox Christianity, Maurice Friedberg also records that Solzhenitsyn “was, in fact, vigorously defended from such charges of anti-Semitism by a number of Soviet Jewish activists, including Mikhail Agursky.” Soviet authorities added their own distinctive touch to the discussion when they tried to discredit Solzhenitsyn by planting rumors that he was a Jew named Solzhenitser.
Salo Baron, after weighing the testimony, arrived some time ago at the term “lukewarm” for Solzhenitsyn’s attitude toward the Jews—just about where Mr. Podhoretz comes out. A more rigorous characterization must await further and more positive evidence.
Robert A. Riesman
Providence, Rhode Island
To the Editor:
Norman Podhoretz finds “negative evidence” of Solzhenitsyn’s anti-Semitism in the lack of “much sympathy” for Jews in his books, and in the “anti-Semitic potential” of his particular brand of Russian nationalism. In fact, it is not hard to find sympathetic references to Jews in Solzhenitsyn’s books and particularly to Zionists, with whose strivings for national rebirth he tends to equate his own feelings for Russia. In Volume III of The Gulag Archipelago, he writes of the “indomitably cheerful boys and girls of fifteen, sixteen, and under” of the Hashomer Hatzair Zionist youth movement, exiled to Siberia by the Bolsheviks in 1927, and suggests that their “natural and noble aspiration” to recreate the land and confirm the faith of their ancestors should have received “the united support and aid at least of the European peoples.” At one point, he makes the association even clearer, comparing the resilience of Russian nationalism and patriotism in the face of internationalist propaganda to “the miraculous birth and consolidation of Israel after 2,000 years of dispersal.” He also questions (in his Letter to the Soviet Leaders, for instance) his country’s support for the Arabs, going so far as to compare it with the Soviet nurturing of Hitler and Mao Zedong.
But even if such evidence of sympathy did not exist, it is surely outrageous to assume on the basis of “negative evidence” that Solzhenitsyn is an anti-Semite, or that he secretly blames the Jews for the Bolshevik revolution. He, of all people, deserves better, especially from those of us not prevented by ideological blinkers from appreciating his warnings to us and his efforts to stop us from falling victim to his country and from repeating Russia’s terrible mistakes. As far as the vilification of Solzhenitsyn’s political philosophy is concerned (the Russian nationalism with an “anti-Semitic potential,” the “anti-democratic Slavophilia”), Richard Pipes has discussed this matter in his book, U.S.-Soviet Relations in the Era of Détente:
Solzhenitsyn is a conservative and a nationalist. The Slavophiles believed in the uniqueness of the Russian soul and the universal message of the Russian people, and I don’t see any of this in Solzhenitsyn. He loves Russia, instinctively and profoundly, but he does not romanticize Russian culture and never depicts the Russians as racially or spiritually superior. . . . Solzhenitsyn simply believes that the Soviet regime has inflicted and is continuing to inflict enormous harm on the Russian nation. He is conservative in the sense that he believes in strong government but, like all true Russian conservatives, he also believes in law and order and freedom of speech.
Richmond, British Columbia
To the Editor:
Norman Podhoretz’s article contains seven pages of splendid literary criticism—and just one page on Solzhenitsyn the anti-Communist prophet and the “terrible question.” It is this last page that impels this letter, . . . specifically the passage where Mr. Podhoretz writes: “I am well aware that Solzhenitsyn’s Western critics also include a number of staunch anti-Communists who oppose him not because he is a ‘cold warrior’ but because he espouses a species of Russian nationalism that is explicitly anti-democratic and (so they claim) implicitly anti-Semitic.”
Well, I am one of their number. Moreover, I believe there is disturbing evidence that Solzhenitsyn has gone beyond “implicit” to a more open though still subtly disguised anti-Semitism. Indeed, the entire grand plan of his series of historical novels seems aimed at showing that all of Russia’s misfortunes of the 20th century were owing to “foreign” influences and that at every crucial turning point the leading actors were almost invariably of Jewish descent—from Trotsky in 1905; to Dmitri Bogrov, the Jewish anarchist and police agent who assassinated Stolypin (1911); to Parvus, whose bold scheme persuaded the German General Staff to send Lenin in a sealed train to the Finland Station to lead the Bolsheviks to victory; to the key role of Polish and Russian Jews in the Bolshevik seizure of power; to the Russian civil war and beyond. . . .
Mr. Podhoretz refers to a later, still untranslated, novel which also deals with the assassination of Stolypin and, it is charged, goes beyond implicit into open anti-Semitism. . . . But I believe I can point . . . to at least one example of outright anti-Semitism in Solzhenitsyn’s translated work. In Lenin in Zurich a key character is Alexander (Israel) Lazarevich Helphand, known to history as Parvus, a Russian-born Jewish financier, revolutionary, and sybarite, who, as I mentioned, arranged for the sealed train to take Lenin to Russia. The Parvus portrait Solzhenitsyn paints is the crudest of caricatures—of a beast, bereft of all human features and impulses, except insatiable greed for money (and female flesh). Here is Solzhenitsyn on Parvus:
Parvus spoke again. . . . “It’s pleasant to have perfect sight or perfect hearing, and it’s just the same with wealth. . . .”
But was his decision to get rich really the result of conscious thought, of a theoretical belief? No, it was an innate necessity, and his commercial impulses, his flair for Geschäft, his reluctance to let slip any profit which loomed in his field of vision, were not a matter of plans and programs, but almost a biological function, which proceeded almost unconsciously but unerringly. It was a matter of instinct with him; always to feel the movement of economic life around him, the emergence of disproportions, imbalances, gaps which begged him, cried out to him to insert his hand and extract a profit. This was so much a part of his innermost nature that he conducted his multifarious business transactions, which by now were scattered over ten European countries, without a single ledger, keeping all the figures in his head. [Emphasis added]
Here we have all the historic ingredients and code words for the portrait of the Jew from Marx’s “On the Jewish Question” to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion—and, remember, this is written in Russian for a Russian audience who will well understand the Aesopian language, and applaud it.
For me, once in a lifetime is more than enough. I once surrendered my human and Jewish soul, overlooking and pooh-poohing anti-Semitism from Marx to Stalin in the name of Communism. I refuse to do so again in the name of anti-Communism.
And—not only anti-Semitism, but its evil twin, radical hatred of and contempt for democracy and democratic institutions. I do not need to be reminded of democracy’s shameful weaknesses and retreats, but certainly, Reagan’s election and reelection, for one, are testimony to the awakening of the American people to the Soviet totalitarian reality. We also have native voices, powerful and eloquent ones—Mr. Podhoretz foremost among them—who are rallying the nation in defense of our country, the free world, and our common democratic institutions. Solzhenitsyn has a different agenda: the overthrow of Leninist totalitarianism and its replacement by an Orthodox totalitarianism.
This intention, as well as Solzhenitsyn’s deeply-rooted hatred of democracy, is most candidly revealed in his Letter to the Soviet Leaders (which, incidentally, is only a modified version, no doubt softened and sanitized for Western eyes; imagine what the original must have been like!). This is a most remarkable document and a fascinating revelation of his sycophancy and megalomania. It is an outright conspiratorial appeal to the leaders on the common ground of their Russian blood and heritage. There is nothing wrong (Solzhenitsyn says) with dictatorship; democracy is thoroughly alien to Russian character and history. Just rid yourselves of that foreign Marxism, and “You will still have absolute and impregnable power”—and Russia will return to its authentic roots in Christian Orthodoxy. Beginning on p. 50, there is a vile diatribe against democracy and a tribute to the “moral” basis of authoritarian order. As far as Solzhenitsyn is concerned, the rest of the world (and first of all, the Chinese) can burn in hell. Can the man revealed in this Letter be a moral leader and “prophet” for the West? In my view, he has surrendered his claim to that title.
And can we be indifferent to his dark goals for Russia, as human beings or as Jews (there are about two million Jews still prisoners there)? With Orthodoxy triumphant once more, how far behind will the Black Hundreds (now in their new KGB uniforms!) be? The ideology of Marxism, with its claims to universalism, at least acted as a brake on native anti-Semitism, but with Marxism replaced by Orthodoxy, the old-style Russian anti-Semitism will break forth unrestrained, perhaps closer to the Hitlerian model (the other totalitarianism).
Solzhenitsyn has nothing to teach us but the example of his courage. Let us honor him for that, but take our own path to our nation’s and the world’s salvation—peace in freedom. We and the West and, yes, the captive nations of Eastern Europe—Solidarity is worth a dozen Solzhenitsyns—have our own brave, powerful, and clear-minded leaders.
As far as Soviet “collapse” is concerned, what can Solzhenitsyn teach us? He did not, as Mr. Podhoretz asserts, “make the Soviet leaders back down and ultimately, perhaps, even collapse.” The facts seem to be otherwise. When he became an intolerable nuisance, they just put him forcibly on a plane and shipped him out of the country. This ended his influence inside Russia, at least for the foreseeable future, and he has been reduced to delivering scolding lectures to the West. What collapse? And if there was no collapse, what did his courage lead to and wherefore the terrible and terrifying “question”?
I cannot accept Solzhenitsyn’s “prophetic mission.” The evidence compels me to believe that he does more harm now with his fierce assaults on the idea of democracy and his support for benighted autocracy and with his more and more explicit anti-Semitism than he does good with his anti-Communist teachings. He must be judged by what he is for as well as by what he is against. If those who reject him as a moral leader are “coward[s],” then so be it—but it hurts!
This letter is not a critique, it is a cri de coeur. Where does the truth lie?
Elias M. Schwarzbart
New York City
To the Editor:
I know Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn very well; we even lived together in the Soviet Union. I can swear that he is no anti-Semite, and I shake Norman Podhoretz’s hand for defending him against that terrible charge.
National Symphony Orchestra
Norman Podhoretz writes:
I cannot remember writing anything that has provoked so wide a range of conflicting responses as “The Terrible Question of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.” In the letters above, and in many private communications as well, I am taxed on the one hand for defending Solzhenitsyn and on the other for attacking him. Some correspondents are upset by the fact that I called Solzhenitsyn anti-democratic and others are outraged by the fact that I nevertheless held him up as a model. On the issue of Solzhenitsyn’s attitude toward Jews as well, I am thanked by some for saying that I could find no overt anti-Semitism in his work, I am taken to task by others for even entertaining the suspicion that he might be an anti-Semite, and by still others for failing to denounce him as one. Finally, I am criticized for underrating Solzhenitsyn as a novelist and for overrating him as a writer.
I want to say that I take no comfort from this response. That is, I do not believe (as some do) that to be criticized from opposite sides is necessarily a sign that one has found exactly the right position in the center. In any case, the issue that has called forth so many letters that are at once passionate and thoughtful (not a common combination in the correspondence columns of any magazine, or for that matter anywhere else) is Solzhenitsyn and not my essay about him. Everyone wants an answer to Elias M. Schwarzbart’s cri de coeur: “Where does the truth [about Solzhenitsyn] lie?”
Of course it is precisely that question I tried to answer in my essay, and having spent several more weeks pondering it once again in the light of the letters above, I find that I am content on the whole to stand where I stood in the essay itself.
Thus on the question of Solzhenitsyn’s attitude toward democracy, I am unpersuaded that he is, of all things, a libertarian, even though Mikhail Bernstam’s argument in support of that view is both fascinating and instructive. Nor has Edward E. Ericson, Jr. convinced me that I was wrong in calling Solzhenitsyn anti-democratic, even though Mr. Ericson (whose forthcoming and much-needed one-volume abridgement of The Gulag Archipelago has been approved for publication by Solzhenitsyn himself) speaks with the authority of a close and careful student of all the relevant texts. Indeed, his five assertions, with all of which I agree, are perfectly compatible in my judgment with what can legitimately be described as an anti-democratic position. At the same time, however, it is the kind of antidemocratic position with which I, as a virtual idolator of democracy, and pace Mr. Schwarzbart, can live, for the reasons I gave in the concluding paragraph of my article.
On the question of Solzhenitsyn’s novels as against his autobiographical and historical writings, Kurt R. Sax asks me for “at least one example.” Let me offer him, then, the contrast between two descriptions of the experience of being arrested and then processed through the early stages of imprisonment—the one at the end of The First Circle involving the fictional character, Innokenty Volodin, and the one in The Gulag Archipelago involving Solzhenitsyn himself. I submit that the latter is more vivid than the former, more evocative, more alive. But I grant that Mr. Sax is right in saying that the critical case I was trying to make can only be definitively established through many more such concrete examples.
Finally, there is the “terrible question” of anti-Semitism. I said in my essay that while I could find no overt anti-Semitism in any of Solzhenitsyn’s translated works, neither could I make a first-hand judgment concerning the charge of anti-Semitism that has been levelled against the as-yet untranslated two-volume version of August 1914. I have now obtained a rough translation of selected passages from the controversial section of that novel—a lengthy account of the assassination of Stolypin in 1911 by a young anarchist of Jewish origin named Dmitri Bogrov—together with the script of a broadcast about it that was aired on Radio Liberty and that itself was accused of being anti-Semitic. So far as the broadcast goes, I can say without hesitation or qualification that the accusation of anti-Semitism is without merit. As for the novel, if the passages I have read are truly representative, I am content to stand on this issue too by what I wrote in my essay, and especially by the following words: “I can well imagine that in his heart [Solzhenitsyn] holds it against the Jews that so many of the old Bolsheviks, the makers of the Revolution that brought the curse of Communism to Russia, were of Jewish origin. . . .” Taking Solzhenitsyn’s new book into account, I would now add Bogrov to the old Bolsheviks, but the general point would remain the same.
Mr. Schwarzbart sees anti-Semitism in the imagery with which Solzhenitsyn paints the character of one of those old Bolsheviks, Parvus, and others have also seen traces of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in the imagery surrounding the portrait of Bogrov. Yet no special point is made of Parvus’s Jewishness in Lenin in Zurich; and in any event no connection at all is drawn between his Jewishness and his amazing gift for business and finance (which in his particular case may well have been instinctual and innate). On the other hand, Solzhenitsyn does make a special point of Bogrov’s Jewish origin, and he even gives as one of Bogrov’s motives an understandable desire to avenge the Jews for the persecutions they had suffered at the hands of the Czarist regime. Whether or not there is historical evidence for this interpretation of Bogrov’s motives, the fact remains that Solzhenitsyn chooses to focus on the Jewish component of an act which in his view opened the way to the eventual triumph of Communism in Russia.
I can understand why some readers see anti-Semitism in this reading of Russian history. But in my opinion Solzhenitsyn’s evident bitterness over the fact—and it is of course a fact—that revolutionaries of Jewish origin played so important a role in bringing Communism to Russia is overridden by his consistently fervent support of Israel. As Arthur Lyons indicates, he has always defended Israel; more than that, he has invidiously compared the courage of the Israelis in the face of their Arab enemies with the appeasement of the Soviet Union by the Western democracies.
To be sure, there was a time when it was possible for an anti-Semite to be a Zionist of sorts: indeed, Theodor Herzl thought that the anti-Semitic European governments would welcome the establishment of a Jewish state precisely because it would be a good way of getting the Jews out of Europe. But in our own day, Israel has become the touchstone of attitudes toward the Jewish people, and anti-Zionism has become the main and most relevant form of anti-Semitism. So much is this the case that almost anything Solzhenitsyn may think about the role of Jews in the past—or even in the post-Communist Russia of his dreams—becomes academic by comparison.