Commentary Magazine

August 1914; The Nobel Lecture on Literature, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Liberalism of the Catacombs

August 1914.
by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Translated by Michael Glenny.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 622 pp. $10.00.

The Nobel Lecture on Literature.
by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Translated by Thomas P. Whitney.
Harper & Row. 38 pp. $3.50.

Since August 1914 is only part of a larger work, and so perhaps not susceptible of ready judgment, it may be more important to consider first what Solzhenitsyn feels himself to be doing. He has recently been on record as to his intentions in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. First of all, he says of literature that it is “the living memory of a nation” preserved from one generation to another. “It nurses and preserves the nation’s lost history in a form which is not susceptible of distortion and slander.” And it is true that with all the extravagant falsification of history which has marked the Soviet period, past literature has not been rewritten to any significant extent: War and Peace has remained untouched. More broadly, Solzhenitsyn seems to imply, a nation’s literature constitutes, particularly in an autocratic state, an alternative set of principles. And it seems quite clear that if any single factor can be given the credit for preventing the total and irrevocable Stalinization of Russia, it is the voices of the liberal Turgenev, the religious Dostoevsky, and the anarchist Tolstoy, which were never totally suppressed.

So much for Solzhenitsyn’s aims with regard to his own countrymen. But he recognizes a task of yet wider scope. In the modern age, he argues in the Nobel speech, “world literature can transmit the concentrated experience of one land to another in such a way that we shall stop seeing double . . . that the different scales of values shall coincide.” In fact, he sees his work and all great literature as being essentially a powerful weapon against ignorance both at home and in the other countries and cultures of the world. He is frank, even blunt, about the sort of ignorance, the sort of double standard, he means to combat in the West—as when he writes (the translation is my own):

What, according to one scale, appears from afar as enviable, flourishing freedom, according to another scale, near at hand, is perceived as vexatious constraint, calling for the overturning of buses. What, in one area, could only be dreamed of as unattainable prosperity, in another area gives rise to indignation and is considered extreme exploitation demanding an immediate strike.

Again, it is quite clear what he is talking about when he writes:

There are different scales for punishment and for crime. According to one scale, a month’s imprisonment, or banishment to the country, or to a so-called “punishment cell,” where they feed you white bread, rolls, and milk, shocks the imagination and fills the columns of the newspapers with anger. According to another scale, people find acceptable and forgivable prison terms of twenty-five years, dungeons where there is ice on the wall but where they strip you to your underwear, lunatic asylums for the sane, and the shooting on the frontier of countless people who won’t see reason and who keep running away, one doesn’t know where or why.

Any serious observer of the Western press, particularly the “liberal” press, must have noted that while it affects to base its judgments of foreign countries not so much on openly political criteria as on standards of humaneness, in fact what often happens is a competition in atrocity propaganda. It is not the extent of human suffering in a given state which counts so much as what its and its opponents’ publicity machines can make of it. In The First Circle Solzhenitsyn gave us an example in a comparison of Russian and Greek prisons; the remarks quoted above generalize all this. (He complains as well of “the venal prejudice” of most members of the United Nations, who guard the liberty of some people and not that of others.)



He sees a comparable form of dangerous and unethical ignorance among the Western “young”: “Young people, at an age when the only experience they have is sexual, at an age when they have no years of personal suffering to draw on, young people are enthusiastically repeating the discredited platitudes of our Russian 19th century, and they think they have come up with something novel.” But he also notes their admirers among the old: “They try to ingratiate themselves with the young—anything so as not to look ‘conservative.’ And this is yet another Russian phenomenon of 19th-century origin: Dostoevsky called it ‘being in bondage to advanced notions.’” The writer too may be infected: “If his young compatriots blithely proclaim depravity’s superiority to modest toil, if they succumb to drugs or seize hostages, then the stench of it mingles with the writer’s breath.”

Solzhenitsyn refers, in particular, to the cult of revolutionary violence. His objection to it is not simply to the “superficiality,” as he puts it, of the ideas of some of the Western young who feel all they need to do is to throw out their current rulers, “‘and the next lot—that’s us!—we’ll be just and understanding once we’ve laid aside our bombs and guns.’ But of course they won’t.” More importantly, he notes that while at the beginning violence “acts openly and is even proud of itself,” once established, it “cannot survive in isolation: it is inevitably bound up with the lie . . . anyone who has once proclaimed that violence is his method is inevitably forced to choose the lie as his principle.”

Solzhenitsyn’s view is that if truth were substituted for glib formulas, if minor local grievances were seen against the actual condition of the rest of humankind and the actual workings of other social systems, then all would be well. The province of literature is not to argue but to convey these realities, to bridge the abysses of falsehood and ignorance: in fact, to carry the truth. This is, indeed, a literary aim often spoken of, but Solzhenitsyn gives it a special scope.



In all this, of course, Solzhenitsyn invites the comparison, often made, with Tolstoy. But Solzhenitsyn’s view of history is different, and consciously so. Indeed, in August 1914 his General Blayoveshchensky is shown as coming to grief through an acceptance of Tolstoy’s notion of Kutuzov, that a historical mystique is more powerful than the wills of individuals, so that the true leader, in war as in peace, need only relax and let events take their course, need only fit himself into the grain of a historical pattern. Against this (and contrary, too, to the mystical strain in Dr. Zhivago), Solzhenitsyn strongly asserts the view that history is to a considerable extent the province of accident, and of the wills of individuals applied at crucial points. As against Tolstoy, indeed, Solzhenitsyn has had the experience of the past half-century. Where Tolstoy’s Man of Will (Napoleon) is defeated precisely because he is in conflict with natural trends, Solzhenitsyn’s Lenin and Stalin were able to impose their wills against those same trends.

There is another notable difference between Solzhenitsyn’s work and War and Peace. Solzhenitsyn’s War is far larger, his Peace minuscule. And this is reflected if not in an absence of, at least in a far lesser role for, women. The bulk of Solzhenitsyn’s work, indeed, has this characteristic. A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is set in a totally womanless environment. While this is not the case with The Cancer Ward or The First Circle, let alone with Matryona’s Home, in the first two at least, although the woman’s role is touching, sensitive, and generally necessary, it is still a largely subordinate one, especially compared with such figures as Tolstoy’s Natasha. So it is in history, or history’s main events—particularly its central concentrations of war and revolution—which are Solzhenitsyn’s focus. For, even more than in War and Peace, the hero of August 1914 is history itself, or, more specifically, Russia, the Russia of this century expressed in, including, and subsuming the individuals of the narrative.



August 1914 seems above all intended to demonstrate the potentialities, the virtues—and the weaknesses—of a people seen on the eve of its descent into the wilderness. We find in it—and this seems essential to Solzhenitsyn’s position, as it is to the position of all humanism in Russia—both the new Western liberal element and the old traditional Christian element of Russia facing their crisis before a truly successful amalgam had been attained. Both elements, as Solzhenitsyn has frequently demonstrated elsewhere, were to be crushed by the Communist regime, whose harsh and shallow ethos was a compound of a different kind, formed from the archaic brutality of Russia and the narrow intellectual-terrorist tradition of the West.

On a larger scale, what may be seen in the whole of Solzhenitsyn’s work, concentrated out of the experience of millions of his compatriots, is an entirely new phenomenon—a liberalism of the catacombs. For this is the first time that, over a long historical period, modern humanist ideas which had already emerged in a national literature and an intelligentsia, have been crushed and repudiated. The difference in tone between Solzhenitsyn’s attitudes and our own is not so much one of essence as a matter of the experience which he and his have faced and we and ours have not. On the one hand, he is harder, more hammered and tempered, than the writers of the West; on the other, his liberalism has been purged of illusion—the comfortable fat has been sweated off.

August 1914 is, as we have noted, part of a trilogy and cannot yet be judged as a whole. Meanwhile, judgments on it in the West have been varied. In the end this seems to boil down to a matter of the predilections of critics. The taste for the great set-piece novel has rather gone out in many Western circles. Most objections to the book are in effect that it is not “psychological” in the sense that its highly individual individuals are still seen as part of a great sweep of public events; and its “intellectuals” are not shown as being outside, superior to, and beneficially influencing those events.

It may be argued that the modern Western literary sensibility has narrowed the traditional scope of literature. In the old days, history, philosophy, biography, were as highly regarded as, and often more highly regarded than, the novel, but now for some reason the novel is rated as specifically “creative” in a sense which reduces the others to the second rank. From this it appears to follow that the novel which is itself part history is of a lower or less interesting type. This is illogical, but literary tastes and fashions are not matters of logic. In my view, we are likely to find in the long run that Solzhenitsyn’s work will mark a change from the extremes of subjectivity and obliquity into which much of our literature has been directed at the expense of the larger scope of the strong mind and the deep heart.



About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.