Solzhenitsyn’s cathedrals

In Russia, history is too important to leave to the historians. Great novelists must show how people actually lived through events and reveal their moral significance. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn explained in his 1970 Nobel Prize lecture, literature transmits “condensed and irrefutable human experience” in a form that “defies distortion and falsehood. Thus literature . . . preserves and protects a nation’s soul.”

The latest Solzhenitsyn book to appear in English, March 1917, focuses on the great turning point of Russian, indeed world, history: the Russian Revolution.1 Just a century ago, that upheaval and the Bolshevik coup eight months later ushered in something entirely new and uniquely horrible. Totalitarianism, as invented by Lenin and developed by Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and others, aspired to control every aspect of life, to redesign the earth and to remake the human soul. As a result, the environment suffered unequaled devastation and tens of millions of lives were lost in the Soviet Union alone. Solzhenitsyn, who spent the years 1945 to 1953 as a prisoner in the labor camp system known as the Gulag archipelago, devoted his life to showing just what happened so it could not be forgotten. One death is a tragedy but a million is a statistic, Stalin supposedly remarked, but Solzhenitsyn makes us envision life after ruined life. He aimed to shake the conscience of the world, and he succeeded, at least for a time.

In taking literature so seriously, Solzhenitsyn claimed the mantle of a “Russian writer,” which, as all Russians understand, means much more than a writer who happens to be Russian. It is a status less comparable to “American writer” than to “Hebrew prophet.” “Hasn’t it always been understood,” asks one of Solzhenitsyn’s characters, “that a major writer in our country . . . is a sort of second government?” In Russia, Boris Pasternak explained, “a book is a squarish chunk of hot, smoking conscience—and nothing else!” Russians sometimes speak as if a nation exists in order to produce great literature: that is how it fulfills its appointed task of supplying its distinctive wisdom to humanity.

Like the church to a believer, Russian literature claims an author’s first loyalty. When the writer Vladimir Korolenko, who was half Ukrainian, was asked his nationality, he famously replied: “My homeland is Russian literature.” In her 2015 Nobel Prize address, Svetlana Alexievich echoed Korolenko by claiming three homelands: her mother’s Ukraine, her father’s Belarus, and—“Russia’s great culture, without which I cannot imagine myself.” By culture she meant, above all, literature.

Solzhenitsyn was of course aware that, even in Russia, not all writers take literature so seriously and many regard his views as hopelessly unsophisticated. He recalls that in the early twentieth century, the Russian avant-garde called for “the destruction of the Racines, the Murillos, and the Raphaels, ‘so that bullets would bounce off museum walls.’ ” Still worse, “the classics of Russian literature . . . were to be thrown overboard from the ship of modernity.’ ” With such manifestoes the avant-garde prepared the way for the Revolution, and, when it happened, were at first accepted “as faithful allies” and given “power to administrate over culture” until they, too, were thrown overboard. For Solzhenitsyn, a great writer cannot be frivolous, still less a moral relativist, but must believe in and serve goodness and truth.

Naturally, Solzhenitsyn expressed contempt for postmodernism, especially when it infected Russians. After the Gulag, he asks, how can anyone believe that evil is a mere social construct? Such writers betray their tradition: “Yes, they say, Communist doctrines were a great lie; but then again, absolute truths do not exist anyhow . . . . Nor is it worthwhile to strive for some kind of higher meaning.” And so, “in one sweeping gesture of vexation, classical Russian literature—which never disdained reality and sought the truth—is dismissed as worthless . . . . it has once again become fashionable in Russia to ridicule, debunk, and toss overboard the great Russian literature, steeped as it is in love and compassion toward all human beings, and especially toward those who suffer.”

Among Solzhenitsyn’s many works, two great “cathedrals,” as one critic has called them, stand out, one incredibly long, and the other still longer. His masterpiece is surely the first cathedral, his three-volume Gulag Archipelago: An Experiment in Literary Investigation. I suspect that only three post-Revolutionary Russian prose works will survive as world classics: Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, and Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag. For that matter, Gulag may be the most significant literary work produced anywhere in the second half of the twentieth century.

Like Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gulag is literary without being fictional. Indeed, part of its value lies in its bringing to life the real stories of so many ordinary people. When I first began to read it, I feared that a long list of outrages would rapidly prove boring, but to my surprise I could not put the book down. How does Solzhenitsyn manage to sustain our interest? To begin with, as with Gibbon, readers respond to the author’s brilliantly ironic voice, which has a thousand registers. Sometimes it surprises us with a brief comment on a single mendacious word. It seems that prisoners packed as tightly as possible were transported through the city in brightly painted vehicles labeled “Meat.” “It would have been more accurate to say ‘bones,’ ” Solzhenitsyn observes.

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