Thursday, February 15, 2024

Quote of the Day (Alexander Solzhenitsyn, on How Writers and Artists Can ‘Conquer Falsehood’)

“And the simple step of a simple courageous man is not to partake in falsehood, not to support false actions! Let THAT enter the world, let it even reign in the world – but not with my help. But writers and artists can achieve more: they can CONQUER FALSEHOOD! In the struggle with falsehood art always did win and it always does win! Openly, irrefutably for everyone! Falsehood can hold out against much in this world, but not against art.”—Russian novelist and dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008), Nobel Lecture 1970

Fifty years ago this week, Alexander Solzhenitsyn was deported from the USSR for having written The Gulag Archipelago, a searing history and memoir of life in the Soviet Union’s prison camp system. His real “crime” was to expose the falsehood at the heart of Communist Party rule: that terror in the country began not with Joseph Stalin but with his predecessor, the founder of the USSR, V. I. Lenin.

Solzhenitsyn came to the United States but was never comfortable with the country that provided him with a refuge from harassment, arrest, and, potentially, even worse. Four years after the start of his exile, in a controversial commencement address at Harvard University, he surprised listeners and the wider world by attacking the West for its secularism, materialism, and lack of courage.

If you Google this speech, you will find many links praising it for its prophetic vision. I can’t help but regard much of it with dismay, though—not only for the points the great Russian dissident overlooked about the West but for an underlying outlook that became more apparent when he returned to his post-Communist homeland.

Solzhenitsyn could not see, for instance, that the legalistic culture and stress on individual rights in the West provided the basis for the human rights movement that created an alternative to totalitarianism and undermined Soviet legitimacy.

Moreover, after going home triumphantly to Russia 20 years later as a free man, with his citizenship restored, Solzhenitsyn started expressing more aggressively what Robert Coalson, in a 2014 essay for The Atlantic, called his “Greater Russian, Orthodox-driven nationalism.”

That outlook led the Nobel laureate to praise Vladimir Putin as he rose to power. In fact, Coalson notes, Solzhenitsyn’s 1990 essay “Rebuilding Russia,” though it urged the divestment of non-Slav republics, foreshadowed Putin’s plan to reunite Ukraine with Russia.

This week, still under the influence of The Gulag Archipelago’s act of profound moral witness, I bought an epic historical novel that Solzhenitsyn extensively revised while in exile, August 1914, part of his "Red Wheel" cycle on the end of Czarist Russia and the rise of the USSR. I wonder how much of it will reflect his great literary gifts and moral outrage—and how much of it will display the nationalistic blindness that led him to overlook Putin’s creeping authoritarianism.

William Harrison’s retrospective at the time of Solzhenitsyn’s death in the English publication The Guardian praised the Russian for his “principled and brave unmasking of the horrors of the Soviet regime,” while also lamenting his pan-Slavism, “the fantastical, backward-looking political idealism that led him to support Putin's project.”

“Like many of those disillusioned with western liberalism, in Russia and the west, he fancied that ‘Putin's path’ provided an alternative,” Harrison concluded. “The reality of this ‘alternative,’ involving, for example, the pilfering of resources by Kremlin-backed ‘businessmen’ and the silencing of the media by censorship and killing, is less than promising.”

Ironically, Solzhenitsyn failed to perceive that Putin would mix Russian nationalism with the dark arts of disinformation and deception he learned as a KGB foreign intelligence officer to create a homegrown 21st-century model of authoritarianism, maybe even more exportable and viral than the Communist variety. The obligation now resides in others once again to “conquer falsehood.”

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