Alexander Solzhenitsyn: the line within

Published on openDemocracy, by Roger Scruton, August 7, 2008.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, like Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy, combined the gifts of a novelist with the stature and ambitions of a prophet. He may not have matched their achievements as a writer of imaginative prose, but he was their equal when it came to insight into evil and its collective manifestation. Moreover his literary monument – The Gulag Archipelago – was an achievement little short of the miraculous, given the circumstances under which the information was collected and digested, and given the obstacles that stood in the way of the work’s seeing the light of day.

It is fair to say that the three-volume The Gulag Archipelago did more than any other publication to cause the scales to fall from the eyes of those who had been tempted to believe that communism would have been fine, had it not been perverted from its true course by Stalin …

… When he was finally expelled from the Soviet Union, to take up residence in Vermont, he found himself still face to face with evil, but in its more seductive guise. He did not dispute the public image of America, as the land of the free. But he wanted people to know that freedom too gives evil a chance. Not the same chance, to be sure, and one that could be resisted; a chance, nevertheless, to pursue the pleasures of the flesh and to forget about the spiritual calling of mankind.

Many Americans blamed Solzhenitsyn for this, and in particular for his Harvard lecture of 1978, in which he denounced modernity, and the “flight from spirituality” that he witnessed around him in America. Was he not repeating that old chestnut of “moral equivalence”, doing what Jean-Paul Sartre, Herbert Marcuse, Eric Hobsbawm, Noam Chomsky and others had done, by responding to criticism of communism with an equal and opposite criticism of the west – as though control from the top were the same thing as control from the bottom, and as though things deliberately done for evil ends were no worse than bad things happening though no-one intended them? Was he not, in other words, denying the value of human freedom, and the crucial difference that it makes to all our moral judgments? It has to be said that the mantic nature of Solzhenitsyn’s language, and his way of looking on the world from a point somewhere above it, fed these accusations. His time in America was not, from the PR point of view, a success, and many were the sighs of relief when, after the collapse of communism, he decided to return to his native Russia and preach to the converted from there.

But now, looking back on it, we must surely recognise, not merely the courage and integrity of the man, but also the truth of his message to our times. If there are evil systems, he is telling us, it is because there are evil people, evil intentions, and evil states of mind. The best we can achieve through amending the system of government is to ensure that mistakes can be corrected and evil condemned. But we should not deceive ourselves into believing that the solution to the problem of evil is a political solution, that it can be arrived at without spiritual discipline and without a change of life. It is to us human beings that the call to the good life is addressed. And it is only when we recognise that “the line separating good and evil is drawn through the human heart” that we will have finally understood the lesson of the 20th century. (full text).

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