Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a great figure of the 20th century, is dead at the age of 89.
How does one adequately honor the man? It’s
impossible to capture in one column what Solzhenitsyn meant,
experienced, and how he went about translating it to the West in an
unprecedented way. Professors everywhere will struggle to fully convey
his impact to their students. I will point to just a few things that
stand out in my mind.
First was his creative, trenchant opening to his majestic, The Gulag Archipelago,
the shocking firsthand account of the Soviet forced-labor-camp system,
where tens of million innocents perished and countless more, like
Solzhenitsyn himself, were held captive. Solzhenitsyn began his work
with a mundane but instructive example: He cited an article in the
journal Nature, which informed its readers, in a strictly
scientific fashion, about a group of fleeing, desperate men in Siberia
who, starving, happened upon a subterranean ice lens that held a
perfectly preserved prehistoric fauna.
“Flouting the higher claims of ichthyology,”
narrated Solzhenitsyn, and “elbowing each other to be first,” they
chipped away the ice, hurried the fish to a fire, cooked it, and bolted
it down. No doubt, said Solzhenitsyn, Nature impressed its
readers with this account of how 10,000-year-old fish could be kept
fresh over such a long period. But only a narrower group of readers
could decipher the true meaning of this “incautious” report. That
smaller club was the fellow gulag survivors—the “pitiable zeks,”
as Solzhenitsyn called them. When your goal is survival, you survive,
even if it means hurriedly devouring something that in a normal world
would be carefully rushed to a museum.
As Solzhenitsyn knew, however, and proceeded to
make clear in the pages that followed, Soviet communism was no normal
world. His groundbreaking work unearthed gem after gem to an outside
world not yet fully acquainted with the “horror house” (Boris Yeltsin’s
characterization) that was the Soviet Union.
Among the many other items worthy of mention from The Gulag Archipelago was
how Solzhenitsyn literally did the Lord’s work by reporting on the
Moscow “church trials” of the 1920s—classic, prototype communist show
trials, aimed specifically at the Russian church. These were outrageous
miscarriages of justice, the outcome always predetermined, and the goal
to undermine communism’s most despised foe: God. Solzhenitsyn’s
reporting on these trials, including excerpts of exchanges between
saintly priests and stooge apparatchiks, offered only one glimmer of
solace each time another good man was sentenced to execution: every
priest could identify with Christ’s passion.
There was never a need for witnesses. Guilty as charged.
Some, like Severian Baranyk, were killed with a
cross-shaped slash across their chests, or, like Zenobius Kovalyk, in
The Gulag Archipelago, plus other Solzhenitsyn masterpieces such as A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,
may get a half-day-news-cycle worth of attention from our superficial
media. That’s too bad, since Solzhenitsyn’s unfiltered voice in our
press frequently exploded like cannon fire at the Iron Curtain.
The Soviets recoiled each time Solzhenitsyn’s
words were broadcast in the West. A striking case that enraged them
twice over was when his words were (spiritually) employed inside the
USSR by the visiting American president. This occurred on May 30, 1988
at the Moscow Summit, when President Ronald Reagan—who had been quoting
Solzhenitsyn since the 1970s—met with Soviet religious leaders at the
700-year-old Danilov Monastery. Reagan said:
There is a beautiful passage that I’d just like
to read, if I may. It’s from one of this country’s great writers and
believers, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, about the faith that is as elemental
to this land as the dark and fertile soil. He wrote: “When you travel
the byroads of central Russia, you begin to understand the secret of
the pacifying Russian countryside. It is in the churches. They lift
their bell-towers—graceful, shapely, all different—high over mundane
timber and thatch. From villages that are cut off and invisible to each
other, they soar to the same heaven…. [T]he evening chimes used to ring
out, floating over the villages, fields, and woods, reminding men that
they must abandon trivial concerns of this world and give time and
thought to eternity.”
In our prayers we may keep that image in mind:
the thought that the bells may ring again, sounding through Moscow and
across the countryside, clamoring for joy in their new-found freedom.
The Soviets hated this. For Reagan to invoke
Solzhenitsyn inside the USSR was bad enough, but to do so in behalf of
religious liberty was galling. They wasted no time blasting this
passage in editorials in their government-controlled newspapers. Reagan
had dared cite Solzhenitsyn in the House of Lenin, an unacceptable
blasphemy to the Gospel of Marx.
If a man’s achievements can be measured by the
vicious un-holiness of his persecutors, then Alexander Solzhenitsyn
will now enjoy a lifetime of heavenly rewards. Spared the martyrdom of
the dead Russian believers who could not live to blow the whistle, it
was left to him to witness to the outside world. It was a job that this
faithful servant did better than any other zek. May he rest in peace, free from pain and elevated high above his tormentors.