Solzhenitsyn’s toughness and courage can not be doubted; his death at 89 takes us back to the tragedies to which his voice gave witness and the courage that voice took to be heard. A discussion of the way religious mysticism led him to both anti-semitism and a criticism of the liberal values we revere is discussed in Ilya Somin’s obituary on Volokh. On the other hand, Steiner (and Applebaum’s analysis of him) is discussed at Judd Brothers, as are links to other remembrances. Of course, A&L does this well.
An anecdote: Early in our marriage, my husband became irritated by an article by George Steiner in The New Yorker. Steiner argued that communism was not the evil that fascism was because of their different views of “truth.” Steiner felt Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn saw the evil in communism as an unwillingness to acknowledge the validity of truth; the fascists, on the other hand, were a greater evil, Steiner argued, because they claimed a truth that was false. He found the latter more reprehensible.
Since I haven’t read Solzhenitsyn, I do not intend to argue this here. I am sure his was a voice we needed to hear coming from the gulags about which we knew so little. We have long seen this kind of argument – that communism, despite the quantity of victims that it has managed to pile up – was not the evil of fascism. That both are evil seems obvious. Communism has been seductive, but that hardly justifies fascism. And few can imagine a greater evil than the Holocaust. Evil is evil. Of course, Steiner’s essay was one of those moments in the mid-seventies we should have seen literary criticism was moving away from the discipline in which we were trained.
An entertaining moment may be when my husband, having put together a response to Steiner that was more like an irritated blog response, found himself at a Solzhenitsyn conference at Howard Payne in Brownwood, Texas. The conference papers were a mix of conservative Baptists who were drawn by the Russian’s religious fervor and expatriate Russians, many of whom shared his experiences as dissidents. One of the moments in which the contrast between cultures was clearest was when an expatriate on a panel argued that liquor was being consumed by Russians to dull the misery of their lives under communism. He began with a statistic about the amount of drinking pre-Stalin. The gasp from the Americans at that amount was so loud, that the speaker rightly suspected the later figure had lost its punch.