R.I.P. – Alexander Solzenitzen

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.

17 thoughts on “R.I.P. – Alexander Solzenitzen”

  1. A great writer, who, alas, has a distinct slavic superiority thing when addressing the West, as though we are always naive and the Russians realistic, aware, a trait, I have found from time to time when I have had dealing with those from a Slavic background. More to the point, I wonder why his last big book (history of the Jews in Russia)is out of print (part one came out in 2005), and seems unavailable in its entirety.


  2. Steiner had it exactly backward. Refusing to acknowledge the reality of truth is worse than maintaining a falsehood is true. Someone who does the latter implicitly accepts that there is such a thing as truth and that humans should live their lives in accord with it. In other words, he accepts that reality is objective. Thus, claims about reality are subject to proof or disproof. Of course, someone may believe a falsehood so strongly and irrationally that no amount of proof will cause him to abandon it, but, if he accepts the notion of objective proof, it’s at least possible one may be able to use reason to show him he’s wrong. If one rejects the notion of objective truth altogether, one also rejects reason. Thus, it is not even possible to reason with someone with whom one disagrees. Conflicts must then be resolved (or perpetuated) by something other than “reasoning together,” usually by violence. The beliefs of one who rejects objective truth are not rooted in objective reality. They are rooted in something else — be it passion, genetics, environment, radical religion, or all of the above. What I say here is nothing more than what Pope Benedict XVI said in his lecture at the University of Regensburg in September, 2006.

  3. Truth be told, the lady I have in mind in my most recent encouter has the same first name as yours. She verbally jumped all over my wife at dinner one evening, telling my wife that Americans were naive etc. Now, I may be this or that but for sure my wife is a lovely lady who is very diplomatic in her discourse: she has a very sensitive position and is very good at this sort of thing. The Moscow-born lady was annoying to the point that her husband had to intervene and suggest that
    not all Americans were this or that etc.

    Though my story is of course merely anecdotal, I have been in the company of many Ukranians socially and noticed this, my stereotype, perhaps. But the writer A.S. has this trait, from what I have seen of his pronouncements while living in the U.S.

  4. Fred, not to be percieved as annoying (was decidedly NOT born in Moscow) – but if that many people who lived much tougher life than yours than yours tell you and your delicately-positioned wife that Americans are naive – maybe it’s YOU, and not THEM? Just think about it – what if they all are right and you do miss something?

  5. Steiner is always interesting, and he always draws on some whole body of writing you have never heard of, as Epstein notes. If you are very bookish, this kind of hting is I have read a ton of his stuff and always enjoyed it, though much of it is pompous windbaggery, it is usually interesting. How Steiner managed to become the world’s best-read man is a mystery. Epstein says he is faking it, which must be true, in part, due to the finite nature of reading-hours available to any human being. But, still, to know enough even to fake it as Steiner does is an achievement.

    And, on the main topic, Solzhenitsyn was a hero. If he can be criticized, that means he was human, big deal. He stood up to tyrants, he told the truth when it was life-threatening to tell the truth, he made a record of crimes that many people did not want to admit had happened. God rest his soul.

  6. “If you are very bookish, this kind of hting is I have read a ton of his stuff and always enjoyed it, though much of it is pompous windbaggery, it is usually interesting.”


    Should be:

    If you are very bookish, this kind of thing is exciting. I have read a ton of his stuff and always enjoyed it, though much of it is pompous windbaggery, it is usually interesting.

  7. Sorry Tatyana, I have to disagree with you. It is incredibly irritating to be lectured by Russians who have not taken the trouble of finding out much about the West on what is really happening. I speak as one with a foot in both camps and I maintain that knowing about Russia and understanding what happened there does not give one the knowledge and understanding of other countries and other societies. See Bukovsky on Russia – absolutely spot on – and on the European Union – knows zilch and refuses to find out.

  8. Generally speaking, Helen, I’d agree with you (especially after couple of years of reading Russian LiveJournal *expletive deleted after minute consideration*).
    It’s just that in this particular case, knowing our resident lefty know-it-all Fred Lapides-Hill, I have a feeling the topics he and his wife were so inequivically contradicted on were connected with Russian/Soviet affairs.

    I have a co-worker that reminds me of our Fred here. He’s a Syrian expat, lives with his Ukrainian girlfriend in Brooklyn. Once I chanced on him at the watercooler (no, really) preaching to everyone willing to listen the glories of Soviet life. “The State provided every working guy with a car. Poverty was eliminated. Doctors were considered as working class as machine operator, and the cost of healthcare was so low, everyone can afford it. If you were an honest working man, you were able to take your family on any expensive vacation abroad – because the State valued your work!”
    When I asked him did he just recited his opium dream to us (and mentioned that I’ve lived in the Socialist Paradise for 30 years), he said he knows better anyway, coz he read it in “authoritative sources”.

    Well, “naive” is a mild word to describe him, isn’t it?

  9. Thank you, Tatyana.

    I was, in fact, born in Moscow and I’m sure that I don’t have to tell you how irritated my family was when we arrived in the U.S. from Soviet Russia to be lectured by leftist Americans on the glory of life in the Soviet Union. We were told that communism was great and that we just “didn’t get it”. None of these bleeding hearts of delicate sensibility so much as set foot in a communist country before telling me.

    I think the break in communication may be that Helen thinks the Russians were lecturing the Americans on American culture and not calling them naive because they were extolling the “virtues” of communism (by whatever name it’s going lately – they’ve been rebranding it for years).

  10. Oh dear. I am going to agree both with Tatyana’s last comment and with Methinks. This will have to stop. :( Of course being lectured by Western lefties on the glories of the Soviet paradise is absolutely infuriating. And to be told when you disagree, producing evidence, that “well, you have to say that, don’t you, to justify that you left” is even worse.

    However, being told by Russians that they understand every country and every system better just because of their experience in the Soviet Union is equally annoying. The problem with Solzhenitsyn was that he, too, spoke much and at great length on the horrors of the Western system and the faults of liberalism and individual freedom without really bothering to understand what any of it meant.

    Btw, not to blow my own trumpet – heh – but I did a piece on him as well: http://umbrellog3.blogspot.com/2008/08/some-people-change-world-sort-of.html
    All more or less rational comments apreciated.

  11. Helen,

    I agree with you. It’s annoying when anyone does that. I have friends who have never been more than tourists in Europe expound on the virtues of this socialist European program or that. Because, obviously, America just sucks. One such self-defined “Pinko-commie” friend has now been forced to actually live in Italy for over a year. She’s counting the hours until she gets out of “this God forsaken mess” (and she has thousands to go). If only more of these people were forced to walk the walk.

    I have mixed feelings about Solzhenitsyn. For exposing the horror of the Soviet Union to its apologists in the West, he will always be a hero. But, he did not oppose the Soviet Union for its tyranny. He was perfectly fine with tyranny – as long as it was the “right kind” of tyranny. He loved Putin. Russians, like middle-easterners have long had a strongman complex. Solzhenitsyn takes a much more rosy view of Czarist Russia than the documented reality. There is also a disturbingly strong vein of racism and nationalism in Russian culture and Solzhenitsyn did not escape it. Like Russia at the turn of the 20th century, Solzhenitsyn was untouched by the Age of Enlightenment. IMO.

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