Christian History Home > Issue 65 > Literature of Protest: Alexandr Solzhenitsyn
Literature of Protest: Alexandr Solzhenitsyn
The high school physics-teacher-turned-novelist whose writings shook an empire
A high school teacher in his hovel far from home spends every spare minute writing—and then burying the manuscripts in jars. Who could have guessed that he was changing history? A Soviet-era joke set in the future has a teacher asking who Soviet president Leonid Brezhnev was and a schoolgirl replying, "Wasn't he some insignificant politician in the age of Solzhenitsyn?"
As a boy, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn planned to find fame through commemorating the glories of the Bolshevik Revolution. But as an artillery captain, he privately criticized Stalin and got packed off to eight years in the prison camps. There, the loyal Leninist encountered luminous religious believers and moved from the Marx of his schoolteachers to the Jesus of his Russian Orthodox forefathers: "God of the Universe!" he wrote, "I believe again! Though I renounced You, You were with me!"
After prison, Solzhenitsyn poured out once-unimaginable tales of the brutality of Soviet prison life. With One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the unknown author became lionized worldwide as a truth-telling freedom-fighter. A publishing event that Premier Nikita Khrushchev authorized as part of his de-Stalinization campaign looks, in retrospect, like the first crack in the Berlin Wall.
The Gulag Archipelago, a history of the Soviet concentration camps, prompted the Kremlin to ship the author westward in 1974.
At home, Solzhenitsyn had scolded the Soviet leaders for their attempted "eradication of Christian religion and morality" and for substituting an ideology with atheism as its "chief inspirational and emotional hub." But once in the West, he scolded Western elites for discarding "the moral heritage of Christian centuries with their great reserves of mercy and sacrifice" and for substituting "the proclaimed and practiced autonomy of man from any higher force above him."
Thus many Western intellectuals also turned against him (one headline bellowed, "Shut Up, Solzhenitsyn"). Despite his moderate political inclinations, critics pinned false labels on him: reactionary, chauvinist, monarchist, theocrat, even anti-Semite.
"Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line dividing good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—
but right through every human heart." —Alexandr Solzhenitsyn
Solzhenitsyn replied, "They lie about me as if I were already dead," and complained, "Nobody ever gives any quotes."
Moving to Vermont and listening only to "the sad music of Russia," Solzhenitsyn fulfilled his boyhood plan with The Red Wheel, but now the Bolshevik Revolution was not celebrated but lamented. And "the main cause of the ruinous Revolution that swallowed up some sixty million of our people" was—as he had heard his elders starkly say—that "men have forgotten God." That forgetting is also "the principal trait of the entire twentieth century."
Today as the Cold War rapidly disappears from modern consciousness, Solzhenitsyn is less well-known. But he remains the indispensable witness to and keenest interpreter of the century's greatest intellectual and political conflict. New Yorker editor David Remnick calls him our age's "dominant writer" and says, "No writer that I can think of in history, really, was able to do so much through courage and literary skill to change the society they came from. And, to some extent, you have to credit the literary works of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn with helping to bring down the last empire on earth."
Edward E. Ericson, Jr., is a professor of English at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan, and author of Solzhenitsyn and the Modern World (Regnery Gateway, 1993).
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