For years he wrote in secret. Neither his colleagues nor his students suspected that the man then teaching physics would in a few years become a Nobel Prize-winning novelist, a world-renowned prophetic figure, and an exile from the land he loved. In an autobiographical sketch he says, “During all the years until 1961 not only was I convinced that I should never see a single line of mine in print in my lifetime but also I scarcely dared allow any of my close acquaintances to read anything I had written because I feared that this would become known. Finally … I decided to emerge and to offer One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.”
That small novel (it has no chapter divisions and reads more like an extended short story) catapulted Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn to worldwide literary fame. Soviet reviewers were nearly unanimous in praising book and author: “The story … is written with the sure hand of a mature, unique master. A powerful talent has come into our literature.” “As befits a real artist he has told us a truth that cannot be forgotten, that is staring us in the face.” “The effect of this novel, which is so unusual for its honesty and harrowing truth, is to unburden our minds.… It … strengthens and ennobles us.”
One Day was published in November, 1962. In December, 1963, the Union of Writers of the U.S.S.R. nominated it for a Lenin Prize. Four months later it was removed from the list of nominees and taken off library shelves. One Day was the only one of Solzhenitsyn’s novels to be officially published in the Soviet Union; the others circulate in samizdat, a word meaning “self-publishing,” used for typescripts of books forbidden publication.
By 1967 members of the Writers Union not only refused to help Solzhenitsyn get Cancer Ward published but denied that he was an artist of unusual standing. They criticized the work for unevenness and said it was mere sloganeering. But one member urged its publication. He recalled the immense impression created by One Day and asked why it had not been forgotten as had other stories about prison life during the Stalin era. The answer to that question lies with Solzhenitsyn himself—with his view of the artist’s role in society and his view of the nature of literature, both of which stem from his Christian faith. One of his enemies recognized this in part: “The works of Solzhenitsyn are more dangerous to us than those of Pasternak: Pasternak was a man divorced from life, while Solzhenitsyn, with his animated, militant, ideological temperament, is a man of principle.”
Solzhenitsyn is, in a sense, a Soviet writer; he was born in 1918, a year after the Bolshevik revolution (and six months after his father was killed in a shooting accident), and he grew up as a committed Communist. Although he wanted to write, the only school to which he could go did not have a literature major. He studied physics and mathematics instead and graduated in 1941 with a double major. That same year he finished a correspondence course in literature.
After graduation he went into the army, was decorated for bravery twice, and was promoted to captain. In 1945 he was arrested for criticism of Stalin (unnamed) in private letters to a friend. His scientific training probably saved his life; because of it he was sent to a special camp for scientists instead of the usual prison camp. His experiences there were the basis for his first novel, The First Circle (the title and image are taken from Dante’s Divine Comedy). He served his eight-year sentence and was then sent into “perpetual exile.” Shortly after that, near death, he entered a cancer hospital. He survived that, too. He was released from exile in 1956 during a general political thaw. A year later the Soviet supreme court issued a statement saying he had been rehabilitated.
All but one of Solzhenitsyn’s books reflect his own experiences. One Day and The First Circle deal with prison life, and Cancer Ward is about the treatment of dying patients. Solzhenitsyn characterizes The Gulag Archipelago I–II (volume two, containing “The Destructive-Labor Camps” and “The Soul and Barbed Wire,” was published in English late in 1975) as “an experiment in literary investigation,” a history of the development of the vast underground prison world existing in the Soviet Union. August 1914, the first fascicle of a longer work that probably will include October 1916, March 1917, and R 1917, concerns the first two weeks of World War I. The heart of the novel, the defeat of General Samsonov’s Second Army, was conceived in 1936 when Solzhenitsyn wrote an essay on that disaster.
Solzhenitsyn’s major concern is with the soul of man, and with the effect evil and good, truth and falsehood have on the soul. He believes that the duty and purpose of an artist is to serve his readers by writing the truth. Without that moral purpose there is no artist, and there is no literature, he believes.
To use an unpopular word, we could say that Solzhenitsyn writes with a didactic motivation. He is trying to teach his readers. As he writes, the images of thousands of confused, hungry, searching people never leave his mental sight. He wants to present them with the truth that evil lies not within the system but within each of us. Yes, he reveals the evils of the prison system, but he does so by baring the sins of individuals. Each of us, the author included, is culpable. In a sense his writing is an outgrowth of his repentance for participating in the Soviet system, for his former faith in it. And Solzhenitsyn wants to do more than inform: he wants to move his readers to repent along with him.
His Nobel Prize lecture is the fullest, most systematic explanation of his view of literature and the moral responsibility of the artist to his audience, a theme present in each of his books. The great writer is “the teacher of the people … a second government.” To compromise that goal is to forsake literature for mere words: “Of course, they couldn’t write much of the truth. But they consoled themselves with the thought that someday things would change, and then they would return to these times and these events, and record them truthfully, revising and reprinting their old books. Right now they must concentrate on that quarter, eighth, sixteenth—oh, all right, that thirty-second—part of the truth that was possible” (The First Circle, Harper & Row, 1968, p. 360). And what do you have left? asks Solzhenitsyn. Not a real book. Not real literature. Not any part of the truth. Just lies. Lies that will work against consolation that someday …: someday will never come unless someone now begins to lead the people to repentance. Satirizing shallow discussions of the business of literature in Cancer Ward, Solzhenitsyn shows his attitude toward a false view of truth. One girl wants it to be “uplifting, optimistic.” First we need to repent, says Solzhenitsyn. And how can we repent unless we face our sins?
Our secular culture has subverted and twisted our conscience, he says. We compromise, we excuse, we cannot feel the truth. But prison changed that for Solzhenitsyn. It forced him to face himself as he was. Few of us have that opportunity; he offers it to us in his realistic retelling of prison life. “Sometimes he was not at all sorry to have spent five years in prison,” he writes in First Circle. “Those years had come to mean something in themselves. Where could one learn about people better than here? And what better place to reflect about onself? How many youthful hesitations, how many wrong starts, had he been saved from by the iron path of prison?” (p. 253).
He elaborates on this in part four of Gulag, “The Soul and Barbed Wire.” The epigraph for this section is First Corinthians 15:51: “Behold, I show you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed.” Prison presents us with a paradox, a mystery. The reason for a prison term is to punish a person and cause him to repent and reform. But many people were sent to prison guilty of nothing criminal. How can one repent if one is not guilty? Or is each prisoner tainted?
Solzhenitsyn seems to say yes to the latter question. True, he was innocent of that for which he was sentenced, but he was still guilty of personal sins:
“In the seventh year of my imprisonment I had gone over and re-examined my life quite enough and had come to understand why everything had happened to me: both prison and, as an additional piece of ballast, my malignant tumor. And I would not have murmured even if all that punishment had been considered inadequate.
“Punishment? But … whose?
“Well, just think about that—whose?” (The Gulag Archipelago II, Harper & Row, 1975, p. 614).
The reader must stop to consider that subtle but pungent question. Prison changed Solzhenitsyn. He learned from whom his life came and for what purpose he, an artist, had been born. The following poem, composed in prison and published in Gulag II, explains more fully than anything else he has written what happened to him during those eight years:
When was it that I completely
Scattered the good seeds, one and all?
For after all I spent my boyhood
In the bright singing of Thy temples.
Bookish subtleties sparked brightly,
Piercing my arrogant brain,
The secrets of the world were … in my grasp,
Life’s destiny … as pliable as wax.
Blood seethed—and every swirl
Gleamed iridescently before me,
Without a rumble the building of my faith
Quietly crumbled within my heart.
But passing here between being and nothingness
Stumbling and clutching at the edge,
I look behind me with a grateful tremor
Upon the life that I have lived.
Not with good judgment nor with desire
Are its twists and turns illumined.
But with the even glow of the Higher Meaning
Which became apparent to me only later on.
And now with measuring cup returned to me,
Scooping up the living water,
God of the Universe! I believe again!
Though l renounced You, You were with me!
And thus he blesses prison life.
Even without this poetic statement about the living water we would know of his rebirth through his views on art, his insistence on the truth, the resurrection movement of his stories, the hope on the lips of his characters. We have also his essays and some of his letters. Solzhenitsyn: A Documentary Record, edited by Leopold Labedz, includes among other things the Postscript to August 1914 not printed with the English translation of the novel, several letters and interviews, and his Nobel Prize lecture. In this lecture Solzhenitsyn pulls together ideas scattered throughout his books. An artist should be an educator and, one could almost say, a prophet-priest. As he works he is responsible to both God and men. Since that is so, he bears the burden “to be more keenly aware than others of the harmony of the world, of the beauty and ugliness of the human contribution to it, and to communicate this acutely to his fellowmen.” His purpose: salvation.
The steps to achieving this goal also become clear. First, recognize your own sin, confess your own culpability. Repent. “Repentance,” he says, is the only starting point for spiritual growth.” Change. “Repentance loses all sense … if we have a good cry and then go on as before.” Submit your will to God’s. And dedicate yourself to telling the truth for God’s sake and the world’s. The latter is perhaps the hardest for each of us to do. Who can easily face the truth about himself? For Solzhenitsyn the task is further complicated by the shroud of lies covering society.
Solzhenitsyn is not a political figure. Many Western journalists forget that he is an artist, a poet-priest who follows in the steps of the great Russian and Western writers like Dostoevsky and Milton. The recent BBC interview with Solzhenitsyn is a case in point. The questions were political; Solzhenitsyn’s responses about the state of the West were moral. As Malcolm Muggeridge pointed out on “Firing Line” when the interview was broadcast there, Solzhenitsyn was talking about good and evil. The concessions he feels the West has made have been to misunderstand, and therefore to encourage, evil. Much of what he said in that interview is more concisely stated in the essay “On Repentance and Self-Limitation.”
Solzhenitsyn has become a political figure because he has written the truth of what he knows about the U. S. S. R. That brings us back to the original question: Why have his stories, unlike other horror tales of prison life and corrupt governments, grown rather than diminished in importance? It is because he is not a journalist merely recording events, like Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein; he is an artist who has transcended the bare facts to tell us the truth not just about the Soviet system or prison life but about ourselves.
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