Solzhenitsyn: A Biography, by Michael Scammell. W. W. Norton, 1985, 1,051 pp.; $29.95.
He once described his life as one fraught with “alarms, excursions, reconnaissance raids, anticipatory moves, and precautions.” Indeed, the novelist said he could hardly ask his readers to believe the intricately woven and crowded tapestry that constituted his existence.
Still, the tapestry that is Alexander Solzhenitsyn has commanded the attention of both East and West since the Stalinist era and the repression of the Russian spirit. And the unraveling of that tapestry has been an obsession of author Michael Scammell, whose massive biography of the dissident is unquestionably the most thorough, the most comprehensive, the most researched available thus far.
Scammell’s own artistic gifts—lucidity, stylistic ease, the novelist’s touch, a gift for metaphor—make the reading of Solzhenitsyn not only pleasurable but compelling, despite its length (996 pages of text, plus 1,540 reference notes and a generous index). Deftly relating the Russian’s life and work, Scammell has placed observers of the “Solzhenitsyn phenomenon” in his debt by not only looking critically and carefully at a single life, but at a social transformation (Soviet Russia) that formed the matrix of that life.
The guns of war had cooled but revolutionary rhetoric had not when Solzhenitsyn was born on December 11, 1918, in the North Caucasus, six months after his father had died of wounds received in a hunting accident. His mother tried heroically to keep a home for her family, but in the wake of the revolution, they knew only grinding poverty.
Active in the Soviet youth movement, he substituted a Red Star for the Cross of his upbringing and gradually came to embrace Marxism and Leninism. He held back, however, from joining the secret police—a decision based on the countercurrents emanating from the reading he was doing at the time.
After graduating in 1941 from Rostov University’s Department of Physics, he entered the military service and was eventually promoted to captain. His distaste for Stalin emerged, however, in his correspondence when he described the dictator as “the mustachioed one.” For that indiscretion he was sent to a series of prison camps for eight years. (Such treatment was not surprising. One man was sentenced for five years simply for smiling while reading the official party paper, Pravda.) He then lived briefly in Russia’s Asiatic wasteland, to which he had been exiled “in perpetuity.” His sentence was revoked during a period of liberalization, however, with his illness from cancer aiding in the release. He taught school, then took up his real love—writing.
Solzhenitsyn had been writing stories, poems, and plays since age nine. None of it could come to light until in 1962 Nikita Khrushchev ordered the novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich printed, recognizing its usefulness in his de-Stalinization campaign. Soviet Russia has not been the same since.
“I do not believe that it is the task of literature to conceal the truth, or to tone it down … I believe that it is the task of literature to tell the people the real truth as they expect it. Moreover, it is not the task of the writer to defend or criticize one or another mode of distributing the social product, or to defend or criticize one or another form of government organization. The task of the writer is to select more universal and eternal questions.…”
—from the session of Soviet Writers’ Secretariat, appendix to Cancer Ward (p. 554).
The book not only revealed the existence of labor camps, but was the freshest, most authentic novel published during the 45 years of the Soviet regime—a literary miracle. Other novelists had tried to please and evade the censors; Solzhenitsyn succeeded in reaching the hearts of his readers. The events relating first to the publication and then to the banning of the novel constitute half of Scammell’s biography.
Solzhenitsyn’s literary career, however, was not established, for in a totalitarian society every book is a weapon. The 12 years following the publication of One Day constituted, as set forth by Scammell, an incredibly dismal record of the frustrations of a literary giant contending with the Soviet authorities. Khrushchev eventually ordered One Day suppressed and, as he tightened his grip on the country, made publication of any of Solzhenitsyn’s other works in the Soviet Union impossible. Solzhenitsyn, who had first been accepted by the Soviet bureaucracy as “a true helper of the Party in a sacred and vital cause,” was now denounced as “a mediocre writer … a corrupt self-seeker … a traitor.” The circle was complete.
With the courage, tenacity, and tactical skills derived from his experiences in the labor camps, Solzhenitsyn adopted the role of an active opponent of the Soviet bureaucracy. Through letters, ultimatums, and confrontations, he defied the decrepit, sterile, ugly Soviet system in all of its manifestations. He learned that the best defense is the attack, and he placed the whole Soviet structure on the defensive with his repeated assaults.
This drama between giants took on a life of its own; despite being awarded the Nobel Prize in 1970 and his growing popularity abroad, the Soviet Union, which earlier would have executed him summarily, knew of only one way to deal with its formidable literary opponent: deportation. In 1976 Solzhenitsyn moved to Zurich, Switzerland, and then to Cavendish, Vermont, where he now lives with his second wife and their three children.
Alongside the events of these turbulent years, Solzhenitsyn was undergoing a spiritual transformation. Through the impact of events and personalities, he gradually returned to the religion of his youth. He had earlier described his conversion to Marxism in the following poem: “Without a rumble, faith’s edifice / Had quietly crumbled within my breast.” He now met people in the camps who had never been seduced by Marxism. Evgeny Divnich, the Orthodox priest, exposed Solzhenitsyn’s naïveté by asserting that Marxism was defunct, an anachronism. Solzhenitsyn’s arrest, interrogation, and imprisonment also forced him to reflect on the morality of a system whose wrongs he had condoned but which were horrendous assaults on human dignity and freedom. He had to admit, too, that no essential difference existed between Lenin and Stalin.
He then discovered a collection of essays entitled Landmarks, published in 1909 by a group of eminent Russian thinkers, the religious philosophers Nikolai Berdyayev and Sergei Bulgakov among them, essays that even then denounced the bankruptcy of the Russian liberal intelligentsia and castigated them for their flirtations with Marxist ideology. These essays removed the one last Revolutionary tenet still held by Solzhenitsyn: that, in Marxist terms, the 1917 revolution was historically inevitable. Surrendering this conviction freed him to evaluate the whole course of Russian and Soviet history against the background of the Christian dynamic and philosophic alternatives rather than the liberal, Western-influenced movements that he regarded as lacking a firm ethical base. “The Hound of Heaven” had done its work.
From 1962 to 1974, admiration in the West increased in proportion to the efforts to defame and repudiate him in his own country. But soon doubts about Solzhenitsyn’s ideas arose in the West as well. With the publication of his August 1914, a fictionalized history of Russia, and the news that he was working on more of the same, Western readers became puzzled. Scammell writes that Solzhenitsyn’s desire to look beyond the Soviet Union and the West and address posterity was the primary reason for this new direction. Solzhenitsyn, according to Scammell, desired to challenge the Soviet interpretation of history and set it right.
Moreover, he was now drawn into making political pronouncements—in speeches, interviews, books—which were interpreted as anti-Western comments: observations that alienated many of his erstwhile friends and supporters.
When he moved from innocent victim of an oppressive regime to the role of prophet of the bankruptcy and malaise of modern life, the secularists and humanists cooled toward him. They were also disturbed by his hope for a renewed Russia, chastened and repentant; a nation that, having again found God, might show the world the way to faith and peace.)
Not all of Solzhenitsyn’s devotees nor all Christians will agree with him on all points. But it would be a tragedy not to distinguish his peripheral details from the blazing truth of his overarching and thoroughly biblical pronouncements: that the true cleavage in humanity lies not in political structures or parties, or among nations, or in competing ideologies, but in the sinful human heart. To mend that fracture, one desperately needs the grace of God and the resolution to live a life that is repelled by both the small and the big lie, acknowledges reality, and seeks after truth.
Unfortunately, Scammell is disappointing in his final evaluation of this religious dimension of Solzhenitsyn’s life and person. (Edward Ericson makes that quality the central thrust of his own book, Solzhenitsyn: The Moral Vision.) Although the biographer gives us the data from which we can draw our own conclusions about Solzhenitsyn’s faith, he distances himself progressively from it, and, thus, will reinforce the readiness with which former admirers will dismiss Solzhenitsyn as a morally heroic individual who is somewhat flawed in adhering to creedal Christianity. Readers will also fail to appreciate fully the fervor with which Solzhenitsyn regards his current mission: to tell the truth about Soviet history after Communist distortions—a task aptly defined by Cervantes: “History is a near-sacred thing, for it must be true, and where the truth is, there is God.”
The power of the word inevitably propels Solzhenitsyn into the political arena, reluctant though he is. It is, after all, as a writer that Solzhenitsyn wishes to be remembered, especially a writer of fiction. He makes helpful pronouncements about the difference between a documentary work and fiction (the latter is superior, for it invests the raw materials with life-giving imagination); about the difference between inventing and creating characters; about the careful balance a writer needs to maintain between topicality and timelessness. His own writing is vigorous, fresh, powerful, enlivened by many a pungent metaphor inspired by a keen observation of life and, interestingly enough, by the Russian proverbs that he uses to good purpose. He also is a linguist working for language reform—another task with spiritual dimensions.
We have among us, then, a moral exemplar, Nobel prize winner, novelist, survivor of prison camps, historian, linguist. He also occupies a paragraph in the biography of divine grace. He is a true hero of faith. He is a prophet who deserves our thanks and our support. We ignore his insights at our peril.
Reviewed by Steve J. Van Der Weele, professor of English at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan.
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