Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn, 1918-2008

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn died yesterday. He was 89.

Solzhenitsyn has been a hero of mine since I discovered his books about five years ago. His meaning to me has been somewhat proverbial. To me, he is the artist standing in defense of truth against perversions coming from several directions.

When he was in his twenties, Solzhenitsyn was an artillery officer in Germany during World War II. A letter he wrote to a friend while he was serving in Germany, in which he obliquely criticized Josef Stalin, was intercepted by Russian intelligence agents. As a result, Solzhenitsyn served eight years in the prison camps of Siberia. This experience became the grist for many of his subsequent novels which described the hardships of life in the camps, but also decried the hypocrisy and utter insanity of the communist system.

After being released from the camps, Solzhenitsyn enjoyed a brief period of acclaim in the Soviet Union. He was exiled from the Soviet Union in 1974 after the publication of The Gulag Archipelago. He made his residence in Vermont during his exile. After the fall of the communist regime in Russia, he returned to his homeland as a hero.

I’ve read The First Circle, August 1914, and parts of the Gulag Archipelago. I’ve always found Solzhenitsyn to be dedicated to telling a story though art and letting the reader draw his own conclusions. This is how people want to learn, and it’s how most people do learn. He put his art at the service of truth without letting it cease to be art, and made the world a little better as a result.

A good introduction to Solzhenitsyn is his 1978 Harvard University commencement address. Solzhenitsyn had received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970 and was widely regarded as an authentic social critic of the Communist system. During his Harvard address, Solzhenitsyn touched on the faults of the Communist system and then offered his assessment of the cultural and social faults of capitalism in the West. Chief among these faults was the effeminacy of the intellectual elite and their defection from belief in objective truth. The folks in Cambridge were a little miffed.

The full text of the address can be read here.

I will remember him as an artist who was a man, and vice versa. He was dedicated to truth, and never let a partial issue divide his attention or his vision of where society (or his nation) should be going. Solzhenitsyn fought against the misconceptions of personhood that were the foundation of Communism by being a whole man. It is the same spirit that will help us combat the misconceptions that are the foundation of our Western consumer culture.

So, requiescat in pacem, Aleksandr Isayevich.

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