By Jeff Bursey
And yet, the cumulative pullulation of this Host achieved something the entire Soviet Machine had been unable to do: to present me to the world as the acting standard-bearer of chimerical regiments, a vitriolic fanatic, and a ruthless tyrant. And no doubt the impression will long remain. (BTMB2, 106)
Many—perhaps most—of Solzhenitsyn’s critics viewed him as an arch-reactionary, a nineteenth-century mind in the twentieth. But in his turn away from Western universalism to nativism and traditional values, in his revolt against liberal condescension, he appears to have foreseen the twenty-first.1Kotkin, Stephen. “Untethered,” Times Literary Supplement, December 7, 2018 (No. 6036), p. 5. Hereafter referred to in the text.
For some years in the 1960s and 1970s, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn represented, in the West, resistance to a seemingly monolithic enemy of freedom. His “furiously righteous”2Pinkham, Sophie. “Living by Lies,” The New York Review of Books, Vol. LXVII, No. 13, August 20, 2020, p. 2 voice, among only a handful of others that included Andrei Sakharov (the two often clashed), exposed horrific wrongs and state-sanctioned systemic brutality. After publication of The Gulag Archipelago, in the winter of 1974 the USSR deported him to Germany, and eventually he and his family (second wife, children, mother-in-law) reunited in Switzerland. Expulsion did not mean ease of all pressures. Readers can well imagine not only what it would mean to be forced from your homeland (even a harsh one) and cut off from friends and supporters as well as sudden exposure to the foreign culture and sensibilities of, in this instance, Western Europe. The first years in this new chapter of Solzhenitsyn’s life were filled with misunderstandings and positive encounters, and this emotional, psychological, and cultural yo-yoing, along with much about his writing and the search for a safe new home, are subjects addressed in Between Two Millstones, Book 1: Sketches of Exile, 1974-1978 (2018) (reviewed here).
As the years passed, much changed in how Solzhenitsyn came to be regarded and treated. There are different reasons for this. His Harvard Address of 1978 upset many who thought his criticism of (“bitter truth”3Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr. “Harvard Address,” The Solzhenitsyn Reader: New and Essential Writings 1947—2005, eds. Edward E. Ericson, Jr., and Daniel J. Mahoney (Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2006), p. 562. about, in his words) the United States unwarranted and overly moralistic, disrespectful and chiding. Add to this public relations disaster the machinations of the USSR government as it sought to wound him (as it earlier sought to kill him) through attacks on his character, combined with his reluctance to respond to media demands for comments on world affairs, and it’s not hard to see how there were always going to be problems first with the USSR (the cancerous entity that engulfed Russia) and, second, with Europe/North America, the millstones of the title.
In the last few years, patient readers of Solzhenitsyn’s work in English (as well as, I suppose, diehard critics) have benefited from (or been bothered or distressed by) the appearance of two of his later novels from The Red Wheel saga and two volumes of autobiography, all issued by the same press, a significant investment in a publishing project that ensures stability of appearance and quality of translation. The novels are the first two volumes of March 1917; and their colossal disinterring of the records of the Russian Revolution contribute to a historical understanding of that momentous event and a renewed appreciation for Solzhenitsyn’s literary skills.
The memoirs provide something else. There are several major threads running through this volume, too many for one review to describe, but a few topics can be highlighted: political attacks waged on Solzhenitsyn’s character and work; charges of anti-Semitism; his work on behalf of writers and dissidents in the USSR who were under various types of pressure; his agreements and clashes with Sakharov; resistance to his time and energy being claimed by people, organizations, and governments; a warm-hearted view of domestic life, especially the growth of his three sons; and a deep acknowledgement of the essential and co-equal role played by his second wife, Natasha (“Alya”), in everything from household tasks to working alongside Solzhenitsyn to further projects of his, theirs, and others.
There are three parts to Between Two Millstones: Book 2: Exile in America, 1978-1994: Part Two (1978-1982), Part Three (1982-1987), and Part Four (1987-1994), followed by Appendices (letters to various public figures), Notes to the English Translation, Index of Selected Names, and a General Index. There is, of course, a modicum of self-congratulation, and many observances of major and minor mistakes made along the way. We are shown the embattled mindset of a dedicated writer-activist who often quotes liberally from his allies and antagonists, in part to help shore up Solzhenitsyn’s arguments and in part so he can attempt to dismantle their claims. At these points, we’re given the chance to disagree and to take the side, if we wish, of those who are hostile toward or perplexed by Solzhenitsyn’s positions and, at times, his silence: “How they’ve longed all these years for me to shut up. And I have—but now it’s my silence that they can’t bear.” Evidence is presented of how miscalculated words, plain lies, distortions, and squabbles with fellow Russians (Third Wave emigrants in particular, that is, those who left the USSR after the Second World War; writers like Andrei Sinyavsky who said that “Solzhenitsyn is a monarchist, a totalitarian, an anti-Semite, an heir to Stalin’s way of thinking, and a theocrat”; people who remained in the USSR and did the state’s bidding by launching hollow attacks; and his ex-wife), media representatives, politicians, and Soviet, Russian, and Western commentators inflicted damage on Solzhenitsyn from within as well as from without, no matter that they, at times, needed to happen. “Indeed, over the five decades he spent in the public eye Solzhenitsyn wrote and said plenty of things that were controversial, to use that anodyne word,” Richard Tempest states, continuing: “If Tolstoy was magnificently territorial, railing against artists and heroes who were commensurate to himself on the scale of genius…, Solzhenitsyn, that dedicated asker of questions, was critical or dismissive about many of the values privileged by the consensual discourses of our age.”4Tempest, Richard. Overwriting Chaos: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Fictive Worlds (Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2019), p. 59. Hereafter referred to in the text. Solzhenitsyn did not have, nor did he want to have, PR chops. His self-isolation in Vermont could be viewed with suspicion (except for those, largely, who also lived in the same community), his intransigence as self-pride, and his choice of political friends as questionable.
As an example of the latter, there is Solzhenitsyn’s 1982 letter to then-President Ronald Reagan rejecting a half-hearted invitation, an invitation heard in fuller detail first via the press, from functionaries within the White House to “a luncheon for ‘Soviet dissidents.’” “But a writer and an artist belongs neither to the first group nor to the second.” This letter—and letters were often opportunities to defend a position and expose the weakness of another’s—illustrates Solzhenitsyn’s two-sided approach. He rejects attendance at such a gathering with an asperity that makes his words stick like burrs and draws precise lines between objects. Clear and admirable, and a rejoinder to those who at that time, before, and after, considered Solzhenitsyn a threat, a theological wolf in the West waiting to return to Russia with diktats and Orthodox piety.
Yet the letter opens with these words: “I admire many aspects of your activity, rejoice because the United States at last has a president such as you, and unceasingly thank God that you were not killed by the villainous bullets.” Leaving aside the last phrase, which perhaps comes from a desire to not see anyone harmed, this is such a severe misreading of an influential and damaging politician as to call into doubt Solzhenitsyn’s nous when it came to public United Statesers. Yet this is not the entire picture, for he is of the same mind as Sakharov in regarding Reagan’s “space shield” the equal in lethality as “the neutron bomb.” Then there is his liking for Margaret Thatcher: “Far from standing on ceremony, I kissed Thatcher’s hand. Rarely has a woman’s hand been more deserving”—there is a note mingling self-congratulation with something more unpalatable—“and I felt both deep admiration and liking for this stateswoman.” These are displays of fondness not easily accepted—in the British phrase, they’re sick-making—by those who, at that time and through to today, have had to struggle under or with the inheritance of domestic and international policies or those of a political mind at some other part of the spectrum. (To this Canadian, finding something to respect in Reagan is as equally repugnant as admiring the approach to welfare or criminal punishment, and the support for neoliberalism, of former-President William Clinton.)
One might think Solzhenitsyn would regard Mikhail Gorbachev as an improvement over his predecessors. Thatcher “extolled [his] virtues…Well, who wouldn’t take a shine to him after the eighty-year-old, deaf cripples? And he’d ended the Cold War!” Solzhenitsyn isn’t a fan, put off by the new President’s caution about engaging with and digging around in the past, remarking parenthetically: “But was Gorbachev himself fit for glasnost when he was, at the moment, trying to cover up the Chernobyl contamination?” A rather stupid turn is taken by the media when various publications begin inventing correspondence between Gorbachev and Solzhenitsyn about his returning to the Soviet Union, about contracts to publish his books there, and much more. No world leader comes out well, though a few come out less bad than people might prefer.
Some readers may categorize these memoirs as score-settling, and that’s not unfair or unexpected. In the TLS review quoted at the opening, Kotkin uses the words of Fr. Alexander Schmemann that appeared in Lee Congdon’s Solzhenitsyn: The Historical-Spiritual Destinies of Russia and the West (2017): “[Solzhenitsyn] lacks any sense of life’s complexity and any understanding of people…He mistrusts others, is very secretive, and excessively self-assured. In some ways, he is childlike. And yet, none of these defects contradicts his greatness and literary genius” (Kotkin, 5). With variations, these fairly common complaints have been voiced by others (and Schmemann was a friend) and can be seen as representative. Instead of arguing away those potentially accurate judgments, I try to imagine what it would have been like to grow up in Revolutionary Russia, then the USSR, to fight in the Second World War and be imprisoned in a camp for criticizing Stalin in a letter, to be punished further by internal exile, to endure cancer, and to write about the Gulag—exposure of which could result in another period of incarceration or execution—without anyone except this or that extremely close and trusted friend knowing, to live and publish anything under a dictatorship, to be expelled from my homeland, and to be the subject of attacks on many levels for decades. While I fail at every stage of this mental exercise to imagine the extent of each trial, I can at least see why one would need to be secretive and how trust would be hard to come by. Are we to suppose that our life experiences are the norm that others must use as a measuring mark? As for self-assured, some artists are like that or need to feel that way, so it’s hardly a distinguishing characteristic. Who would stand up for Solzhenitsyn, inside and outside the Soviet Union (or Russia), if he didn’t? The fake interviews or remarks attributed to him, repeated in this volume (and its predecessor), and the warped perceptions of his views required battling. As well, there were struggles with the political arms of his former country, and there were fights to get aid to those inside the Soviet Union who needed it.
Pick almost any page and you’ll see a vigorous contest or attack. (The exceptions would be when Solzhenitsyn travels to Japan and South Korea, where the prose droops. It’s hard for him to mount a spirited attack on the liberal amount of seafood consumed in both places that doesn’t come off as provincial and patronizing of the cultures of other places.) One might reasonably wonder: Does he have to be so antagonistic? Is it others, or, really, him? Then I came across this passage from a recent nonfiction work:
But there was also a sorrow and a weight to the place [Moscow]; the city had been the epicenter of a terrible failed experiment, one that had resulted in great tragedy for so many, and even if the particulars rarely came up in conversation, this feeling led to what felt like a collective inability to indulge in small talk or the trifling banalities that often lubricate social interactions everywhere else. You show up for tea in Moscow—or anywhere in Russia, really—and within minutes you’re diving into questions of history, love, fate, power, art. That’s not to say life couldn’t be fun, or hilarious, but it was fundamentally treated with consequence.5Baehr, Peter. “Hong Kong’s Battle against Communism: And how the Hong Kong protests of 2019 differed from those in America in 2020,” Claremont Review of Books, Vol. XXI, No. 1, Winter 2021 (page numbers unknown at time of writing).
Perhaps the somberness of Between Two Millstones reflects the view that life and the choices in it are essential and serious, and need to be discussed and talked out, or written about, at length. The attacks Solzhenitsyn fends off don’t diminish once the USSR’s old guard are replaced by Gorbachev, nor does his moral outrage decline, especially when faced with Boris Yeltsin’s leadership and the degradation it participated in, allowed, and encouraged—“the ills of today’s Russia (of which he was the main culprit).” Here is a December 1993 letter to Yeltsin:
I, too, hold out hope in our people’s strength of spirit. But it pains me to see the terrible fall into poverty of the majority of our populace, a privatization that benefits the chosen few, the continuing shameless pilfering of the national wealth, the thorough venality of the government apparatus, and the impunity of criminal gangs. In no way does it appear that any break in this circle of misfortunes is forthcoming—unless we fearlessly and selflessly start to tackle these festering wounds, which are getting the better of us.
Today, maybe those words are applicable to more than one country.
Paramount above every dispute, interview, or article, and requiring the utmost security and peace and quiet, is the key goal in Solzhenitsyn’s artistic life—completing The Red Wheel, that monumental series of novels that began as an idea in 1936. In the first volume of BTM, we read how the archive Solzhenitsyn had built up in the USSR, and essential to writing this work, was secretly removed from there after his expulsion. Once in the West, he had free access to large deposits of historical material that retained the human element the Soviet Union had worked to destroy:
And I could receive from libraries any information source I needed. Actually, even before this, during the first hustle and bustle in Zurich, old Russian émigrés were sending—even without me asking—all the books that were indispensable. I’d put them into my library before I found out what books I did actually need—and it turned out I already had nearly all of them. But the best repository for the history of the Revolution was the Hoover Institution, where both the murder of Stolypin (that enigma had been an obsession since my youth) and the whole enormous edifice of March emerged into view from those old newspapers. And the Hoover was always inviting me to come and do some more work there, and sending photocopies of materials by the hundredweight. And thanks to the endeavors of Elena Pashina an invaluable gift was added—microfilm copies of all the Petersburg papers from the time of the Revolution.
But on top of that, how many recollections were sent me by old survivors of the Revolution. . . .Verging on their nineties, strength wasted, vision now poor, they used what were, in some cases, the last words they’d ever write to respond to my appeal. Some told their whole life story, others—singular events of the Revolution that I’d never have been able to find elsewhere, their own recollections or those of relatives now dead, memories otherwise doomed to die with them. There are already over three hundred of them—and they are still arriving. It was Alya who would first take receipt of this avalanche (when ever did she find the time?), and both answer the elderly authors and look through their manuscripts, reading and picking out for me the fragments that might be of immediate use. But my first job would be to select witness accounts of the Gulag for the final edition of Archipelago—adding another thirty or so to the Soviet accounts we already had. Finally, starting in autumn 1980, I could sit down to work on the revolutionary memoirs alone. That dying generation of émigrés had breathed out their final words to me, sending me a great surge of help. The link between epochs, ripped apart by bloody Bolshevik hands, had been miraculously, unexpectedly put back together as the last possible moment was ebbing away.
The pages spent discussing The Red Wheel’s aesthetics and objectives, as well as the labour behind it, are likely to be identifiable and fascinating to many writers. Always present is the struggle to shape the immense number of ideas, real-life personages, and incidents into a cogent narrative while resisting demands from the outside world:
Fortunately, fate has decreed that, while following my basic inclination, I also have to remain silent; to take The Red Wheel on further. These many years of silence, of inaction, of less action—even if I’d tried I couldn’t have planned it better. It’s also the best position tactically, given the current distribution of forces: for I am almost alone, but my adversaries are legion.
I’ve plunged into The Red Wheel and I’m up to my ears in it: all my time is filled with it, except when I sleep (and even at night I’m woken by ideas, which I note down). I stay up late reading the old men’s memoirs and am already nearing the end of a complete read-through of what they’ve sent. Over their many pages, the writing sometimes shaky, scratchy now, my heart gives a lurch: what spirit, in someone approaching eighty—some of them ninety—years of age, unbroken by sixty years of humiliation and poverty in emigration—and that after their excruciating defeat in the Civil War. Real warrior heroes! And how much priceless material is preserved in their memories, how many episodes they’ve given me, bits and pieces for the “fragments” chapters—without them, where would I have found this? It would all have vanished without trace.
When I had, in the first draft, assembled the material and made sure I had what was needed for the vast mass of the four-volume March—that is, of the February Revolution itself—I went backwards, to August and October, to fine-tune them into their definitive form. This was also no minor task, for over the last four or so years of rummaging through archives and memoirs, how many new depths I’d encountered in the weave of events, and many places demanded more and more work—changing and rewriting. And yes, I do understand that I am overloading the Wheel with detailed historical material—but it is that very material that’s needed for categorical proof; and I’d never taken a vow of fidelity to the novel form.
The steadfastness required to finish a novel is often stated but not so often expressed in a way that makes you feel the effort required or that’s as encouraging for one’s own resolve. Reading this volume on that topic one sees, even more than in the first volume, how this series of novels is about ensuring that history is not left to moulder or to be forgotten. I won’t say The Red Wheel is an essential work, as nothing is unless a reader deems it so; but it is essential for me.
Solzhenitsyn will always occupy two spheres simultaneously: the moral (granted, it looks more like the political, at times) and the literary, and it’s an open question what side has more influence and is more discussed.
The sociologist Peter Baehr, in a forthcoming review of two books on recent events in Hong Kong, chooses a binary opposition familiar to Solzhenitsyn readers to illuminate Baehr’s position: “It was Maxim Gorky, the Russian writer, who said that the only people worthy of freedom are those willing to fight for it every day. Gorky wasn’t; he became an apologist for Stalinism….In his fiction and lectures, Solzhenitsyn shows what life without freedom—of conscience, of expression, of assembly, of movement, of political representation—looks like. It looks like moral death. And yet, in spite of everything, some of the embattled [Honk Kong activists] continue to affirm the virtues of dignity and solidarity.” Baehr concludes: “In 2019 Hongkongers risked life and livelihood for the freedom of their city. Some are now in exile. Others are in prison. Many more await trial and can expect long jail terms. Beyond their names and the crimes for which they will be sentenced, who are all these people, really? They are Solzhenitsyn’s heirs on the South China Sea.”6Baehr, Peter. “Hong Kong’s Battle against Communism: And how the Hong Kong protests of 2019 differed from those in America in 2020,” Claremont Review of Books, Vol. XXI, No. 1, Winter 2021 (page numbers unknown at time of writing). In Yaffa’s book on difficult political choices people make in Russia under Vladimir Putin, there is a similar acknowledgement of what Solzhenitsyn represents, a kind of scale of behavioural responses to surviving in that political world: “Most people are neither Stalin nor Solzhenitsyn…”7Yaffa, Joshua. Between Two Fires: Truth, Ambition, and Compromise in Putin’s Russia (New York: Random House, 2020), pp. 17-18. Hereafter referred to in the text.
On the literary plane, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, Solzhenitsyn is not widely read now, and until recently has been more often regarded as a voice of conscience quoted by right-wingers than as a literary person who might inspire current or future writers. With the emergence of new fiction (new, that is, to English readers) and appraisals by Congdon, Tempest, Elisa Kriza (Alexander Solzhenitsyn: Cold War icon, Gulag author, Russian nationalist? ), and October’s critical anthology Solzhenitsyn and American Culture: The Russian Soul in the West (eds. David P. Deavel and Jessica Hooten Wilson), the balance has an opportunity to change. For those who see more in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s works than out-of-fashion views about dusty history presented in what appears to be a traditional novel form, the break in the translation logjam and the consequent flood of words, especially with regards to The Red Wheel “epopee” (Tempest) with its Modernist features, presents much to consider, to examine with new eyes, and to, quite simply, delight in.
1 Kotkin, Stephen. “Untethered,” Times Literary Supplement, December 7, 2018 (No. 6036), p. 5. Hereafter referred to in the text.
2 Pinkham, Sophie. “Living by Lies,” The New York Review of Books, Vol. LXVII, No. 13, August 20, 2020, p. 27.
3 Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr. “Harvard Address,” The Solzhenitsyn Reader: New and Essential Writings 1947—2005, eds. Edward E. Ericson, Jr., and Daniel J. Mahoney (Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2006), p. 562.
4 Tempest, Richard. Overwriting Chaos: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Fictive Worlds (Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2019), p. 59. Hereafter referred to in the text.
5 Yaffa, Joshua. Between Two Fires: Truth, Ambition, and Compromise in Putin’s Russia (New York: Random House, 2020), pp. 17-18. Hereafter referred to in the text.
6 Baehr, Peter. “Hong Kong’s Battle against Communism: And how the Hong Kong protests of 2019 differed from those in America in 2020,” Claremont Review of Books, Vol. XXI, No. 1, Winter 2021 (page numbers unknown at time of writing).
Jeff Bursey is a literary critic and author of the picaresque novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel, both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His newest book, Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews, is a collection of literary criticism that appeared in American Book Review, Books in Canada, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, The Quarterly Conversation, and The Winnipeg Review, among other places. He’s a Contributing Editor at The Winnipeg Review, an Associate Editor at Lee Thompson’s Galleon, and a Special Correspondent for Numéro Cinq. He makes his home on Prince Edward Island in Canada’s Far East.