Posted: November 1, 2007
n November 2006 a publishing house in Moscow issued the first three volumes of the collected works of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The remaining volumes will be released through 2010, and the 30-volume set will be the first full collection of Solzhenitsyn's works to be published and sold in Russia.
The Solzhenitsyn Reader is a noteworthy publishing event in its own right. The need for such an anthology in English has been apparent for some time, and not only to acquaint a new generation with his works. The range of his writing is wide, and over the years various shorter pieces—essays, speeches, and the prose poems he calls "miniatures"—have been hard to obtain, even for the resourceful.
The anthology was worth the wait. A labor of love for editors Edward Ericson and Daniel Mahoney, this project also involved some of Solzhenitsyn's best translators, including his sons Yermolai, Ignat, and Stephan. As both an introduction to Solzhenitsyn and a collection of some of his best writing, the book will be a splendid resource for many years.
As one would expect, the Reader includes selections from the author's principal literary works, The First Circle, Cancer Ward, The Gulag Archipelago, and The Red Wheel. But there is one surprise—without comment, the editors have left out One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the brilliant 1962 novella that launched Solzhenitsyn's career. Given the brevity of Ivan Denisovich and its special status among works written under Communism, perhaps the editors decided that an abridgement would be inappropriate.
In the main, the selections Ericson and Mahoney have chosen are engrossing. Those familiar with the author's oeuvre might question a few of their choices—I would have liked to see several more chapters from The Gulag Archipelago—but the editors cannot be accused of unreasonable bias.
The Reader contains some of Solzhenitsyn's best poems, short stories, speeches, and essays. To have these in one place is a delight. The highlights include the short story "Matryona's Home"; excerpts from The Trail, an autobiographical poem exceeding 7,000 lines; the Nobel Lecture, published in 1972; and Solzhenitsyn's 1978 Harvard University commencement address. The Reader also has excerpts from the first volume of Solzhenitsyn's memoirs (The Oak and the Calf) and his historical study of Russian-Jewish relations in his homeland (Two Hundred Years Together).
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The editors' good judgment derives from their extensive knowledge of Solzhenitsyn, which probably matches that of any American scholar or journalist alive today. Ericson has published two books on Solzhenitsyn's thought; Mahoney one. In their introductory essay to the Reader and in the commentaries preceding each selection, the editors touch on aspects of Solzhenitsyn's life and career as a writer.
We learn, for instance, about the effect of the Soviet censors on Solzhenitsyn's books. After the critical success of Ivan Denisovich in both the USSR and abroad, Solzhenitsyn tried to have The First Circle published. Soviet authorities refused. Solzhenitsyn sought a compromise and offered a less controversial version of the novel with nine chapters cut. This initiative failed, though the shorter version was translated into English. Thus since 1968 the novel in its original form has been unavailable to English-language readers. This situation was at last rectified in 2005, with the completion of a new translation of The First Circle (excerpts of which appear in the Reader) by the distinguished British scholar H.T. Willetts.
Elsewhere, the editors help to clear away the falsehoods about Solzhenitsyn, most of which concern his political views. It is fair to say that Solzhenitsyn has misgivings about the theory and practice of Western democracy; but the idea that he is a theocrat or an authoritarian is simply untenable, as the editors patiently and convincingly explain.
Some might argue that Solzhenitsyn himself is partly responsible for the misinterpretation of his views. In an interview with David Remnick in 1994, he conceded that he speaks and writes with a forcefulness that is unusual in the contemporary West. Solzhenitsyn's directness can be sharp, and his sharpness may have given rise to some confusion. But in an atmosphere of moral flaccidity, his directness is attractive, and necessary.
In the United States, controversies and misconceptions about the man date back to the mid-1970s. After being expelled from the Soviet Union, he settled in Zurich and later moved with his family to Vermont. In a series of political speeches and essays, he criticized the Soviet leaders and their oppressive policies, but also extended his criticism to the West and its leadership (or lack thereof).
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Although he is not a systematic political thinker—and the editors ask that we not judge his life and literary works by political criteria—some of Solzhenitsyn's ideas are highly relevant to current debates in political theory. In his Harvard commencement address, for example, he described the "legalistic life" of the contemporary West:
If one is right from a legal point of view, nothing more is required, nobody may mention that one could still not be entirely right, and urge self-restraint or a renunciation of these rights, call for sacrifice and selfless risk: This would simply sound absurd. Voluntary self-restraint is almost unheard of: Everybody strives toward further expansion to the extreme limit of the legal frames.
This is hyperbole, but it is effective hyperbole. It brings into focus a central theme of the address: what political theorist William Galston has called "the vast terrain between rights and rightness." Solzhenitsyn holds that moral judgments cannot be reduced to questions of legality, that something legally permissible is not necessarily morally permissible. With few exceptions, this point eludes contemporary liberals, who seem to think that when something is decriminalized (pornography, for example), society should adopt a "nonjudgmental" attitude towards it. Solzhenitsyn's position is closer to the classical liberal view. His argument echoes the age-old distinction between liberty and license, which finds expression in the writings of John Locke, T.H. Green, and John Stuart Mill. The editors remind us that "the defense of human liberty and dignity is not exhausted by the categories or assumptions of late modernity."
Solzhenitsyn's talk of "self-restraint" and a "renunciation of rights" hardly proves that he is a reactionary. Rather, as the editors argue, he challenges the West to "explore prudently the necessarily difficult relations between order and liberty, tradition and progress." In doing so, the West can draw from its Christian heritage, which honors the virtues of mercy and self-sacrifice as moral antidotes to human greed and selfishness.
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Despite all that Solzhenitsyn has seen and endured, including the problems that now beset Russia, the editors describe him as "an optimist" and note that he describes himself the same way. Part of that optimism is his hope that the West will recover its religious heritage and recognize the folly of having "forgotten God" in the 20th century.
Since returning to Russia in 1994, however, he seems to have become more worried about the moral future of the West and of America in particular. In April 1999 Solzhenitsyn castigated NATO for bombing Serbia. He said that no one "should hold on to illusions that this bloc aims to defend the Kosovars." He added, "The aggressors have tossed the U.N. aside and begun a new era when the strong bear down and dictate their will."
In a 2001 interview with David Remnick, Solzhenitsyn characterized the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe as the betrayal of a promise made by President George H.W. Bush to Mikhail Gorbachev, who had agreed to withdraw Soviet troops from the Eastern Bloc on the condition that NATO be prevented from expanding eastward. After Poland and Hungary joined NATO, Solzhenitsyn remarked that Russians "began to understand the arrogance, the real policies, of the Western powers." Five years later, Solzhenitsyn said that "there is no substantial difference between NATO and U.S. actions," and that Russia's joining NATO "would result not in the expansion but the decline of Christian civilization."
Because American conservatives have been one of Solzhenitsyn's loyal constituencies, I wish the editors had more forthrightly discussed criticisms like these. In their introduction to the Reader, there is a cryptic reference to the problems with imposing democracy by force, but the relevant issues are left unexplored. To be sure, I do not think agreement with all of Solzhenitsyn's criticisms is necessary in order to be grateful for his voice. The editors are right to maintain that he is a "true friend of human liberty."
The selections in The Solzhenitsyn Reader confirm what the editors suggest in the opening pages: the author's life almost defies belief. Born in Russia one year after the Bolshevik seizure of power, he outlived the political system that persecuted him, surviving its horrible network of labor camps while documenting its myriad crimes. Solzhenitsyn's writings are indispensable for understanding the 20th century. For those who would like to sample that corpus generously, the Reader is an excellent place to begin.