The leading Western historian of Stalinism's horrors first met Alexander Solzhenitsyn when the novelist was expelled from the USSR in 1974. Here he recalls his genius and his courage
The death of Alexander Solzhenitsyn finds the world, not for the first time, faced with a need to understand him, and to understand Russia. His life since his release from jail was devoted to powerful writing about the horrors of Stalinism – and also about its stupidities and its nastiness.
One forgets how little was really known about the Soviet Union until 1956 and Khrushchev’s Secret Speech, and that dealt mainly with the fate of Stalin’s political opponents. In Russia, the truth had been suppressed. In the West, it had been doubted. The publication, in 1963, of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich broke the dam. From then on Solzhenitsyn continued his fight, throwing down the challenge in his other well-known works. Luckily his new world fame prevented the USSR from using its earlier method of coping with such rebels: death or slavery.
It is sometimes more or less forgotten that different countries, with very different experiences, have different potentialities. As Orwell wrote: “Anyone able to use his eyes knows that the average of human behaviour differs enormously from country to country. Things that could happen in one country could not happen in another.” This is true even of fairly similar countries – any Briton who has real experience of France, say, takes it for granted.
Russian history, which provides the unconscious background of Russian thought and feeling, has been hugely different from that of Western countries. As Russians tell us, their country has long nourished three views of itself. There is the old traditional sense of nationhood, based on a super-patriotism which has often been likened to a religious faith – as in Fyodor Tyuchev’s famous dictum: “Russia can neither be grasped by the mind, nor measured by any common yardstick. Russia’s status is special: no attitude to her other than one of blind faith is admissible.”Then there has been the import of various ideologies from the West, which eventually resulted in the Soviet regime. And thirdly, there has been the idea of a cultured class, which Pasternak saw and propagated as the “normal” or “European” Russian future.
Those of us who try to understand Russia have long been aware that the great works of Russian literature – which depict the hearts and habits of the whole of humanity – at the same time also reveal much that is special to Russia, how Russians behave and think.
That fine scholar Ronald Hingley described all this, and outlines one aspect of it, much noted today: wherever we turn, we find descriptions, from Russian and Western observers alike, of a sense of Russian superiority, combined with a feeling that this superiority is not sufficiently recognised. This is found both in individuals and in the Russian state. And it is accompanied by the urge to find someone else to blame, without any real or even remotely plausible reason. A complementary trait is the fear that a Russian, or Russia, is being deceived or cheated – the sort of thing we see in Gogol’s Dead Souls (which reminds us of our huge debt to the great Russian humorists).
Today, Russia is run by a power group, a centralised but not monolithic elite and its dependent officials. The regime is neither capitalist nor socialist – nor even “state capitalist”. It recalls what over a century ago many saw, even then, as a “feudal” outlook and it has been described as a plutocracy embedded in an autocracy. Its methods are undemocratic, but not totalitarian. Its economy has vast resources – but is awkwardly concentrated on fuel, hampered by political and of course personal and factional disputes. The recent actions of the Kremlin regarding foreign investment revealed an ignorance of Russia’s real economic interests: even Lenin favoured foreign investment on occasion. The argument against it is, like much else in the country, isolationist and irrational. It is also worth noting that the military remains a powerful voice in the Kremlin. And that means the continuation of the unpopular practice of conscription.“Opposition” activities are repressed informally (sometimes by unsolved murders). At the same time the regime uses the “Western”, or “European”, language of civil society and the rule of law. It even allows a wide measure of freeish speech. Unlike during the Soviet period, Russians can holiday in Turkey or Egypt or even America. The veteran dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, for instance, has visited Russia, given trouble and returned to England. One can read the true history of Stalinism in small editions, although school history textbooks are heavily weighted towards the “positive” opinions of the Kremlin. Still, some commentators see signs of a possible evolution to a more civilised future in the emergence of a genuine middle class within today’s society.
Abroad we seem everywhere to be seeing the abandonment of the manic ideologies of the 20th century. But there is the revival of an older chauvinism – anti-American, or anti-Western – in China as well as Russia. The projection of Russia as a world power is seen in every field. We see idiocies such as the closing down of British Council offices throughout the country (which met with a strong response from the Foreign Secretary) – just one example of a clumsy, counter-productive handling of the outer world. There is no need to tell here of all the super-nationalistic activities, from the Caucasus to the Caribbean, of the present rulers. Of course Russia is no longer the totalitarian world-nightmare of Stalin’s time, but chauvinism can be dangerous without ideology. Kaiser Wilhelm’s nationalist expansionism co-existed with considerable internal pluralism on the political and cultural side. And led to 1914.
Russia’s history over the more than two generations of Communist rule was misunderstood in the West partly because so much of its reality was suppressed or distorted for reasons of what might be called “political hypnosis”. Those of us who were concerned to expose, and resist, Stalinism in the West as well as in the USSR learned much of the truth from such voices as – pre-eminently – Solzhenitsyn’s.
When I met him in Zurich in 1974, soon after his expulsion from the Soviet Union, I found him as pleasant personally as he was brave, having illegally, and in the face of harsh penalties, smuggled his writings out of his Gulag cell on scraps of paper (and later, more easily, out of Russia for publication in the West). He had been charged with treason under article 64 of the Russian Federation Criminal code, stripped of his citizenship and expelled to West Germany in handcuffs six weeks after The Gulag Archipelago, depicting life in the labour camps, was published in Paris.Solzhenitsyn had learned (perhaps from the Yearbook of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia for 1957, where I am mentioned as a poet and anthologist) something of my background, and later in the conversation he asked me if I would produce a verse translation of a “little” poem of his. Of course, I was honoured. It turned out to be more than 2,000 lines, and the task took several months, during which I consulted him and his circle.
This was Prussian Nights. It is almost all in ballad metre, one of the most translatable types of poetry, and is an arresting composition, increasing our knowledge of him and his times. It is worth reading and rereading for its stunning historical background. The poem is not particularly well known to Solzhenitsyn’s worldwide admirers. This is partly because of its medium – inevitably distracting to many – but in which his vision equals that of his prose. The poem was composed in his head in penal camp, and is dated 1950. It describes his role as an artillery officer in the Soviet strike into East Prussia in January 1945, a few weeks before his arrest for having made disrespectful remarks about Stalin in letters to a friend.
The German defences have collapsed. Villages and towns fall to the attackers, fires rage, troops loot and drink. As the advance continues, soldiers are enjoying outbursts of drunken song, killing and rape. These scenes alternate with quietly descriptive sections. The tone changes, sometimes cool, sometimes tumultuous, sometimes amused, sometimes emotional. After one of the vivid death scenes, the narrator gets excited by looting really good – that is, non-Russian – pencils and paper.As he moves through “The silver of the Prussian days/ The crimson of the Prussian nights” he comes across a huge tough Major in the railway station, swigging alcohol and holding at pistol point a German rail official, forcing him to reroute trains into his trap. “What did you do in peacetime?” He was a lecturer in literature. They are soon talking about the Enlightenment:
Old Rus, the Mongols, Europe and
Unbuttoning, throwing off his hat,
He’s turning sensitive, subtle, kind,
As though a deep inhaling burst,
Some tight hoop around his chest,
He speaks even of Germany
With understanding, with sympathy
but he keeps his revolver trained on the German railwayman. The next scene is again of looting, and ends with Soviet soldiers wondering whether to shoot a boy left in a pram (“He’ll grow and put a helmet on/ Deal with him now, d’you think?”), citing the official order “Blood for Blood” – but in the end they don’t. In another dramatic scene the poet tries, but fails, to prevent the senseless killing of a German girl who is misidentified as the wife of an SS man by two of his soldiers, brutal or vengeful for different reasons and in different ways. The victim is described at length:
She screamed. Down in the snow she fell
She froze up, curled into a ball
Like a little animal
Lying motionless and pale?.?.?.
The bullets fly, and the poet drives on. Throughout, his mind is full of sensitive, sensual scherzos that tempt him to indulge his lusts; at the same time he is haunted by “the worm of self-analysis”. It ends with himself, the narrator, in what amounts to a more quiet rape scene, and when the German girl says “Don’t shoot me”, it is he who has the soul-loss. I have just reread the poem, in both languages. It is an astonishing and wrongly neglected work – a “war” poem of unparalleled power.
How should one judge Solzhenitsyn – one of the most striking public figures of our time? In his public capacity, he felt bound to step forward as the conscience of his people, saying: “My views developed in the course of time. But I have always believed in what I did and never acted against it.” Yet above all, he saw himself as a writer – a Russian writer. For most of us, Russian literature is like a triangle around Pushkin, Dostoevsky and Chekhov – with Tolstoy standing apart in his own class. Solzhenitsyn, on the strength of August 1914 alone, competes in the Tolstoy lane. I rank him with his fellow Nobelists from eastern Europe, Boris Pasternak and Czeslaw Milosz – all three are both writers and moralists.
Solzhenitsyn first came to attention in the Soviet Union, and around the world, with One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. It is a short work, avoiding anything akin to sensationalism. The circumstances of its publication are relevant both to its contents and, even more, to the political circumstances. Like much else in history, it was a matter of luck – the editor of the cultural journal Novy Mir had bypassed the censors and given the manuscript directly to Krushchev, who then thoughtlessly authorised publication.
His luck was not to hold. The printing was stopped almost immediately and both his plays and the novel, The First Circle, were seized in 1965, together with most of his papers. He later wrote: “During these months it seemed to me that I had committed an unpardonable mistake by revealing my work prematurely and that because of this I should not be able to carry it to a conclusion.”
Ivan Denisovich was followed by the kind of public drama which attended his whole career as a writer – especially his masterpieces, The Gulag Archipelago and The First Circle. The day after his arrest, as he was being deported, a confidential order went out to all libraries to burn the few remaining editions of his works and to destroy completely all copies of Novy Mir that contained his stories. But as Galina Vishnevskaya (the wife of Mstislav Rostropovich, in whose dacha Solzhenitsyn lived from 1968 while writing much of The Gulag Archipelago) was to put it in her autobiography: “The Soviet government had let the genie out of the bottle and, however hard they tried later, they couldn’t put it back in.” Time passed. Russia changed. And, as we shall see, so, apparently, did Solzhenitsyn. In his last years, he continued to show himself to be a Russian patriot. But this led him to take political stances that have been regarded as anti-American. Indeed, even when he lived in the US and spoke publicly, as at Harvard in 1978, he was hard on much of America’s culture – although he focused on the American intellectuals’ delusions about communism.
Meanwhile I had published another book about Stalinism, The Harvest of Sorrow (1986), which told the story of the peasantry, and particularly that of the Ukraine, over the past century. And this time Solzhenitsyn appears in a different light.
The rise of new, or temporarily forgotten, nations in the area between Russia, Poland and Turkey has been well covered by Anne Applebaum in her Between East and West. Friedrich Engels (with Marx’s blessing and published by the Soviets) wrote that “the Poles and Czechs are essentially an agricultural race”; that in Eastern cities “manufacturers are Germans and traders – Jews”, regarded as more German than otherwise, their tongue being “a horribly corrupt German”. German culture was prevailing and, together with diplomatic and military pressure, ensuring “the slow but sure advance of denationalisation by social developments”. The dying Czech nationality, “even if continuing to speak their own tongue”, could only exist henceforth as “part of Germany”.
My great-grandfather’s map, c.?1845, has the Balkans under “Various Slavonic Tribes”. Only after the middle of that century do we get Bulgarians etc, and later still Ukrainians. These nations were thus only stirring in the late 19th century. The generations then emerging in Russia had little notion of this. Lenin, well into the Revolution, thought of Ukrainian as a peasant dialect, quite in the Engels tradition. It was only when the Soviet regime looked vulnerable that he took a different line on that country, making as usual all the essential concessions.Today, Russian resentment at the post-Soviet independence of its neighbours (and even more the spread of Western ideas and Western power) has produced the Georgian crisis. Moscow justifies its actions as defending the “right” of South Ossetia and Abkhazia to self-determination (but not that of another nation of the Caucasus – Chechnya). Relations with the Ukraine are also heated and just as potentially inflammable.
Solzhenitsyn, when he returned to Russia, supported Putin’s foreign policy. He remained, however, staunchly anti-Communist, branding the October Revolution as “a violent 24-hour coup d’etat” which “broke Russia’s back. The Red Terror unleashed by its leaders, their willingness to drown Russia in blood, is the first and foremost proof of it.” Even while accepting a State Prize from Putin (having in the past refused prizes from Gorbachev and Yeltsin), he emphasised his hope that “the bitter Russian experience, which I have been studying and describing all my life, will be for us a lesson that keeps us from new disastrous breakdowns”. He looked forward, he said, to a time when “all the peoples who have lived through communism will understand that communism is to blame for the bitter pages of their history.”
As for the recent past, Solzhenitsyn blamed Yeltsin for the failure of the 1990s, while praising Gorbachev who, though politically inexperienced and irresponsible, “first gave freedom of speech and movement to the citizens of our country”. But in general it was Putin he praised, as the one who “started to do what was possible – a slow and gradual restoration”. Part of this “restoration”, for Solzhenitsyn, was Russia’s emergence as a great power unsubservient to Washington.
When it came to foreign policy, Solzhenitsyn believed that, after 9/11, when Russia had given “critically important aid in Afghanistan”, the US had been completely ungrateful and then tried to push other demands. The pro-Western mood in Russia, he said, had started changing with the Nato bombings of Serbia: “All layers of Russian society were deeply and indelibly shocked by those bombings.” Things got worse “when Nato started to spread its influence and draw the ex-Soviet republics into its structure. This was especially painful in the case of Ukraine.” Gorbachev carries more weight than his fellow Nobel laureate. He too has supported Putin’s foreign policy and accused America of thinking in terms of “a new empire” and of taking a series of unilateral decisions that “ignored the Security Council, international law and the will of their own people”. The comments of these two figures show how Russians who are against the return to a Cold War still hold some of the old nationalist attitudes.
The Moscow establishment is heavily weighed down by a surviving section of the old apparat who combine a traditional Russian drive to be a “Great Power” with the expansionism that marked the Soviet period. These officials are mostly to be found in the Foreign Ministry and the military. If Western diplomacy has been, on occasions, thoughtless, Russian diplomacy has often been clumsy to the point of professional incompetence. This calls for care on our part.
There is not much we can do about the natural and long-standing suspicions of Russia found in Poland, for example. Historically and emotionally, Nato has been an alliance against Muscovite aggression. And in spite of its more recent co-operation with Russia, that is still how it appears in Russian minds. The question of the Ukraine is more sensitive still.
Solzhenitsyn became very combative in the controversy that took place in Moscow and Kiev academic circles about Ukrainian attempts to have the 1932-33 Terror-famine recognised as genocide. He wrote: “The provocative outcry about ‘genocide’ only began to germinate decades later – at first quietly, inside spiteful, anti-Russian, chauvinistic minds – and now it has spun off into the government circles of modern-day Ukraine, who have thus outdone even the wild inventions of Bolshevik agitprop.” Here Solzhenitsyn is clearly in the wrong. The UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, drafted before much was really known about the Terror-famine, opens by saying that “in time of peace or in time of War” it is a crime under international law to commit “acts with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group as such” by “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part”.
The convention was signed in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Though not based on an ethnic criteria, the Terror-famine is accepted by the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington as a comparable crime. Indeed, the museum’s website carries a talk I gave there on the subject some years ago. The Soviet regime did indeed, and openly, victimise a “group” of the population – the “kulaks”, of whom Vasily Grossman, whose mother died in the Holocaust, writes:
.?.?.?kulak families were treated as “enemies of the people”. There was no pity for them. “They’re not human beings.” What were they? Vermin. In order to massacre them it was necessary to proclaim kulaks as not human beings just as the Germans proclaim the Jews are not human beings.
In 1933, “the decree required that the peasants of the Ukraine, the Kuban and the Don, be put to death by starvation, put to death along with their little children”.
It is proven that the mass deaths from starvation were due to the removal of foodstuffs by the authorities, following decrees from above. The decrees applied to specified areas, especially the Ukraine, but also the largely Ukrainian-inhabited Kuban, the Don and later other north Caucasus regions. There were also blockades against their getting food from the north (in each case the villages were harder hit than the towns). There is some dispute about certain points, but not on the essentials. Stalin starved others besides Ukrainians. But he was capable of various verbal variations – as when he and his supporters argued that the Doctors’ Plot of 1953 was not anti-semitic since several gentiles were also arrested.
The quarrel has indeed been sharp on both sides. But one should not expect calm discussion from a country that has undergone a heavy death toll within living memory. My father, who won his Croix de Guerre at Verdun in 1916, often told me how in France the effects of the First World War had been psychologically devastating. When such sufferings are remembered, it is natural for strong emotions to arise.
Russia suffered terribly, and we must remember that it has produced heroes, as well as geniuses. Alexander Solzhenitsyn had an unbending mind. It sustained him through privation, imprisonment, persecution, exile. Whatever his faults, we should bow to his memory.