[This guest post by MANASH BHATTACHARJEE is a tribute to writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn. – AN]
the paper is burning, his writing goes on,
a cruel dawn on a plain of bones.
– Octavio Paz
Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008) will write no more. He died of heart failure on Monday, the 4th of August, in his home near Moscow. On this occasion, one remembers his 1970 Nobel Prize speech, where Solzhenitsyn had described his terrifying and lonely escape from death and oblivion with poignant candour:
“In order to mount this platform from which the Nobel lecture is read, a platform offered too far from every writer and only once in a lifetime, I have climbed not three or four makeshift steps, but hundreds and even thousands of them; unyielding, precipitous, frozen steps, leading out of the darkness and cold where it was my fate to survive, while others – perhaps with a greater gift and stronger than I – have perished. Of them, I myself met but a few on the Archipelago of GULAG, shattered into its fractionary multitude of islands; and beneath the millstone of shadowing and mistrust I did not talk to them all, of some I only heard, of others still I only guessed. Those who fell into that abyss already bearing a literary name are at least known, but how many were never recognized, never once mentioned in public? And virtually no one managed to return. A whole national literature remained there, cast into oblivion not only without a grave, but without even underclothes, naked, with a number tagged on to its toe.”
This stark description is a chilling reminder of how human camaraderie and literature were together forced to commit suicide as both state and society had turned seriously barbaric in the erstwhile Soviet Union. Human beings became shadows of themselves and each other, and were forced to live a shadowy life. The idea of survival in such conditions didn’t only mean an escape from death but also an escape from a morally collapsed world where adherence to a fictitious sense of solidarity and doctrinaire programme played havoc over the most ordinary sense of dignity, trust and freedom.
Comrade Stalin, whom Solzhenitsyn had irked by his “disrespectful remarks”, had the writer arrested and then sent to taste exile in the concentration camps during 1944-45. The remarks, according to Solzhenitsyn’s own account, were part of a correspondence to a school friend, where Stalin was described in disguised terms as ‘the man with a moustache’. The material was seized, found derogatory, and its author was put to harsh treatment. It highlighted the extent of a surveillance society unleashed on the Russian people by the Stalinist regime. Stalin’s pathologically suspicious nature created a spy state and it became Russian society’s nightmare. The most opaque of political regimes, Milan Kundera has warned us, demand a paradoxically ruthless transparency of the society it rules over.
It took the smallest of “mistakes” during Stalin’s time, to be forever condemned to a place where you no longer lived independently with a name, but merely existed as a “number”. Like Anna Akhmatova was to assert in ‘Requiem’, a poem she kept in memory for twenty years in order to save herself from persecution, and which hammered against the walls of Stalinist cruelty: “I should like to call you all by name / But they have lost the lists”. This was precisely the task Solzhenitsyn took up in his novels which, akin to Akhmatova’s plight, he had to nurture in memory and not write down till the danger of further torture did not conceivably vanish. “I used to write on scraps of paper,” Solzhenitsyn said in an interview, “then I memorized the contents and destroyed the scraps.”
Others like Osip Mandelstam, who could fall into Solzhenitsyn’s acknowledgement of writers he mentioned in his Nobel speech as “stronger than I”, weren’t so lucky. In an epigrammatic poem on Stalin, Mandelstam memorably described the dictator as “the Kremlin mountaineer”, who with “ten thick worms his fingers” and “words like measures of weight” had “huge laughing cockroaches on his top lip”. Against a promise he made to Boris Pasternak, Stalin had Mandelstam executed. The same fate nearly befell the poet Joseph Brodsky and few others who miraculously survived what was infamously known as the Stalinist shadow trials.
It was against such a terrible backdrop of arbitrary executions and systematic persecutions that Solzhenitsyn set himself an arduous task – to record the crimes of the regime through a painstaking detailing of his characters’ lives. In his most popular novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, published in 1962 with Khrushchev’s approval, Solzhenitsyn brilliantly captured how the notion of time gets suffocatingly expanded under oppressive circumstances. The description of a single day in the protagonist’s life was meant to capture the exact nature of hopelessness created by confinement. Faced with such a situation, Solzhenitsyn’s characters look for tokens of relief, favour or spiritual escape, as the last vestiges of their humanity gets dehumanized.
After the subsequent publication of two later novels, The First Circle and Cancer Ward, Solzhenitsyn set out to write his non-fictional account of the gulag experiences, The Gulag Archipelago. It reads like a long postscript of Ivan Denisovich. In this book, Solzhenitsyn exhaustively chronicled the misanthropic nature of the Soviet regime. It is an invaluable work which documents the testimony of the many prisoners who suffered the draconian excesses of the Stalin era in the prison camps. The narrative is interspersed by Solzhenitsyn’s personal experiences. The Mexican poet-critic Octavio Paz defined Gulag as, “the double form of a history and a catalogue”, and hailed Solzhenitsyn’s efforts in these words: “In a century of false testimonies, a writer becomes the witness to man.”
But after Khrushchev was removed from power in 1964, Leonid Brezhnev dropped the Iron Curtain for the second time on Russian history. The thaw gave way to a harsh winter. Solzhenitsyn had to face harassment by the KGB and his publications were stopped. It would be instructive to remember, it was during Brezhnev’s rule that the Soviet Union notoriously occupied Afghanistan and invaded Czechoslovakia. It took a while for a copy of Gulag to be sneaked out of Russia and finally published in Paris in three volumes in 1973. The book opened the eyes of European intellectuals to what was happening in Russia. Sartre, however, characteristically called Solzhenitsyn a “dangerous element”. But another momentous event intercepted Gulag’s publication for Solzhenitsyn: the granting of the Nobel Prize in 1970. The fear of excision by the state prevented the writer from travelling to Sweden to receive the award. The same fate had earlier befallen Pasternak in 1958. Solzhenitsyn’s Nobel lecture had to be dramatically smuggled out of the Soviet Union and submitted to the Nobel Committee. He finally received the prize in person after he was ousted from the USSR, despite protests by the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko among others, in 1974.
Though Solzhenitsyn finally settled down in America in 1976, he became a harsh critic of liberal democracy. He was no way at home with America’s excessive materialism and its moral and social decadence. He spoke against the “liquid manure” of America’s pop culture. In a famous speech he delivered at Harvard in 1978, Solzhenitsyn spoke harshly of all aspects of American civil-society. It won him both admirers and detractors. He dared to remind his audience that it was about time in the West, “to defend not so much human rights as human obligations”. He reprimanded the Western press for reflecting what he called the “psychic diseases of the 20th century” – haste and superficiality. He warned about the fetish for “fashionable ideas” which might result in “mass prejudices”. In an important indictment against America’s legal system, Solzhenitsyn said:
“I have spent all my life under a communist regime and I will tell you that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed. But a society with no other scale but the legal one is not quite worthy of man either.” Since the 1960s, European intellectuals have criticized this tendency in Western democratic states to turn human beings into legal subjects. The accusations of extreme policing of citizens by the state, particularly in the aftermath of 9/11 make Solzhenitsyn’s warnings important for people of every country to ponder over.
But perhaps the most interesting point Solzhenitsyn made in the speech was on non-Western cultures. As he spoke of “the Concept of the Third World” (though he suspected “the number is even greater” than just “three worlds”), he described countries like “China, India, the Muslim world and Africa”, including Russia, as “ancient, deeply-rooted, autonomous” and “full of riddles and surprises to Western thinking”. Solzhenitsyn claimed, the West “never understood” Russia, including its phase of what he called “communist captivity”. This is a profound charge (like Edward Said’s critique of ‘Orientalism’) against the claims of Western knowledge in understanding cultures of Asia, Africa and the Middle East. He also made the crucial point that a supposedly universal phenomenon like communism cannot be fully grasped without understanding the cultural psyche of the country where it is practised. Solzhenitsyn seems to have implied a deeper relationship between culture and history, than between history and so-called (Western) universal norms. This should make communists in the Asian world, wary of romanticizing or decrying certain aspects regarding communist rule in other countries and also make them try and understand a wider but specific cultural responsibility, outside a certain universalised, ideological rhetoric.
Solzhenitsyn had also paid attention to Russia’s “satellite” occupations. In a write-up for Time Magazine in 1980 (in response to the crisis in East-West relations created by the Soviet conquest of Afghanistan), he decried Russia’s attempts at world conquest. He mentioned how the “illiterate Afghan herdsmen” who burnt “portraits of Marx and Lenin” despite Russian propaganda, did not buy “the tale that their country was occupied simply because Leonid Brezhnev happened to be ailing.” He however also castigated the West for shutting “its eyes and postponed recognizing the problem—all for the sake of an illusory détente.” But despite Solzhenitsyn’s anti-Soviet stance, his critics in the Left would do well to remember George Lukacs’ praise for Solzhenitsyn in the 1960s, when he called the writer’s work a “rebirth of noble beginnings of Socialist Realism.” Lukacs found Solzhenitsyn’s work to be “rich and convincing” about “the inhibiting effects…which the Stalin era produced”.
After Solzhenitsyn returned home to Russia in 1994 after twenty years of exile in America, he made many controversial proclamations on Jews, the Russian Orthodox Church, Soviet communism, nationalism, etc. He was accused of everything from anti-Semitism to senility. Despite what critics have called his quaint, old-world, idiosyncratic, even “Christian” attitude, Solzhenitsyn cannot be accused of not addressing the most important problems of his lifetime. Solzhenitsyn had once dramatically retorted to criticisms with a chilling reminder: “The writer’s ultimate task is to restore the memory of his murdered people. Is that not enough for a single writer?”
By his life and work as a dissident writer, a unique phenomenon of the 20th century, Solzhenitsyn has proved that though he survived death unlike many of his other, arguably more gifted compatriots, he stuck to his job and did not let his witnessing of his people’s sufferings go in vain. The pages of his books will testify to this.