Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn RIP

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn passed away on Monday. He was one of several writers who have truly touched me (George Parkin Grant was another). His main message, for us in the West, is that Communism was not specific to Russian culture and history. This message is summarized by Wikipedia:

It is a popular view that the October revolution of 1917 resulting in a violent totalitarian regime was closely connected to Russia's earlier history of tsarism and culture, especially that of Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great. Solzhenitsyn claims this is fundamentally wrong and famously denounced the work of Richard Pipes as "the Polish version of Russian history". Solzhenitsyn argues Tsarist Russia did not have the same violent tendencies as the Soviet Union. For instance, in Solzhenitsyn's view, Imperial Russia did not practise censorship; political prisoners were not forced into labour camps and the number of political prisoners was only one ten-thousandth of those in the Soviet Union; the Tsar's secret service was only present in the three largest cities, and not at all in the army. The violence of the Communist regime was in no way comparable to the lesser violence of the Tsars.

He considered it far-fetched to blame the catastrophes of the 20th century on one 16th century and one 18th century czar, when there were many other examples of violence which could have inspired the Bolshevik in other countries earlier in time, especially mentioning similarities with the Jacobins of the Reign of Terror of France.

Communism was a kind of idealism that allowed no dissent. Some debate did exist, but only within narrowly circumscribed bounds. Is abstract art progressive? What is the timetable for building socialism? And so on. There was no substantive debate over core values.

With no debate, there could be no true reform. There could, at best, be tinkering. And such tinkering often made things worse. Eventually, even the Soviet elite realized that fundamental changes were needed. But how?

Imagine a machine with no ‘off’ switch. Imagine a machine that does not hesitate to destroy its own creators. Imagine a machine that can be stopped only by the limitations of reality itself. That was Russia’s nightmare.

And it could become ours. I used to think that such a thing could happen only in Russia. Now, looking around my own country, I must confess I was wrong. It could happen here. And it could happen for the noblest of intentions.

"In our country the lie has become not just a moral category but a pillar of the State."
–Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, December 29, 1974


Anonymous said...

In The Gulag Archipelago he recounts the kid gloves that Lenin sent for in Siberian exile, kid glove treatment was not what he got for writing a letter.

georgesdelatour said...

What does the phrase "the Polish version of Russian history" mean? That Tzarist rule in Poland really was as cruel as Pipes claims it was in Russia?

Peter Frost said...

By "the Polish version of Russian history", Solzhenitsyn was referring to the idea that Russian communism was a resurrection of Russian Tsarism. I've heard this idea from many different sources, and not just Polish ones.

Anonymous said...

That's what he meant about the theory, 'Polish' is a euphemism.
Solzhenitsyn had learned to be circumspect. Norman Davies gave the Polish version of history.