The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 17 No. 2 (Summer 2015)

A Prophet Restored

The Other Solzhenitsyn: Telling the Truth about a Misunderstood Writer and Thinker

Daniel J. Mahoney

South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2014.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Summer 2015

(Volume 17 | Issue 2)

Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918–2008), the Nobel Prize−winning author whose writings did much to expose the atrocities of the communist system in the Soviet Union, was exiled by the Soviet government in 1974. Four years later, while living with his family in Cavendish, Vermont, he was invited to give the commencement address at Harvard University. Much to the surprise and chagrin of many, Solzhenitsyn took aim not only at the despotic system from which he had been exiled but at the flaws of Western democratic capitalism as well. Asking himself whether he “would propose the West, such as it is today, as a model to my country, ” he responded unequivocally: “I would frankly have to answer negatively.” To put it mildly, the lecture was not well received. From a number of camps, thereafter, both in the West and in the Soviet Union, Solzhenitsyn was viewed with suspicion if not outright derision. The author of The Gulag Archipelago has been variously accused of being anti-democratic, pan-Slavist, a Russian nationalist, an authoritarian scold, an anti-Semite, a theocratic tsarist, even a nostalgist for communism.

Daniel Mahoney’s new book, The Other Solzhenitsyn, goes far toward debunking the caricature of Solzhenitsyn that has emerged over the past four decades, and demonstrates the courage, wisdom, and trenchant thinking of the man who first garnered worldwide notice with the publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in 1962. Some of the misunderstanding, according to Mahoney, a professor of political science at Assumption College, in Worcester, Massachusetts, stems from the lack of familiarity with Solzhenitsyn’s later works, many of which have yet to be translated into English. Mahoney highlights, in particular, Solzhenitsyn’s work from his years of exile and after his return to Russia in 1994, including Two Hundred Years Together, The Little Grain Managed to Land Between Two Millstones, Rebuilding Russia, Russia in Collapse, and his magnum opus, The Red Wheel.

Drawing on these and earlier works, Mahoney makes a convincing case that the image of Solzhenitsyn constructed over the past four decades is a grossly distorted one. Mahoney shows, for example, that Solzhenitsyn was anything but anti-democratic. Rather, he was an advocate of “democracy in small spaces,” who urged Russians to establish democratic self-governance from the bottom up. As worthy examples of this model, Solzhenitsyn pointed to the local governing practices of Switzerland and New England, both of which he had witnessed firsthand. In addition to these models, he urged Russians to look to their own zemstvos—the small governing councils of local Russian provinces in the nineteenth century. “I have always insisted on local self-governance in Russia,” Solzhenitsyn asserted in an interview in Der Spiegel a year before his death.

Given this view of democracy, it is not surprising that the Russian Orthodox believer was an admirer of Catholic social teaching and of Pope John Paul II, whom he met in 1993 and whose election in 1978 he had described as “a gift from God.” Solzhenitsyn’s view of democracy (and his criticisms of both industrial capitalism and socialism) was actually very much in keeping with the subsidiarity principle of Catholic social teaching and the distributist ideals advocated by G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. While Mahoney touches on these “small is beautiful” themes, the affinities between Solzhenitsyn’s views, Catholic social teachings (beginning with Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum), and the writings of the English distributists are developed more fully in Joseph Pearce’s biography, Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile.

In what may be the most intriguing section of the book, Mahoney explores Solzhenitsyn’s views on Russia’s last three major political leaders. Never much of a fan of either Mikhail Gorbachev or Boris Yeltsin, Solzhenitsyn was a qualified supporter of Vladimir Putin. This position no doubt contributed to misapprehensions about Solzhenitsyn and the view that he was an authoritarian Russian nationalist. Mahoney, however, demonstrates that here, as elsewhere, critics misunderstand Solzhenitsyn. Solzhenitsyn did give Putin credit for “his role in gradually restoring the strength and self-respect of the Russian people,” after the Russian leader had “inherited a ransacked and bewildered country, with a poor and demoralized people.” However, there were also aspects of Putin’s political leadership that displeased him, including the continuing corruption, the lack of public repentance for the crimes of communism, and the slow pace toward the development of democracy. That said, Solzhenitsyn also partially faulted the West for Russian resistance to democracy. After the instability of the 1990s—what Solzhenitsyn referred to as Russia’s “third time of troubles”—Russians tended to associate Western democracy with the widespread chaos and kleptocracy of the Yeltsin years.

That Solzhenitsyn would appreciate Putin’s role in helping to restore the morale of the Russian people is consistent with Solzhenitsyn’s broader views regarding national character and of the role of Providence “in the collective lives of nations and peoples.” Solzhenitsyn placed high value on the distinctive qualities of a people. As he put it in his Nobel lecture, “Nations are the wealth of mankind, its collective personalities; the very least of them wears its own special coloration and bears within itself a special facet of divine intention.” Some of the boundaries established after the dismantling of the Eastern bloc were, according to Solzhenitsyn, arbitrary, and effectively made Russians aliens in the near abroad. In a 1994 interview, for example, Solzhenitsyn noted that Crimea was gifted to Ukraine in 1954 by Nikita Khrushchev “with the arbitrary capriciousness of a satrap.” While such views may suggest support for Putin’s recent actions in Ukraine, Mahoney insists that Solzhenitsyn, were he alive today, “would be more critical of Putin, especially of his refusal to give up power.”

There is much to appreciate about Mahoney’s book, not the least of which is the fuller and more nuanced portrayal of the important Russian writer and thinker put forth in its pages. Readers of this illuminating and engaging book will be compelled to read more Solzhenitsyn and will look forward to the day when Solzhenitsyn’s more recent writings are finally translated into English.

James L. Nolan Jr. is professor of sociology at Williams College and the author, most recently, of Legal Accents, Legal Borrowing: The International Problem-Solving Court Movement.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 17.2 (Summer 2015). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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Published three times a year by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, The Hedgehog Review offers critical reflections on contemporary culture—how we shape it, and how it shapes us.

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