The Russian writer and dissident Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn has died at his Moscow home aged 89. He was a fearless critic of the Soviet regime relentlessly highlighting the oppressiveness and brutality of its excesses especially under Stalin’s leadership. In his writings he dramatised the particularly devious practise of treating political dissent as a form of madness, under which many of Russia’s notable intellectuals found themselves imprisoned in so called psychiatric facilities for ‘political re-education’.
Continuing in the great Russian tradition of novelist as prophetic witness, the parallels with Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are obvious. Solzhenitsyn experienced first hand the price of even mild dissent when after a negative reference to Stalin in a letter to colleague he was sentenced to eight years ‘deprivation of liberty’ in the notorious Lubyanka prison in Moscow. This environment inspired his novel ‘The First Circle’ and when he refused to co-operate with the research programme there he was moved to a labour camp which was the basis of his most popular novel ‘One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich’. All of his experiences were informed by his Russian Orthodox Christian faith and he continually strove to uphold the dignity of the individual whether in the face of Soviet repression or confronting the corrupting influences of Western materialism. In ‘…Ivan Denisovich’ while Ivan is working, he asks his captain about the moon and its phases. Shukhov tells the officer, "Where I come from, they used to say God breaks up the old moon to make stars" . The captain is amused and calls Shukhov a savage for believing in God. Shukhov is surprised by this response and answers, "How can anybody not believe in God when it thunders?"
The burning question for Solzhenitsyn was always by what morality should a man be guided and how in the light of that should he then proceed to live. Wherever he perceived spiritual darkness he sought to expose it ,often under his own searing illumination of Christian morality. For many his voice was a prophetic one and his role was ultimately recognised in 1970 when he won the Noble prize for literature. In his acceptance speech he remarked…"Another artist, recognizing a higher power above, gladly works as a humble apprentice beneath God's heaven; then, however, his responsibility for everything that is written or drawn, for the souls which perceive his work, is more exacting than ever. But, in return, it is not he who has created this world, not he who directs it, there is no doubt as to its foundations; the artist has merely to be more keenly aware than others of the harmony of the world, of the beauty and ugliness of the human contribution to it, and to communicate this acutely to his fellow-men. And in misfortune, and even at the depths of existence - in destitution, in prison, in sickness - his sense of stable harmony never deserts him."
This harmony of apprenticeship ‘beneath God's heaven’ never deserted him and he continued his tireless crusade throughout his life often reserving some of his fiercest criticisms for the morally bankrupted Materialism of the west. Living for several years in Vermont he observed the vacuous values of lives cut off from the Creator and a society that shapes itself without reference to Godly precepts. In 1978 he shocked so called ‘liberal’ sensibilities when he attacked the moral degeneracy of the free world in a Commencement Address at Harvard .Stunned by the viciousness of the reaction to his words he effectively withdrew from public life from that time. It seems that as long as his perceptive critical eye was directed to the Soviet regime he was to be lauded, but when he spoke out about issues nearer home he would be pilloried…sounds like an honourable prophetic role to me! Below are a selection of short quotations which show the wisdom and insight of this great figure of the twentieth Century !
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.
It is not because the truth is too difficult to see that we make mistakes... we make mistakes because the easiest and most comfortable course for us is to seek insight where it accords with our emotions - especially selfish ones.
You can only have power over people so long as you don't take everything away from them. But when you've robbed a man of everything he's no longer in your power-he's free again.
Do not pursue what is illusory - property and position: all that is gained at the expense of your nerves decade after decade and can be confiscated in one fell night. Live with a steady superiority over life - don't be afraid of misfortune, and do not yearn after happiness; it is after all, all the same: the bitter doesn't last forever, and the sweet never fills the cup to overflowing.
Own only what you can carry with you; know language, know countries, know people. Let your memory be your travel bag.
I can say without affectation that I belong to the Russian convict world no less than I do to Russian literature. I got my education there, and it will last forever.
Hastiness and superficiality are the psychic diseases of the 20th century, and more than anywhere else this disease is reflected in the press.