Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
August 25, 2008
Solzhenitsyn – a profound moral voice
Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, who died Aug. 3, was one of the great men of the 20th century. He impacted history not through military might, political power, business acumen or technological wizardry. He had his effect through the power of the written word.
By some mysterious force, his pen was able to challenge an authoritarian power that had guns, prison camps and a massive propaganda machine at its disposal. The world listened to Solzhenitsyn because he spoke with the power of conscience, conscience that could not be stilled despite all the material power arrayed against it.
It must be added that Solzhenitsyn's conscience was a Christian conscience, a not-incidental fact that was so often ignored or marginalized in the commentary about him. That Christian conscience made his voice more than his own. It tapped him into the power of the Divine against which mighty armies are but a flea.
The Soviets who imprisoned him never understood this. Nor did the Western intelligentsia that lionized him when he was exposing the failings of communism, but ignored him once he came to the West and found our way of life horribly lacking too.
Solzhenitsyn was viewed as a crank in the West during his years of exile in Vermont and as a crank once Soviet communism fell and he returned to his beloved Russia. Well, he was the crazy uncle with sometimes-outlandish views who would not be silenced on even the most polite occasions.
His views on the Ukrainian famine and Jews were on the margins, if not beyond the margins, of accepted opinion.
That is only to say that Solzhenitsyn was a flawed human being. But ignore those flaws and return to his central theme of the moral outrage of the Gulag Archipelago and he deserves to be counted among those greats of the 20th century -Pope John Paul II, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Archbishop Oscar Romero and others - for whom suffering and persecution were naught, but Christ was all.
Less noted is that while Solzhenitsyn exposed the evil of the Soviet prison system, he also saw the possibility of personal redemption there too. He glorified the small acts of charity of the prison inmate that, through self-sacrifice, enabled another inmate to have a little more gruel or a few more puffs on a cigarette.
It was here that the roots of his criticism of the West -that we care more for fulfilling spurious material desires than for imposing limits on our way of life - can be found.
In his most famous novel, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the most intriguing character is Alyosha, a Christian holy man. At one point, Alyosha speaks to the central character: "Ivan Denisovich, you shouldn't pray to get parcels or for extra skilly, not for that. Things that man puts a high price on are vile in the eyes of Our Lord. We must pray about things of the spirit - that the Lord Jesus should remove the scum of anger from our hearts."
Too much comfort leads to corruption; suffering leads to spiritual growth. This is Solzhenitsyn's simple, but profound, moral-spiritual message.
In a 1995 book, he wrote, "As creature comforts continue to improve for the average person, so spiritual development grows stagnant. Surfeit brings with it a nagging sadness of the heart as we sense that the whirlpool of pleasures does not bring satisfaction and that, before long, it may suffocate us."
For a brief period, Solzhenitsyn had his own show on Russian TV. It was cancelled due to poor ratings. Little surprise! For his message goes square against the happy materialism of our day. The West loved his railing against Soviet communism. But it has been far less comfortable with his deeper critique of the pleasure society. It is this evil that has proven much more difficult to combat than mere totalitarianism.
- Glen Argan
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