- Aleksandr IsayevichMay He Rest in Peace
Alexander Solzhenitsyn was a documentary maker extraordinaire persecuted by ill fortune but preserved and nourished by good luck to conceive the modern history of his country as his autobiography. In the years after the Second World War, when most American and European intellectuals promoted logical positivism, existentialism, and the New Criticism, he thundered for Russian orthodoxy and wrote nineteenth-century critical realism—all from his point of view as representative of his people. As the promise of 1989 in Russia collapsed in the violence of 1991, and as political and economic failures followed one another into the twenty-first century until an oligarchy of entrepreneurs and an autarchy of administrators held power, his later historical writing—the massive The Red Wheel—was considered irrelevant when not plain wrong. His huge sociological study of the labor-camp system—The Gulag Archipelago—with its shattering truthfulness and thoroughness that astonished the world in 1973, metamorphosed from a political document into an historical one. A television program he instituted after he returned from Vermont to Moscow in 1994 flopped. His critique of American commercialism hurled at a Harvard audience in 1978 alienated American admirers, and in 2007 his support of Putin and Putin’s support of him alienated Russians. A [End Page 399] writer who cut himself off from his time and from his readers, he—true giant that he was—has left an essential literary legacy.
If great moments are, as I suspect, the culmination of a chain of small ones; and if life at the top of the sociopolitical structure in fact resembles life on the entire scale plus absolute power, then I witnessed the penultimate moment of the beginning of Solzhenitsyn’s triumph. In Gagra in early September 1962, on a gracious, simple summer estate under palms and fruit trees, while Robert Frost rested, waiting to meet Khrushchev, I took a turn on the guesthouse balcony. Around the first corner I came on Surkov, poet and Writers’ Union secretary, at a small table facing Mr. K in serious conversation. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich had already earned great approval. Tvardovsky was eager to publish it in Novy mir. The revelatory book about an average man’s life as a labor-camp prisoner in 1951 had come to its final hurdle—that two-man huddle in a corner of a balcony on a summer house by the Black Sea. The book exploded in Novy mir’s November issue. The literary world was changed—and Solzhenitsyn with it.
Born the year after the Soviet coup in St. Petersburg in 1917, a university graduate in mathematics and by correspondence a diplomat of the World Institute of Literature, Solzhenitsyn was a full generation younger than Akhmatova, Blok, Bulgakov, Bunin, Chukovsky, Leonov, Mandelstam, Olesha, Pasternak, Platonov, Zamyatin—the big-name writers who, with a host of others between 1910 and 1930, put Russian modernism on the literary map. Imprisonments and executions from 1929 onward, and again after the 1939–45 war, ravaged Russian culture and dehumanized public life.
The unexpected appearance of an honest book about living people, dramatizing the gestures of a consciousness under conditions emblematic of the total alienation of the individual from anything by which he may even dream of himself as a man, revived the language to which it belongs and uplifted all creative activity. A study of the average man in inhuman surroundings, One Day tells his story as a catalogue of his awarenesses as he proceeds through the physical and moral odyssey of a piece of his life. Captured by the Germans during the war, he escaped; three fellow soldiers were shot as they approached the Russian lines; falsely suspected of having become a spy, he, a collective-farm handyman, was sentenced to ten years of hard labor. On one typical day, all he wants is to get to the end, to keep being himself, which, because of the book’s brilliance, he does. The book is much less about politics than about how great a man’s life is. The more mundane the subject, said Gogol, the greater must be the artist’s power...