Monday, August 04, 2008

Solzhenitsyn, December 11, 1918 – August 3, 2008

One summer quite a few years ago, I read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. It was a hot day, and I shivered due to the cold. That was how powerful this book was. A man condemned to the Soviet work camps, but the humanity and dignity that showed through. It described the prisoners working in the cold of Siberia. I then read The Oak and The Calf which describes his battle with the authorities.

You can see from the review in the New York Times that Solzhenitsyn was not loved, even by the western liberal elite. Oh, he was their hero for a time, while he represented the persecuted writers in the USSR, but he refused to believe like them. Even on his death, you can read the resentment of him and his ideas oozing from the commentary. Yet, that belligerence, refusal to submit to the common ideas and thinking of the day if he found it wrong, is what draws me to him. I'm quite sure that if I had met with him, we would have disagreed on many and substantial issues, but a man to have lived and survived, even thrived under the conditions that he did is enough. Every person who writes down all his thoughts will offend someone, and hopefully many.

It's been a while since I read the Oak and the Calf, but two things come to mind. The story is about the travails of publishing underground in the USSR, and the events that led up to him being expelled from his country. He was not afraid of the all powerful state, which made them powerless. Yes, power is based on fear, and if you are not afraid, no one can have power. Yes, they can imprison, exile, harass, make life difficult, but they cannot make you someone or something that you aren't, because you are not afraid. Interestingly, and this is borne out by other similar stories, if the state's agents act in a way to purposely intimidate you, and you don't react as they expect, they don't know what to do. Because they have no power. A lesson for life.

The second point is his disdain for the apparachik that distributed illegal copies of his works. The Samizdat became a way for the enablers of the state to get frissons of danger without much risk. The end result was that his works were unattributed, and no benefit accrued to him, but those same individuals who enabled the persecution by supporting the state apparatus got free reading. Again, no holds barred.

I haven't read any of the Gulag series, they have been on my long time reading list. I have some impetus to read them now.

It's quite simple. A man who is hated by both western liberal intellectuals and Soviet communists is worth reading. An interesting comment, again words to live by, is when asked why he didn't respond to all his critics in the west, he said that he had a book to write, and wouldn't have time to do both. He lived to 89, an age befitting his spirit and dignity.

Here are some quotes from his speech that he gave at Harvard in 1978. He purposely is taking a poke at many of the sacred cows of the west.

Thus mediocrity triumphs with the excuse of restrictions imposed by democracy.

Enormous freedom exists for the press, but not for the readership because newspapers mostly give enough stress and emphasis to those opinions which do not too openly contradict their own and the general trend.

This debilitating dream of a status quo is the symptom of a society which has come to the end of its development.

The communist regime in the East could stand and grow due to the enthusiastic support from an enormous number of Western intellectuals who felt a kinship and refused to see communism's crimes. When they no longer could do so, they tried to justify them.

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