In my collegiate love affair with the literary giants of oppression and revolution, one captured my imagination like none of the others — Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Kafka, Koestler, Weisel, Grass, Boll — they were all required in one course or another, and I read them with interest but not much zeal. But Solzhenitsyn was new, furtive, captive behind what we called the “Iron Curtain” back in the day (if you have to ask what that was, please sign-up immediately for the next available 20th Century History course…).
I first met “Ivan Denisovich” in my senior year of high school where one of our teachers was determined that we Catholic girls from relatively sheltered backgrounds would go off to college armed with the truth about oppressive regimes and the indomitable conquering human spirit. (She also hoped we’d be sufficiently incited to join the domestic revolution against the Vietnam War and our own government whose repressive tactics led to the killing of four students at Kent State University that same spring in 1970.)
I was sufficiently incited to keep reading. I spent that summer haunting my local bookstore near home to find the paperback “The First Circle.” Later, “The Gulag Archipelago” took up the better part of another summer as I plowed through Sozhenitsyn’s unsparing accounts of the horrific Soviet concentration camps. There was an urgency, a gritty sense of witness that ran through Solzhenitsyn’s writing — long and detailed stories, but so compelling that I found them hard to put down. Certainly, like all American children of that era I was aware of the evil communists — we prayed for their conversion every day in Catholic school! But few witnesses lived to tell the real story of what went on behind that impenetrable curtain.
Solzhenitzyn ripped that curtain wide in a courageous quest to tell the world what was really happening in Siberia under the regimes of Stalin, Kruschev, Breshnev. The reality was far worse than our idealized imaginations about what communism was doing to the people of Russia. Far from being the idyllic Marxist state where workers ruled harmoniously, the Soviet Union was the ultimate violent tyranny bent on repressing any form of human expression that deviated from the official line. The repression took the form of imprisonment, torture and death in concentration camps in the vast bleak plains of the Siberian tundra.
Some credit Solzhenitzyn’s writings with helping to lay the foundation for the ultimate collapse of communism in the 1990’s. His notoriety increased, and hence his writings became increasingly well-known, after he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970 while he was still in the Soviet Union (and hence unable to travel to claim the prize), and later, when he was banished from his home country and eventually settled in the United States as a recluse in Vermont.
In his exile, the image of the revolutionary hero became tarnished as he refused to indulge the excesses of American culture. Nearly two decades later, he returned to Moscow where he earned an increasingly curmudgeonly reputation for his criticisms of post-revolution Russia. Some of his admirers expressed disappointment that he did not become some kind of a celebrity spokesperson for modern democracy. They completely misread his essence. Solzhenitsyn did not expose the utterly depraved conditions of the Soviety system because he was a closet modernist. In many ways his philosophy was deeply conservative, arising from a profound respect for the human person and human dignity shocked beyond comprehension with the experience of evil. This was a sensibility that craved an orderly and dignified human human existence, not the carnival thrills of the contemporary consumer circus.
Who will lead the next generation of writers to give witness to human suffering? I wonder about this as I think of that young college student so long ago eagerly searching through the local bookstore for the newly released manuscript smuggled out from the other side of the world. In the age of blogs and You Tube and IM, will any one person still take the time to commit the words to memory, as Sozhenitsyn had to at times, later to write them down secretly and send them to people who could release them to the world? We need the writers still, the eyewitnesses to the crimes, the truth-tellers willing to risk their lives to call the world to action.