For all the pointy-booted bluster of the Bush-Putin feud in the last few days, the most interesting bit of news to come out of Russia isn’t the attempted retread of Cold War rhetoric (Bush was, let’s not forget, drunk for most of his adult life during the Cold War, which is what lends his latest Putin-bashing an air of foreign policy by DUI). It’s been Putin’s award, to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, of the nation’s top honor “for exemplary achievements in the area of humanitarian activities.”
The award reminds us that Solzhenitzyn is, somewhat sadly, still alive: Solzhenistyn cultivates a sense of gloom so funereal around him that he’s been deader than live since his return to Russia, from his two-decade retreat in Cavendish, Vermont. No sooner had he stopped lecturing the West about its decline than he started lecturing the Russian parliament about Russia’s despair (“Having visited many of Russia's regions, having met with hundreds of people and having received thousands of letters,” he told the parliament in an Oct. 29, 1994 appearance, “I have an impression our population is discouraged, that people are stupefied, in shock from their humiliation and shame because of their weakness. People doubt that the Government’s policy and reforms are in the interests of the people.”) He hadn’t been back in Russia three months. Solzhenitsyn had just launched a television talk show of his own called “A Meeting with Solzhenitsyn.” Soon he eliminated guests (“to give himself more time to scold viewers about the immorality of contemporary Russian government and society,” the Times wrote in September 1995), and not much after that, he was himself eliminated: “After surviving forced-labor camps and self-exile, Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn fell victim [on September 26, 1995] to low ratings,” the Times wrote. “The television show run by Russia’s most famous writer and anti-Soviet dissident has been canceled.”
His literary output since feels like air breathed in from six feet under, too. But we shouldn’t hold the trappings of vindication and longevity against the man, especially a man who’s earned the stature of his Tolstoian beard. Had he died in exile twenty years ago his importance as one of the 20 th century’s greatest literary and political figures would have been unblemished. So he’s been hanging around on the Tolstoy gene—maybe, maybe not working on another magnum opus, but still complaining about the horrors of the world and the West and dismissing anyone not an ascetically committed monk. He’s his reputation’s worst enemy.
All that aside, his work still stands out, three masterpieces especially: “The Gulag Archiepelago,” “The First Circle,” “Cancer Ward.” I read the Archipelago’s first volume fifteen years ago, then read it again, as I read all three volumes of the series straight through, a year and a half ago, confirming what I’d felt about the first volume. It’s one of our greatest works of travel literature. That sounds flip. It isn’t meant that way. His years through the archipelago represent an epic journey, geographically and psychologically, but also spiritually, and through his eyes, on Russia’s behalf, historically: His description for example, in chapter three of Book Two, of the building of the White Sea Canal is a book in itself, a rendition of the Arctic Russian landscape and the people who tamed it that reaches transporting heights of literary power. That the canal was a useless fancy of Stalin’s, that it never amounted to anything useful because its starting and ending point were the arbitrary poles between somewhere and nowhere, gives the story of the building of the canal a tragic dimension. “Stalin,” writes Solzhenitsyn,
simply needed a great construction project somewhere which would devour many working hands and many lives (the surplus of people as a result of the liquidation of the kulaks [meaning the peasantry]), with the reliability of a gas execution van but more cheaply, and which would at the same time leave a great monument to his reign of the same general sort as the pyramids. In his favorite slave-owning Orient—from which Stalin derived almost everything in his life—they loved to build great ‘canals.’ And I can almost see him there, examining with love the map of the North of European Russia, where the largest part of the camps were already situated at that time. And down the center of this region the Sovereign drew a line from sea to sea with the end of his pipe stem.
Marvelous. And that’s just the beginning of a chapter that, like everything in Solzhenitsyn, lengthens on to torrential proportions, the tale always building, in this case on the bones that dug the White Sea canal. Along the way I found myself thinking of accounts of the rapid construction of the Alaska Highway in the early years of World War Two, that one, too, an epic story of man versus wild. But in Alaska the wilds were the only enemy. Even Japan and Germany were inconsequential. In Northern Russia, the wilds were the cover for the true enemy, Stalin, whom Solzhenitsyn refers to as “the Wise Man,” and who ensured that the men building the canal did so with expressly limited, backward means:
The country required the canal so urgently and in such haste that it could not even find any wheelbarrow wheels for the project! It would have been too difficult an order for Leningrad factories.
No, it would be unjust, most unjust, unfair, to compare this most savage construction project of the twentieth century, this continental canal built “with wheelbarrow and pick,” with the Egyptian pyramids; after all, the pyramids were built with the contemporary technology!! And we used the technology of forty centuries earlier!
That’s what our gas execution van consisted of. We didn’t have any gas for the gas chamber.
Solzhenitsyn himself didn’t work on the canal. He might not have made it out alive. He puts the estimates of the dead on that project at 100,000. “At the end of the workday there were corpses left on the worksite,” he quotes from a book by D.P. Vitkovsky, a veteran who did work on the canal. “Someone had frozen with his head between his knees. Two were frozen back to back leaning against each other. They were peasant lads and the best workers one could possibly imagine. They were sent to the canal in tens of thousands at a time, and the authorities tried to work things out so no one got to the same subcamp as his father; they tried to break up families. […] And in the summer bones remained from corpses which had not been removed in time, and together with the shingle they got into the concrete mixer. And in this way they got into the concrete of the last lock at the city of Belomorsk and will be preserved there for ever.”
Passages like these, so far beyond putting a chill through one’s bones, shouldn’t be mere reminders of Stalinist cruelty. That’s too easy, too convenient (oh well yes, Stalin, but that’s over and done with). So would reading Solzhenitsyn as a period piece (which “Archipelago” is far from being), or as history. That too would segregate the book’s stories to a graveyard in time, when in reality the passages like the story of the White Sea canal are markers of a universal in human history — of the bottomless fount of brutality that flows anywhere unchecked power and perverted idealism does. Stalin wasn’t an exception, only a particularly acute specimen. “The Gulag Archipelago” is a study in power’s perversions at every level of a society unwilling to dilute it, from the very top (Stalin) to its bottom-feeding power-trippers: the secret police, the interrogators, the privileged prisoners, the prison guards (every one of which is analyzed in chapter-length details). Those hierarchies shouldn’t sound unfamiliar to anyone who’s known the hierarchies of a school, of a corporation, of any organization built on the pyramidal notion of power. Nor would Solzhenitsyn’s endless tales of policing, suspicion, torture, subtle or grand repressions sound unfamiliar to those of us pawned and pawed by the convenient terrors of “homeland security” and the “global war on terror.” If “The Gulag Archipelago” isn’t read much nowadays, it’s from ignorance, not irrelevance.
“We didn’t love freedom enough,” Solzhenitsyn writes in the first volume of the work. “[…] We purely and simply deserved everything that happened afterward.” It’s a running theme throughout the books, this idea that Russians brought the miseries on themselves. The preachiness gets annoying. Solzhenitsyn seems to take pleasure in putting down his own people, their cowardice (contrasted with and contradicted by the heroic courage of many individuals we meet along the way, himself among them), their slothful acceptance of a lot they didn’t choose. But that’s it: they didn’t choose it. Still, there’s also truth to the idea that in the end, nations and people are what they make of themselves. The acceptance of repression is never entirely blind. The blindness at one point is a self-conscious act of surrender. We purely and simply deserve everything that happens afterward. How not to think that way after, say, those 62 million Americans voted Bush in 2004?
And yet in a duel between power and free will, between brutality and courage, between fanaticism and the rational, the winner, almost always, will be power, brutality, fanaticism. It isn’t only too simple to blame the victim. It’s a final cruelty that Solzhenitsyn in the end conspires with and never conquers. For all his literary greatness, it’s the cruelty that keeps his work from scaling that final wall past the defeat of man to the transcendent and the redeeming. It’s not that he’s incapable of it. There are flashes of humanism on every page. His voice is more plaintive and forgiving than scolding. But he can’t bring himself to let that voice be. He wants to ground it, shoot it down with his evidence, and does. He revels in the gloom, and his art never breaks free. Nor do we as we read. We’re not weak for wanting to, or for wanting our greatest writers to show us the way. Solzhenitsyn refuses.