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On the Death of Alexander Solzhenitsyn

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On the Death of Alexander Solzhenitsyn

04.08.2008

Alexander Solzhenitsyn has passed away. In the obituaries of truly eminent people, there is often the desire to limit one’s words to a single phrase. It seems as if so much is already so clear and that the rest is too difficult to explain within the confines of a single article.

Of course, we can recall the writer's biography, the books he wrote, the awards, the articles both old and new, the speeches and the interviews. But these are hardly anything that needs explaining. Part of Solzhenitsyn’s creative legacy, of course, is that he will go down as one of Russia’s greatest writers, although he has arguably entered the top echelon of Russian literature already. His biography is made up of different stages, each of which is integral in its own way but seems illogical when viewed as a continuation of the previous one. War and the camps during the Stalin era, wild popularity and official recognition during the Thaw, subsequent transformation into one of the main figures of the dissident world, exile from the country, seclusion in Vermont, return to Russia, and, finally, the unsuccessful attempts to influence public life in this country. Solzhenitsyn’s fate was made up of a series of complex twists and turns, which often, save for his arrest and imprisonment in 1945, took him along such roads that would have allowed him to easily reach any destination he could have desired.

Included in all of this, however, is the special perception of Solzhenitsyn here in our country and the impact on public consciousness that he was able to provide. People with seamless biographies are hardly able to qualify for such a role perhaps because, all things being equal, they make other choices and are therefore perceived differently.

Based on the effect he had on society, it is difficult to match Solzhenitsyn – the author of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The Gulag Archipelago and, say, Two Hundred Years Together. The fact that they are written by one person, a major writer and researcher with a position to defend, is obvious. It is just that the impact each work had was quite different. So much depended on the time when something was said or how Solzhenitsyn said it, although the subjects touched upon were equally important. The fate of Two Hundred Years Together, in particular, shows quite convincingly that the attitude to the legacy of the Stalin era has been and continues to be of greater concern to Russian society than the Jewish question. It is possible that this is not the most pessimistic statement that can be made on Russia’s frame of mind.

The last several decades have been rife with controversy about whether Solzhenitsyn as an historian was right about everything. How true his assessments were, how carefully checked his facts and how conclusive his findings were has all been subject to dispute. Those who enjoy challenging authority as well as educated professionals have been at loggerheads. These disputes have not been settled in any commonly accepted way. It is unlikely that they will be. Even the author's own definition of The Gulag Archipelago as “an experience of artistic research” already offers a reason to develop special criteria for its evaluation. In a sense, however, history itself has carried out an assessment of how valid the writer’s approach was. It is hardly possible that a book with false or muddy thoughts could, in principle, have influenced an entire generation so profoundly, never mind the mindset of an historical era (given that Solzhenitsyn’s work never became the basis for state ideology or propaganda, especially in our country).

The most difficult assessment to make concerns the role that Solzhenitsyn played in public life after his return to Russia in 1994. One can only note that he tried to the extent possible to give his assessment of the situation, although not always in ways favorable to those in power and not always finding response in society. His Soviet-era article “Rebuilding Russia,” owing to its name, serves as a perfect complement to a number of “eternal Russian questions.” However, even when it seemed that the great writer said something not quite right, he rarely became the subject of criticism, which, incidentally, is also important. Criticizing Solzhenitsyn was somewhat uncomfortable, even though by the mid-1990s he had lost the halo of the great prophet that he really had possessed at one time among the intelligentsia. The origins of this relationship probably lie in the latent feeling of how unique and vast his figure was. It is difficult to say when this feeling came about, but it was probably just after his arrival in Russia and the disappearance of the prophetic halo that surrounded him during the 1970s. While this halo existed, during the period of exile Eduard Limonov could still declare his dislike for Solzhenitsyn, which was “a slap in the face to public taste.” Vladimir Voinovich could sufficiently lampoon the cult of Solzhenitsyn – quite humorous in its own right – as any cult or the objects of cults can be laughable. But this cult eventually passed. This passing, perhaps, would become the main test of the scale of the writer’s personality and legacy. It somehow became clear fairly quickly that comparable figures in literature and in public life simply cannot be found.

Solzhenitsyn’s unique position was merited by all the details of his biography, his literary legacy, his influence on public thought and the disputes that have arisen around his ideas. In other words, his position was merited by all the details that generally form a person’s place in the history of his country and society. This is why it is so difficult to say what Solzhenitsyn’s death means to us. In response to the news, there is only the persistent feeling that a very important detail has disappeared from the picture of the Russian world as it once existed. And what that detail means to the overall composition and what will fill the resulting emptiness is something that each person can decide for himself. But more likely than not, the time for such a decision has not yet come.

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