“I understand you have read a lot that Alexander Solzhenitsyn has written,” I said to Pierce. [Bob DeMarais had mentioned it to me.] Has Solzhenitsyn had a major influence on your thinking?”
“I have read some of what Solzhenitsyn has written, although he is not really in a direct line of my development. I didn’t read him until after my own views were pretty well formulated. I did find him interesting, however, and mined some facts from what he had written. For example, I read the commencement address he gave at Harvard in 1978. It had been published and distributed widely. I said to myself, ‘This guy is one of the very few people who has had the courage to come right out and say these things in public as opposed to the milquetoast blather that you get in virtually all commencement addresses. I really appreciated that he said things that needed to be said – fundamental and true things that probably no one else with access to that forum would have told these Harvard seniors and their parents. In my own way, I am trying to get a message to this society about the radical changes we need to make, and even though I don’t agree with Solzhenitsyn about everything, I respected what he did at Harvard.”
Alexander Solzhenitsyn is a Russian writer born in 1918 who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970. His books include One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, August 1914, The First Circle, and The Gulag Archipelago.1 Solzhenitsyn was arrested in 1945 for anti-Stalinist remarks and eventually ended up in a hard-labor camp in Kazakhstan. His writings, some of which were written on scraps of paper while he was interned, depict the harsh conditions of the labor camps and blamed Stalin for their existence.2
Solzhenitsyn attacked the Soviet Communist Party, and in 1973 he was expelled from the Soviet Union and came to the United States, where he lived in Vermont. Solzhenitsyn’s champions in this country were appalled to learn that his vision wasn’t of a democracy but rather a theocracy based on the precepts of the Russian Orthodox Church. While in America, Solzhenitsyn decried the growing decadence of Western society. In 1994, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the changed political conditions in Russia, he returned to his home country.
Solzhenitsyn gave the Harvard commencement address that Pierce referred to on June 8th, 1978. Between ten and fifteen thousand people gathered in the drizzling rain to hear the words of this celebrated author. Solzhenitsyn entitled his talk “A World Split Apart.” He didn’t say anything on that occasion that he hadn’t been saying for years, but nevertheless many were surprised, as well as put off, by what they heard.
The West is in a fight for its spiritual survival, Solzhenitsyn told his audience, and its adversary is modernity itself. The modern world had brought with it “moral poverty,” Solzhenitsyn declared, and “the calamity of an autonomous, irreligious humanistic consciousness.” “Two hundred or even fifty years ago,” he proclaimed, “it would have seemed quite impossible, in America, that an individual be granted boundless freedom with no purpose, simply for the satisfaction of his whims…” And then later: “Is it true that man is above everything? Is there no Superior Spirit above him? Is it right that man’s life and society’s activities should be ruled by material expansion above all? Is it permissible to promote such expansion to the detriment of our integral spiritual life?”3
Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard commencement address was met with strong criticism from liberal quarters. The New York Times editorialized, “Mr. Solzhenitsyn’s world view seems to us far more dangerous that the easygoing spirit which he finds so exasperating… Life in a society run by zealots like Mr. Solzhenitsyn is bound to be uncomfortable for those who do not share his vision or ascribe to his beliefs.” The Washington Post accused him of a “gross misunderstanding of western society, which has chosen to organize its political and social and cultural affairs on the basis of the differences among men.”4
I told Pierce that I had recently read a biography of Solzhenitsyn, and that I was struck by some of the similarities between his outlook and Pierce’s.5 I was thinking of Solzhenitsyn’s opposition to materialism, rationalism, and individualism, and his authoritarianism, spirituality, and what appears to be his anti-Semitism. And then there is his affinity for nature and the non-urban life: he said he chose to live in Cavendish, Vermont because of “the simple way of life of the people, the countryside, and the long winters with the snow.”6 There is even Solzhenitsyn’s total immersion in his work (“All my life consists of only one thing – work.”) that reminds me of Pierce’s complete investment of himself in his work.7
“I can see how you could say that,” Pierce responded. “But there are a lot of differences between Solzhenitsyn and me, too. Hell, I don’t even know the man, so I can’t be sure, but I think that Solzhenitsyn is a lot more Christian than I am. In fact, I’m not a Christian at all; I don’t put any stock in that. And I imagine he is much more of a sober character that I am. For example, when I relax with a video it is likely to be something like a James Bond movie. Sex and violence, that’s what I like. I get kind of strung out at work, a lot of frustrations and so forth, and watching a really violent film has a cathartic effect on me – ‘Damn it, give it to the son-of-a-bitch!’ I don’t picture Solzhenitsyn doing that. And I always try to do, within limits anyway, what is natural. I’m sort of a nudist by nature. Of course I don’t run around naked in the office, but at home I do. I don’t see Solzhenitsyn doing anything like that.”
“One of the things I was thinking about is the way Solzhenitsyn portrays Jews negatively in his books.”
“I noticed that in First Circle,” Pierce replied. (In that book, three major Jewish characters – Rubin, Kagan, and Roitman – are depicted as defenders of evil.)
“It’s in August 1914 too,” I said. (The anarchist and assassin Bogrov, Jewish, is weak and cowardly, a spineless intellectual, attached to luxury, self-pitying, and described with serpentine imagery.8)
“I should read that book. I got started on it, but then something happened and I didn’t finish it.”
“I have noticed,” I said to Pierce, “that when Solzhenitsyn has been questioned about his anti-Semitism, he denies it. He says, ‘Oh no, I have nothing against the Jews. These are isolated characters who just happen to be Jews. I am simply describing history.’ I don’t know what Solzhenitsyn’s views about Jews really are, but he may think along the same lines as you do and made a tactical decision as to how to most effectively express what he thinks given the situation he is in. Have you ever thought that it might be better for you if you muted your criticism of Jews some, been more diplomatic about it, that maybe you would be able to reach more people if you approached it that way instead of head-on?”
“Maybe it would be easier for me if I came at it that way. But see, I’ve been doing this for thirty-two years, and while I suppose for all that time I could have taken on a role that was unnatural to me, I just didn’t want to do it. The only way for me is to do what is natural to me, and that is to say what I really believe and really feel. I’m not being critical of Solzhenitsyn; I’m just talking about my way. Besides, I think it is necessary for somebody to be an extremist, for somebody to say it all, even the things that frighten people or that they don’t want to hear. I think that is my natural role. Others who are a lot more people-oriented than I am, who are more accustomed to adjusting what they say and do because of their interactions with other people, they can give a more moderate message that is a lot easier for the average person to accept. But that is not my way. Perhaps I could have done it that way for a while, but I don’t think I could have done it for as long as I have been doing this work.
“In a certain way, what I am doing is self-indulgent. Very few people are able, as I am, to indulge themselves by saying exactly what they want to say. Most people have to interact with a lot of different types of individuals every day. They have to be diplomatic and careful in what they say. And that makes sense. You can’t go around offending your neighbors and co-workers. Tact and politeness and those kinds of things are important in keeping a society running smoothly. I try to be polite. I try not to offend people unnecessarily. But at the same time, I’ll be the guy who goes ahead and says it when other people don’t. If I figure out something and think it is true and important and ought to be said, I say it. I don’t hold back. I don’t moderate it. I don’t round off the rough edges to avoid offending people. Oh, that isn’t entirely true – there are some times when there is no point in getting into a lot of hairy and off-putting details on something if they can be described in terms that are a bit obtuse. A word to the wise is sufficient. The right people will understand the message without having to stampede the sheep. But mostly, let’s put it that way, I indulge myself in the luxury of telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing besides the truth as I see it. That’s one of the payoffs of doing this work.”
1 Alexander Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (New York: Noonday Press, 1991). Alexander Solzhenitsyn, August 1914 (New York: Bantam Books, 1974). Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The First Circle (New York: Harper and Row, 1968). Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago (New York: Harper and Row, 1974).
2 For biographical information on Solzhenitsyn, see Barbara Cady, Icons of the 20th Century: 200 Men and Women Who Have Made a Difference (New York: The Overlook Press, 1998), p. 334.
3 Quoted in D.M. Thomas, Alexander Solzhenitsyn: A Century in His Life (New York: St. Martin’s, 1998), p. 462.
6 Ibid., p. 458.
8 See Thomas, p. 489.