Review of Solzhenitzyn, A Soul in Exile, by Joseph Pearce. Ignatius Press, 2012.
Having recently been in a Russian kind of mood after my review of Dr. Warren Carroll’s 1917, Red Banners, White Mantle, when I saw this book in my favorite bookstore (at Saint Benedict Center, naturally), I eagerly picked it up and quickly became absorbed in it. Considering the fact that in between I also read the 1085-page novel, The Father’s Tale, by Michael O’Brien, much of which takes place in modern Russia, this new volume seemed like a natural choice. I found myself enveloped in this beautifully written biography of the modern Russian giant, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn.
While Pearce’s bio does follow the great writer’s life chronologically, it dwells primarily on his ideological and spiritual development as he wrestled with the Communist state through the entire twentieth century almost until the day he died in August, 2008. Pearce credits his accessibility to the great man during his later years — on more than one occasion — to the completeness of this work, which contains many insights that one can only receive through face to face contact. Such one-on-one contact was denied to a number of the Russian’s other biographers. He visited the Solzhenitsyn home in Russia with his wife Alya present and all three of their sons (though not at the same time), who speak English and acted as interpreters. This revised edition of the book contains a large section of family photographs which, for this reader at least, really personalized Solzhenitsyn, his beautiful wife, Alya, and their three sons, from toddlers in Vermont to teens and young adults back in Russia.
Solzhenitsyn’s life spanned the entire twentieth century after the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. Born in December, 1918, just five months after the assassination of the Imperial family, into an upper-middle class family, the infant Alexandr had already lost his father to a hunting accident. His mother, Taissia, never remarried and kept close contact with her very devout Russian Orthodox parents. Although she had fallen away from their piety, as the political situation became worse, she returned to the practice of the traditional Russian faith (but we must add that the Eastern schism is not “traditional” to Russia’s Christianity). The youngster’s grandparents saw to it that he was well-grounded in Orthodoxy through study and prayer.
Always a precocious child, as the Communists reined in tighter and tighter control over young Russians’ education, Alexandr and his friends abandoned the faith of their parents and accepted Communism as the way of the future. The family was penalized because they had the misfortune to belong to the wrong class, and they were pious besides – two big no-no’s in the newly atheistic Communist land. It is a coincidence that our subject and his subject – the Gulag – were born the same year.
As early as 1918, the Communists evicted nuns, priests and religious from their convents and monasteries and filled the former holy places with political prisoners. This system grew exponentially over the years as the list of “enemies of the state” became longer and longer. By age eighteen, Solzhenitsyn had joined the Young Communists and became a dedicated Stalinist. The story of how his mind was slowly changed as he experienced first, internal exile, then imprisonment in the Gulag, and finally exile in Switzerland and the United States, all the while becoming more and more the thundering prophet against the Soviet system, is a complex and fascinating one.
One of the more interesting aspects of the book explains how Solzhenitsyn’s belief in government from the bottom up and not the top down (as was the Soviet system) coincided with that same belief developing in western Catholic authors like Belloc and Chesterton of Britain (distributism) and the Catholic economist E. F. Schumacher of Germany who wrote the influential book Small Is Beautiful. This belief coincides with the Catholic principle of subsidiarity. Some credit Schumacher with beginning the “green” movement — not the modern version of environmentalism, but the Biblical concept that God gave man stewardship over the earth, to use it and to properly care for its resources. Solzhenitsyn could see that the Communists were removing the “Russian-ness” from his land and depleting its vast resources, and he deeply resented it.
A final mention must be made of his well-known comments at Harvard while he was residing in exile in the U. S. At the time, the Solzhenitsyns were in residence in nearby Cavendish, Vermont. The year was 1978, the occasion was the Harvard commencement on June 8. What a bombshell the great prophet of modern Russia dropped on the world that day! With the Cold War still under way and his residence in Vermont established, Solzhenitsyn unloaded on just about every aspect of western civilization from unbridled capitalism to advertising to “intolerable music.” The media was the recipient of Solzhenitsyn’s particular vitriol for their shameless intrusion into the privacy of well-known people so that their “readers were having their divine souls stuffed with gossip, nonsense, vain talk.” He made the accurate accusation that westerners were living only for their own pleasure, their souls (literally) be damned. This trend, he stated, began with Renaissance humanism. He further stated that the United States and the rest of the West could not be a model for Russia when Communism failed. He saw the need for Russia to return to its Christian roots. Needless to say, most of the reaction to this speech was negative. Shocked criticism came from the Washington Post, the New York Times, and that great thinker Rosalyn Carter, First Lady, who claimed that there was “no unchecked materialism” in this country. What got to all these liberals and non-thinkers was his insistence on a return to Christianity as the basis for a moral civilization. There were a few voices of support and agreement, among them George Will, the journalist, who pointed out that Solzhenitsyn’s ideas were roughly equivalent to those of Cicero, Augustine, Aquinas, Pascal, Thomas More and Edmund Burke.
Did Alexandr Solzhenitsyn cause the fall of Communism? That would be a serious oversimplification. Communism, especially the Soviet system, was so top heavy and corrupt that its very rottenness would probably have caused it collapse. But figures of gigantic proportions on the international stage contributed to that cause. One of them was Pope John Paul II; another was Alexandr Solzhenitsyn. His hundreds of lines of poetry, his plays, his novels, his essays, and his gigantic Gulag Archipelago all bear witness to the despicable character of the Soviet Communist state and certainly contributed to its downfall. His legacy lives on in those writings. Sad to say, he would be most disappointed in both his own Russia today and the land that gave him refuge, our own, for we have only sunk deeper into moral poverty. A terrific book that offers much to contemplate.