Solzhenitsyn and the Modern World

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Any book about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is bound to be controversial, because Solzhenitsyn is a controversial figure. More people know his life than his works, and while he was a hero to Westerners when he was being persecuted in the Soviet Union, he proved to be far different from what Westerners had expected when he landed in the placid countryside of Vermont in the mid- 1970’s.

Edward Ericson, Jr., is clear in presenting his own position on Solzhenitsyn: He believes that the writer’s ideas “are highly significant and powerfully relevant for the modern world.” He is equally clear about his aim in Solzhenitsyn and the Modern World: The book “is written for Western readers. It seeks to mediate Solzhenitsyn to them.” His study deals with Solzhenitsyn the man, but even more than that, it deals with his reputation.

Ericson wants to clear up what he sees as a series of misunderstandings (and on occasion downright falsehoods) about the Russian writer which have marred Solzhenitsyn’s reputation in the West during the 1970’s and 1980’s. He begins by sketching for his own readers what he calls “the contours of Solzhenitsyn’s overall world view.” He then provides in three chapters a chronological account of commentary by Western critics during the period in which Solzhenitsyn’s writings have appeared; this survey is followed with three additional chapters on the writer’s views on the West, on democracy, and on nationalism-topics about which much has been written by others.

The second half of Ericson’s study is devoted to an analysis of two important pieces of Solzhenitsyn’s political writing: Letter to the Soviet Leaders, originally published in 1974, and Rebuilding Russia, which first appeared in 1990. The choices are important, for the documents occupy key places in Solzhenitsyn’s career. The first, written as a private communique to the political bosses of the Soviet Union while Solzhenitsyn was still residing in Russia, outlined a program for revitalizing the nation burned out by half a century of Communist rule; for the trouble he took to suggest ways to make his homeland a better place to live, Solzhenitsyn was sent into exile. The second, written after the fall of the Soviet Communist regime, sketches in greater detail a broad plan for reforming Russia and restoring self-worth and self- sufficiency to its people. For this effort Solzhenitsyn has been castigated in the West as imperious and authoritarian.

Ericson wants his readers to see that behind both documents is a man totally committed to helping his people regain not only their country but also their dignity and-most important-their heritage rooted in the Christian faith. Unfortunately, this commitment is not what many in the West expected of the Russian. The “bane of Solzhenitsyn’s reception in the West,” Ericson insists, is that he has been viewed almost exclusively “through the prism of politics.” Since the majority of commentators in North America and the United Kingdom are left-leaning liberals, they initially took it upon themselves to construct an image of Solzhenitsyn that suited their political agenda. They depicted the writer who was being persecuted by the totalitarian regime in the Soviet Union as a staunch proponent of the liberal agenda, fiercely antirepressionist but still believing in the principles of socialism and equality as expressed by liberal theorists (including Karl Marx). The man who emigrated to the United States did not measure up to their model. Solzhenitsyn’s conservative views became widely known in 1974, after his expulsion from the Soviet Union. He spoke out against the spiritual decay he found in the West, openly denouncing America’s failure of moral leadership in his famous 1978 Harvard commencement address.

It turned out that the “liberal Solzhenitsyn” who championed the values held by the Western liberal Establishment was simply a creation of those who wanted desperately to believe Solzhenitsyn stood for these things they themselves held dear. When they found that he was not of their party, many who had championed him during his years of persecution turned against him. A few even had the temerity to castigate the Russian writer by labeling him with the worst sobriquet possible: They branded him as self-...

(The entire section is 1767 words.)