A few days ago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn died at the age of eighty-nine of heart failure. Such was Solzhensityn’s greatness–as a writer but more importantly as a single human being who, by sheer force of character, changed the course of history–that newspapers and journals around the world are still running tributes to his life. This will not be one of them.
What follows is the text of a lecture I have given in an undergraduate literature course by way of introduction to the reading of Solzhenitsyn’s novel, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch. Since it is the primary duty of a teacher to make his students aware of things of which they are not aware but urgently should be, my lecture touches only briefly on Solzhenitsyn’s life and work. It focuses, instead, on the monstrous historical aberration of which Solzhensityn was both victim and redeemer. It is a remarkable fact that young people of university age know almost nothing of the Communist Holocaust that blighted seven decades of the last century. It is a more remarkable fact that even as the mountains of corpses and rivers of blood were still rising above the Communist Killing Fields, Western liberals denied their existence. Here in the West, Solzhensitysn’s cries from the wilderness mostly fell on deaf or scornful ears. To this extent, his life’s work was (and still is) a failure. But to those who heard him, both inside and outside the walls of the Soviet prison, his words were electrifying. It may or may not be that Solzhenitsyn and the dissident movements he inspirited played a material role in the collapse of the Soviet Empire. But there can be no doubt that he invested with dignity and meaning the broken lives of all who laboured in the Gulag or groaned under the Communist heel, and kept alive the flickering flame of anti-communism whilst its keepers were being ridiculed and vilified by the liberal establishment.
I’ve said that one of the salient themes of Western literature and thought is the patient acceptance of suffering and adversity. I remember that some time early in the term a few of you, rather cynically, I thought, dismissed this perennial Western philosophical attitude as the advice of a privileged male elite. I pointed out at the time, as I recall, that the counsel to endure hardship and injustice with equanimity hardly emanated from the power structure: I reminded you that Boethius was a political prisoner, that Socrates and Jesus had been sentenced to death by the state, that Dante wrote his greatest works while in exile.
Since then, we have read Milton, who like Homer, penned his epiphanic verses in spite of his physical blindness, and Moliere, whose Misanthrope (which, while comedy, demonstrates the tragic folly of railing against earthly injustice and vice) was written by a man who was twice sent to debtors’ prison because he could not meet the payroll of his theatre troupe. But Moliere did not complain that there was not enough government funding of the arts, any more than Milton complained that there were no social programs to lessen the burden of his handicap.
The patient acceptance of adversity and injustice as a condition of life in this world is, I need hardly say, the central theme of the novel you have just read. Ivan Denisovitch not only doesn’t complain, not only stoically endures, but under the most barbaric and inhumanly cruel of circumstances, he manages to achieve what few of us who live in a world of freedom and ease have ever achieved: to take pride in the work of his hands, to assert unfailingly the dignity of the human person, and even to be happy.
Ivan Denisovitch is one of the millions of those who, either because of some minor breach of Marxist ideological orthodoxy, or for no reason at all, were sent to work, and usually to die, in what Solzhenitsyn called the Gulag Archipelago, that vast network of labour camps that stretched across the Soviet Union during the seventy odd years in which international Communism ravaged the globe.
I do not have time to retail the sordid history of Communism here; let me say only–and I say this without qualification, and I say it knowing that lingering illusions about it, especially in the academy, have utterly blinded the most sophisticated intellectuals to the stark truth of the matter and continue to inspire excuses and prettifications to this day–nonetheless, let me say that Communism has been, and is, transcendently, the most corrupt, despotic, and depraved ideology ever minted in the long history of human evil.
By conservative estimates, between 100 and 150 million people were either executed, deliberately starved, worked to death in labour camps, or killed in psychiatric hospitals, for the crime, as I say, of failing to believe fervently enough in the truth of Marxist doctrine. And I must point out, these 150 millions were not the European colonial “hegemonists” or Yankee running dogs of capitalism who in their selfish desire to preserve their own power and privilege opposed the great spontaneous, global Marxist uprisings of the downtrodden proletariat. These 150 million corpses were the citizens of the Communist regimes that promised to liberate their subjects from capitalist injustice and oppression.
As it happens, every form of political oppression and injustice throughout history (the suffering of the Jews under the Pharaohs or the Nazis, of Christian heretics during the Inquisition, of Native peoples at the hands of the Conquistadores, of African slaves under their European and American taskmasters)–all of these episodes of inhumanity and genocidal evil merely pale by comparison to what the very citizens of Communist countries endured for seven decades under the yoke of their presumptive saviours
A rough breakdown of the numbers suggests the unprecedent global scale (no part of this vast earth escaped it) of the Communist Holocaust. Under Lenin, Stalin, and Brezhnev, about 50 million Russians were exterminated for suspected counter-revolutionary opinions or activities; to Mao’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, about 75 million Chinese were sacrificed; following Moscow’s post-war colonization of east Germany, Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia, another five million citizens of these Eastern European nations were liquidated, including the thousand odd souls who were shot in the back by Communist guards as they tried to flee to freedom over the Berlin Wall.
Following the surrender of Vietnam to the Communists in the North, about a million Vietnamese died, most by drowning in the South China Sea as they tried to flee their national liberators in leaky boats. (Theirs is some of the blood that the anti-Vietnam War movement has on its hands). In Cambodia, another million and a half were either executed by the Khmer Rouge for the crime of being propertied, educated, or old, or perished in the re-education camps. In North Korea, the number of political dissidents who have “disappeared” is another million, and counting. In Afghanistan, upwards of a million Muslims were felled by Soviet bullets. Marxist liberation movements in Africa–in Angola, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe, particularly–have claimed another half million souls. In Cuba, under the charismatic Fidel, tens of thousands have vanished into the Caribbean Gulag, in which many still languish for such crimes as homosexuality, and a million, one-sixth of that tiny nation’s population, have fled their beloved leader’s brand of benevolent socialism for the oppressive, decadent, and imperialistic United States.
Of course, there has been in all of history no more blatantly imperialistic ideology, no farther-reaching colonial power, than Communism, which still maintains outposts on every inhabited continent. And though in the West we have generally bought the Soviet line that these far-flung Communist regimes have arisen as the result of spontaneous, indigenous national liberation movements, every one of them has been financed by Moscow or established by the might of the invading Russian army. And every one has, usually sooner rather than later, gotten round to the main Communist business of oppressing its own population.
As Solzhenitsyn has lamented, the response of the world to all this has been a deafening silence. During the long history of Communist depradation, the Western intellectual elite and political establishment have demonstrated either a naive innocence about, or a wilful complicity in its monstrous crimes.
In every generation in the West, right-thinking, progressive-minded writers, artists, Hollywood starlets, presidents and prime ministers have stepped forward to deny that any such atrocities could have been committed by Lenin or Stalin or Mao or Fidel or Robert Mugabe, or whichever of the totalitarian butchers was currently being held up as the next great hope for the future of humankind. After each successive Marxist leader was inexorably and undeniably revealed to be the despot that he was, these great Western beacons of enlightenment simply fastened onto a new one, who they assured us would finally reveal socialism’s human face. And every time the face of socialism was exposed to be just as murderous and repressive as it always had been, Western true-believers fell back on the same arguments: the socialist ideal of Marx and Lenin was corrupted by Stalin; or true Communism has never yet been tried.
But, as Solzhenitsyn has demonstrated throughout his works, Stalin’s Communism was no different from Marx’s or Lenin’s. It wasn’t Stalin who invented the secret police or the happy stroke of imprisoning political dissidents; the vast network of the Gulag was already in full operation under Lenin. And the use of terror as a means of enforcing the ideological purity and safeguarding the progress of the Revolution had been justified in Lenin’s writings and implemented from the moment the Bolsheviks seized power. Lenin himself had found its justification in the socialist tracts of Marx and Engels.
What has evidently never occurred to many Western fellow travellers is that the reason the Communist “ideal”, as they call it, is always and inevitably corrupted, is because Communism is essentially and inalienably corrupt; it is the ideology itself that is evil, so evil, in fact, that it cannot evidently exist in the absence of totalitarian repression.
Other Western leftists have been less sentimental: believing in the righteousness of the class war, and in the inherent malevolence of those who own property or wealth, like the organizers of the Terror after the French Revolution, they have justified the wholesale slaughter of the high-born and bourgeois classes, or the merely ideologically defective, on the grounds that social progress warrants it.
Then, too, there have been the eternally optimistic Western advocates of peace, diplomacy, and détente. Just stop opposing the Soviets and making them feel threatened—so they have said, even as the Soviet army was marching into country after country–and all will be well. Just unilaterally disarm, notwithstanding that the Soviet Union was spending more than a third of its GNP on armaments, even as they were unable to feed their own people. Just sign another peace treaty, they advised, often immediately after the Soviets had broken the last one. Just send them more humanitarian aid and technological know-how, even though the aid invariably went to enhance the upper class life-style of the Communist party bosses and never reached the people, and the technology was used to develop the missiles that were pointed at Western cities. Just sponsor a few more cultural exchanges, a few more visits from the Moscow Circus or the Bolshoi Ballet, and the Soviet lion will lie down with the Western lamb.
We did all of these things, of course, and the Soviets continued to build up their military, to ingest nation after nation, and to imprison and torture the presumptive beneficiaries of their various national “liberation” movements.
It was only after the West reversed course following decades of appeasement, only after some in the West, that is, mustered the will to defy the peace activists and believers in moral equivalence, and call Communism what it was, an Evil Empire, and only after renewed spending on American armaments finally beggared the innately flawed socialist economy of the Soviet Union, that it collapsed under its own weight.
And yet, even with the fall of the Soviet Union and the unambiguous revelation of its crimes against humanity, there has been no general moral accounting for this barbarous episode in human history. Not one of the butchers who murdered in excess of 100 million people has been indicted before an international human rights tribunal, such as we had in Nuremberg after the Nazi Holocaust, and have even today in the Hague where the relatively modest crimes of the Serbs are being avidly prosecuted.
There are no Holocaust Museums to commemorate the victims of Communism, no Schindler’s Lists or other Hollywood blockbusters. It is curious at the least to note that not one of those who made careers, as journalists, politicians, writers, or academics of denying that Lenin or Mao or Fidel incarcerated and exterminated millions of political enemies has today lost his job, or borne the moral stigma of being a “Holocaust denier”, or even been asked to apologize for his vicious stupidity. On the contrary, most are still ensconced in positions of authority and influence: still writing for the New York Times or the Toronto Star, or appearing on CNN or CBC, or making movies in Hollywood. Can anyone imagine that a former Nazi propagandist would benefit from that sort of moral amnesia?
All of this Solzhenitsyn has written about extensively: in his many novels, historical works, essays, speeches, and poems. And he has written from direct experience. In 1945, as a 27 year-old Russian artillery officer, while on the German front lines, Solzhenitsyn was arrested by the Soviet secret police for having made disrespectful remarks about Stalin in a letter to a friend. For this offence, he spent eight years in Siberian labor camps and three years in exile.
During that time, like his protagonist Ivan Denisovitch, he survived hunger, cold, beatings, stints in isolation, and stomach cancer. But what Solzhensitsyn could not have imagined while in prison was that the greatest insult he would suffer would be at the hands of the Western political, cultural, and academic elite who would refuse to believe the truth of what he had witnessed with his eyes and suffered in his flesh.
To go on telling that truth in the face of universal ridicule and opprobrium is, it seems to me, the highest test of human integrity and courage, and it is for this reason that I consider Solzhenitsyn one of the genuine heroes of Western Civilization.