Alexander Solzhenitsyn: the line within

Roger Scruton
7 August 2008

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, like Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy, combined the gifts of a novelist with the stature and ambitions of a prophet. He may not have matched their achievements as a writer of imaginative prose, but he was their equal when it came to insight into evil and its collective manifestation. Moreover his literary monument - The Gulag Archipelago - was an achievement little short of the miraculous, given the circumstances under which the information was collected and digested, and given the obstacles that stood in the way of the work's seeing the light of day.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008) is among the greatest Russian and world writers of the 20th century. He survived the second world war, incarceration in the Soviet Union's prison-camp system, and internal exile to produce a series of novels and essays that retrieved and reimagined the history of the Soviet state and the experience of its people. His major works include A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962), The First Circle (1968), Cancer Ward (1968), The Gulag Archipelago (three volumes, 1974-76), and The Oak and the Calf (1975). Alexander Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1970, and was deported to the west in 1974. He returned to Russia in 1994 and died near Moscow on 3 August 2008

By Alexander Solzhenitsyn in openDemocracy:"A world split apart" (4 August 2008) - an extract from his Harvard address in June 2008

It is fair to say that the three-volume The Gulag Archipelago did more than any other publication to cause the scales to fall from the eyes of those who had been tempted to believe that communism would have been fine, had it not been perverted from its true course by Stalin. Solzhenitsyn showed the way in which, once accountability has been set aside, as it was set aside by Lenin in 1918, and once society had as a result been conscripted to a single goal, with all institutions gathered up into the collective advance, it is not "corruption" that leads to the triumph of evil. The conditions are now in place for evil to prevail, since there is nothing to prevent it.

Yet this evil should not be seen as an impersonal thing. Solzhenitsyn was far from endorsing the thesis of the "banality of evil" as Hannah Arendt had expounded it. Nor did he see totalitarianism as the ultimate source of the evil that it promotes. Rather totalitarian government is the great mistake, made for whatever noble or ignoble purpose, of putting the final goal before the present dilemma. It is this which gives evil intentions the same chance as good ones, which enables the criminal and the psychopath to compete on a level with the saint and the hero. Yet even in totalitarianism the evil belongs to the human beings, and not to the system. This is the remarkable message that Solzhenitsyn, crawling from the death-machine, carried pressed to his heart. It is worth reproducing the passage at the end of the first volume of The Gulag Archipelago in which he bears witness to what he took to be the great moral gift that he had received in prison:

"It was granted me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience: how a human being becomes evil and how good. In the intoxication of youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer, and an oppressor. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. And it was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either - but right through every human heart - and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains . . . an uprooted small corner of evil. Since then I have come to understand the truth of all the religions of the world: They struggle with the evil inside a human being (inside every human being). It is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it within each person.

And since that time I have come to understand the falsehood of all the revolutions in history: they destroy only those carriers of evil contemporary with them (and also fail, out of haste, to discriminate the carriers of good as well). And they then take to themselves as their heritage the actual evil itself, magnified still more."

The call and the echo

Solzhenitsyn saw totalitarianism as the inevitable result of revolution (something which modern history has proved many times over), and also as the thing which gives evil its biggest chance. And in his heart he drew the contrast between the revolutionary way of confronting evil, by seeking the "system" that would lead mankind towards perfection, and the example set by Christ, who confronted evil by refusing to adopt its weapons, and by offering himself as a sacrifice. Not surprisingly therefore, Solzhenitsyn tuned his prophetic spirit, as Dostoevsky and Tolstoy had tuned theirs, to the Christian message.

Roger Scruton is a philosopher, writer, political activist and businessman. Among the most recent of his many books are Gentle Regrets: Thoughts From a Life (Continuum, 2005), News from Somewhere: On Settling (Continuum, 2006), and Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged (Encounter Books, 2007)

Also by Roger Scruton in openDemocracy:

"Jane Jacobs (1916-2006): cities for life" (2 May 2006)

"The great hole of history" (11 September 2006)

"Richard Rorty's legacy" (12 June 2007)

"Ingmar Bergman: the sense of the world" (4 August 2007)When he was finally expelled from the Soviet Union, to take up residence in Vermont, he found himself still face to face with evil, but in its more seductive guise. He did not dispute the public image of America, as the land of the free. But he wanted people to know that freedom too gives evil a chance. Not the same chance, to be sure, and one that could be resisted; a chance, nevertheless, to pursue the pleasures of the flesh and to forget about the spiritual calling of mankind.

Many Americans blamed Solzhenitsyn for this, and in particular for his Harvard lecture of 1978, in which he denounced modernity, and the "flight from spirituality" that he witnessed around him in America. Was he not repeating that old chestnut of "moral equivalence", doing what Jean-Paul Sartre, Herbert Marcuse, Eric Hobsbawm, Noam Chomsky and others had done, by responding to criticism of communism with an equal and opposite criticism of the west - as though control from the top were the same thing as control from the bottom, and as though things deliberately done for evil ends were no worse than bad things happening though no-one intended them? Was he not, in other words, denying the value of human freedom, and the crucial difference that it makes to all our moral judgments? It has to be said that the mantic nature of Solzhenitsyn's language, and his way of looking on the world from a point somewhere above it, fed these accusations. His time in America was not, from the PR point of view, a success, and many were the sighs of relief when, after the collapse of communism, he decided to return to his native Russia and preach to the converted from there.

But now, looking back on it, we must surely recognise, not merely the courage and integrity of the man, but also the truth of his message to our times. If there are evil systems, he is telling us, it is because there are evil people, evil intentions, and evil states of mind. The best we can achieve through amending the system of government is to ensure that mistakes can be corrected and evil condemned. But we should not deceive ourselves into believing that the solution to the problem of evil is a political solution, that it can be arrived at without spiritual discipline and without a change of life. It is to us human beings that the call to the good life is addressed. And it is only when we recognise that "the line separating good and evil is drawn through the human heart" that we will have finally understood the lesson of the 20th century.

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