‘Memorial’ remembers Alexander Solzhenitsyn

6 August 2008

It has been our enviable, difficult fate to be contemporaries of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. His literary talent was immense, and the genres within which he realised it wide-ranging. All this makes Solzhenitsyn one of the most outstanding figures in Russian culture, and that of the world.

Usually, the scale of the character and talent of an artist and thinker is hard to assess straightaway. It can take decades to get the measure of it. It is only now that we are starting to understand what it meant to live at the same time and in the same land as Varlaam Shalamov and Vasily Grossman. With Solzhenitsyn it was different: on that November morning in 1962, when Russia's reading public first opened the eleventh volume of Novy Mir, it was clear to everyone, that this work marked a new departure in Russian literature.

In 1967, through his Letter to the Congress of Soviet Writers, the reading public discovered a new Solzhenitsyn. This one was a brilliant political polemicist, an uncompromising fighter for the freedom of the individual, and above all for freedom of thought and the word. Defenders of human rights counted Solzhenitsyn as one of their own. It took no more than a few years for the country and the world to regard him as dissident number one.

But Solzhenitsyn was much more than a dissident. He managed to combine this political engagement with the regime with an entirely different role. He dreamed of healing the 200-year-old rift between government and society, of engineering a Great Reconciliation between Russian power and Russia's intelligentsia.

From the mid 1970s, Solzhenitsyn emerged as an original and strong political thinker, with his Letter to the Soviet Leaders, and the essays he published in exile, together with a number of like-minded people in the collection From Under the Rubble. His fierce criticism of contemporary democracy, the secularisation of Western society and other fundamental aspects of contemporary European civilisation earned him a lasting reputation for being an anti-Western, and even a nationalist.

But Solzhenitsyn, like Dostoevsky before him, defies such categories. His search for a ‘special path' for Russia was nothing less than a sincere attempt to unite what he saw as the most precious features of Russian culture with Europe's Christian culture, in order to continue the spiritual struggle of the religious philosophers of the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries.

Neither we, nor anyone else, can claim to be able to assess the significance of Solzhenitsyn's intellectual legacy as a thinker. People will be arguing for decades about Solzhenitsyn's historical views, his political philosophy and his journalism. Perhaps these discussions, like the arguments about Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, will go on for ever - at least for as long as the social and cultural phenomenon of the Russian intelligentsia itself.

However, whatever Aleksandr Isaevich's contemporaries and succeeding generations think of his views, the phenomenal energy, passionate conviction and literary flair with which Solzhenitsyn formulated his views, and stuck by them, these in themselves distinguish his journalistic writing as an outstanding cultural phenomenon.

For us at the International Society of Memorial, Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago is a work of massive significance. In this ‘experiment in literary investigation' as its author termed it, he succeeded in combining two strands of memory about state terror which were separate before. There was the direct, personal experience of witnesses and victims of the greatest national catastrophe of the century on the one hand. On the other, there was the attempt at a critical evaluation of well known and more recently discovered historical facts. The defining feature of the work was not so much that it contained material previously unknown, so much as the historical understanding he arrived at. Essentially, Gulag Archipelago is a titanic attrempt at creating a new national historical consciousness, an alternative to the lying one, to the total silence and the falsifications of the official version of Soviet history.

From then on Gulag Archipelago stood for many years, right up to the final years of perestroika, as one of the most inspiring and vigorously persecuted of samizdat texts. If it were found during searches, it would be confiscated. You would lose your job or be thrown out of university for reading it or keeping a copy. You would be arrested and charged for distributing it or copying it. However, despite that, copies of the foreign editions were quietly brought into the Soviet Union, where the book would be photocopied hundreds of times, cyclostyled and retyped on typewriters.

In the West, Gulag Archipelago made an equally shattering impression. For it constituted an irrefutably authentic witness to the values of the communist experiment. The bureaucratic acronym Gu-lag (meaning main camp headquarters) entered the dictionaries of the world as a defining element of the concept of ‘a humanitarian catastrophe of political origin on a national or global scale'.

Gulag Archipelago began a new phase of interpretation for our 20thc history. It made the crucial importance of understanding the past for the sake of the future clear to many people. At first such people could be counted in their tens, then in their hundreds, then thousands. The point of departure for all attempts at independent historical research in the 1970s was that monumental ‘experiment in literary investigation' accomplished by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. As it was for the broad social movement towards the end of the 1980s. As it was for Memorial's own work, which started in 1990 and continues to this day.

Now people have started talking about ‘the end of the Solzhenitsyn era'. We categorically disagree with this view. ‘The era of Solzhenitsyn', the era of recovering historical memory, is not going to end with his departure.

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