Goodbye and Godspeed, prophet for our times.
As tributes to Alexander Solzhenitsyn from great leaders and admirers resound and fade in the wake of his death yesterday, one looks back at a life of honesty and reflects on his insights that a world in confusion today could benefit from. Reclusive and reluctant to give interviews, the man who has been described as the greatest writer of the 20th century, had this wonderful conversation with the German magazine 'Spiegel'. Original link here: http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,496003,00.html
He was critical of the way in which the erstwhile Soviet Union collapsed and privatized its key industries, referring to Yeltsin's rush to sell them out to oligarchs as a "fire sale of Russia's national patrimony". He refers to Gorbachev's administration as politically naive in that their movement away from communism was not so much good governance as a thoughtless renunciation of power, fuelled in conviction by admiration from the West. After initial criticism of Vladimir Putin, he was appreciative of him and two grew closer as Putin consolidated the Russian leadership and began to engage the West on Russian terms.
Solzhenitsyn was critical of the US war in Iraq (or its stated objectives, we don't know for sure), and stated that democracy cannot be imposed from outside. This was his point of reasoning in the Russian context, that the Bolshevik revolution was not something Russian, rather it was (as any Communist movement is) a foreign system of life and governance that seeks to eliminate cultures and the shared meanings of the past.
It is notable that the eulogies that are pouring in scarcely mention his faith. Solzhenitsyn who was reluctant to discuss his faith in great detail mentions it in the above interview as the "foundation and support" of his life. He viewed both Communism as well as Western liberal democracy and capitalism as being divergences from two thousand years of Christian teachings on honour, righteousness and sacrifice. He himself turned from being a fire-breathing young communist to being a deeply rooted Russian Orthodox Christian during his internment in the Gulag system. The difference between him and what the media makes him out to be (without his faith) is the difference between existentialism and Christianity.
When the Gulag Archipelago was published, it created a sensation in the West and the USSR, where it was circulated underground. Its meticulous research, numerous first-hand testimonies and the history of the origins of the Gulag prison system left no room for the Soviet leadership to manouevre, to explain away the atrocities. The West laid out a red carpet welcome for him, but did not expect the scathing criticism it received from him in his Harvard Commencement Address on its pursuit of pleasure as being antithetical to the ideals of Western civilization, Christianity and the purpose of democracy. In an earlier interview, he says, "Man has set for himself the goal of conquering the world but in the processes loses his soul. That which is called humanism, but what would be more correctly called irreligious anthropocentrism, cannot yield answers to the most essential questions of our life."
He continues to indict both capitalism and communism as being far from God. "Communist propaganda would sometimes include statements such as "we include almost all the commandments of the Gospel in our ideology". The difference is that the Gospel asks all this to be achieved through love, through self-limitation, but socialism only uses coercion. This is one point. Untouched by the breath of God, unrestricted by human conscience, both capitalism and socialism are repulsive. "
A Malayalam movie 'Neyththuukaran' some years ago featured a scene in which two adolescent grandkids of a Communist Party leader are shown caught up in the fantasy of the movie Titanic in the backdrop of their ailing grandad and the shocking (to him alone) news of veteran Communist EMS Namboodirippad's death. Sponsored by the Communists, this is meant to expose the shallowness of the liberal West-influenced, pleasure-seeking lifestyle that Indian youth espouse today. Sadly it misses the fact that communism in Kerala, as elsewhere, has failed the ideal (if ever there was one) of a society which knows no economic discrimination. Neil Postman's book 'Amusing Ourselves to Death' compares George Orwell's authoritarian world of 1984 to Aldous Huxley's pleasure-seeking scenario in the Brave New World. He writes:
"What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions". In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us."
He then states that his book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right. Solzhenitsyn's words to us concerning both these worlds, having lived in them, toll like the proverbial bell. We ignore his jeremiads today in the West, in India, in China, to our peril.
Solzhenitsyn believed and stated that democracy as practised in the West was not the basis for freedom. In his Harvard address, titled 'A World Split Apart', he mentioned: "In early democracies, as in American democracy at the time of its birth, all individual human rights were granted because man is God's creature. That is, freedom was given to the individual conditionally, in the assumption of his constant religious responsibility. Such was the heritage of the preceding thousand years. Two hundred or even fifty years ago, it would have seemed quite impossible, in America, that an individual could be granted boundless freedom simply for the satisfaction of his instincts or whims. Subsequently, however, all such limitations were discarded everywhere in the West; a total liberation occurred from the moral heritage of Christian centuries with their great reserves of mercy and sacrifice."
It's important to listen to hs thoughts on death: "No, I am not afraid of death any more. When I was young the early death of my father cast a shadow over me -- he died at the age of 27 -- and I was afraid to die before all my literary plans came true. But between 30 and 40 years of age my attitude to death became quite calm and balanced. I feel it is a natural, but no means the final, milestone of one’s existence."
Besides his words of woe to the miserable tyranny and promiscuous license that the different world governance systems have devised, he reflects on his own fallibility in the Archipelago: "If my life had turned out differently, might I myself not have become just such an executioner?" and "If only it was so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good from evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of their own heart?"
There is so much we need to learn. Aleksandr Isayevich was one of those who help us to see the truth clearly and has lived through the oppression of those who tried to kill it. Have we been in greater need of such men?