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The ikon and the latrine bucket: the world of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

|I LYICH, is it your turn to take out the latrine bucket?', one prisoner asked another in a crammed cell in the Lubyanka Prison in Moscow in the Spring of 1945. The question was overheard by a twenty-six year old captain of artillery, newly arrested for veiled, though disparaging, remarks about Stalin contained in a letter to a friend which had been intercepted. The young captain shuddered with a sense of outrage. Ilyich happened to be Lenin's patronymic as well as that of the prisoner addressed. The brilliant young officer felt disgust that the name should be uttered in the same sentence as |latrine bucket' and also felt that it was somehow wrong to call anyone but Lenin by that name.(1) This highly decorated Red Army officer had harboured an intellectual contempt for Stalin since boyhood, yet he was a passionately convinced Marxist-Leninist. The young officer was Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn, later to become a Nobel prize winner and the most famous of Soviet dissidents and one of the most formidable and implacable opponents of Marxism of the 20th century.

Few writers in history have been so profoundly and crucially affected by the experience of imprisonment as Solzhenitsyn. His major works are an artistic response to prison and concentration camp life, to punitive exile and to an awareness of being defined as an enemy and an alien by the society which he had served unselfishly and with energy and discipline. Now that the writer is in his seventies and has been engaged for over twenty years in writing a quite different series of books, not connected with his prison experiences or - in any direct way - with his own life, it can be seen that his arrest and his years as a prisoner are an essential point of reference in understanding his development and his literary output as a whole. Understanding of Solzhenitsyn is important because his career illuminates not only the course of 20th century history and the ideologies which have helped to generate historical changes, but also the issues of moral integrity and artistic integrity and artistic decline.

It has become increasingly obvious in recent years since the spectacle of Solzhenitsyn's almost unbelievable bravery in setting himself up as opponent of the Soviet regime - and indeed that very regime itself - have receded into the past, that he is not a great writer. That term, great writer, is of course an imprecise and dangerous one, but it is an essential concept. Much lengthy theorising can be avoided, perhaps, by quoting actual examples. Shakespeare's sonnets are great poetry, while the sonnets of Sir Philip Sidney are good poetry. Jack London and Somerset Maugham are good writers, even important writers, but George Eliot and Conrad are great writers. The peculiar nature of the 20th century has given Solzhenitsyn immense importance as a historical figure though he remains a good and remarkable writer not a great one. The notion that Solzhenitsyn's work is on the same level as that of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky is a cliche put about by politically-minded journalists hostile to the USSR, or an over-reaction by intelligent critics astonished by the appearance of worthwhile fiction in Russia after decades of censorship and silence.

Political writers are perhaps the least clearly understood of all writers, though they often go to great lengths, even to the extent of vulgarising their work, to make their meaning clear. Sympathetic understanding and objectivity are replaced, however, by condemnation or adulation which has little to do with the writer's work and a great deal to do with party loyalty or emotional imperatives. Orwell grasped this point with unusual clarity and ironically, it has been the fate of Orwell's own greatest novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four to be more misunderstood and misrepresented than any novel in English in the last half-century. Until the 1980s the artistic greatness of Orwell's last work received amazingly little attention. The book was either seen as a defence of the Free World against Communism and the Labour Party or as a sick man's vicious satire on socialism and the Soviet Union. Orwell's book is, of course, neither of these, yet its subtle, frightening and continuously relevant vision has seldom been grasped or confronted.

Similarly, the reception of Solzhenitsyn's work in the West has followed an almost comically predictable stereotype. For nearly ten years, between the early 1960s and the early 1970s, Solzhenitsyn's reputation was exploited by the political Right in the West and used for right-wing propaganda purposes.(2) Those on the Left also admired him, citing his work as a validation of their own painful misunderstanding of Soviet history and of the nature of Leninist ideology and the revolution of 1917.(3)

There then followed, in quick succession, the English, translation of August 1914 (1971), the publication of The Gulag Archipelago (1974) and the attacks made by Solzhenitsyn on Western society in 1975 and 1976 after his deportation to the West, attacks which were every bit as vehement as those he had directed against the Soviet Union.(4) From the late 1970s, cultural and political journalists, speech writers, politicians, ideologists, analysts and dogmatists, mentioned him less and less, not wishing to remind themselves or to remind the public of their own misapprehensions and delusions. It remains to be seen whether the collapse of the Soviet Union will make Solzhenitsyn and his ideas - or what are taken to be his ideas - once again useful to political partisans.

Yet the textual basis for understanding the evolution of Solzhenitsyn's attitudes and beliefs and the unique part played in his life and work by imprisonment, has grown firmer with every book of his which has been translated and published - however defective from a literary point of view the translations may have been at times. One can best illustrate what kind of writer Solzhenitsyn is by tracing the events of his life as well as his literary development since his arrest in 1945.

|Ilyich, is it your turn to take out the latrine bucket?' The young Captain Solzhenitsyn who flinched at this profaning of Lenin, for whom he held a kind of religious reverence was an only child whose father had died in a shooting accident before his birth. His father had been a loyal army officer also, a young man who had abandoned his Tolstoyan pacifism in order to fight for his country. Solzhenitsyn's mother never remarried. On her side of the family, his grandparents had been wealthy, prosperous merchants. However, the young Aleksandr had no experience of wealth or prosperity, but only of severe poverty. He was a child of dangerously suspect social origins according to the Bolshevik ideology of the 1920s and 1930s and his mother was denied anything but the lowest paid work.

Solzhenitsyn was an adored son, a brilliant and successful student who always wanted to be a writer, who identified in his teens the history of the revolution as his great artistic theme. He was a young man of selfless dedication to an inhuman, perhaps repulsive degree. Secretly, with a strange Orwellian heretical intensity, he hated Stalin.(5)

He became after the outbreak of the war a courageous and talented artillery officer and by his own later account, an arrogant and unpleasantly self-complacent one.(6) His affest for insulting Stalin in a letter in 1945, began the process of shattering his arrogance, his complacency, his egocentricity and his dogmatic passion for Marxism-Leninism. He was sentenced to eight years in labour camps. After a year in ordinary camps, he served three years in a prison for highly qualified prisoners (Solzhenitsyn was a graduate in physics and mathematics) whose skills were used by government departments and by the secret police. His portrait of himself at that period of his life, at the age of thirty, is contained in the character of Gleb Nerzhin in The First Circle - a man who has lost his belief in Leninism, sceptical, eclectic, tolerant, interested in the play of ideas, though a tenacious survivor of the prison system. Solzhenitsyn became increasingly unwilling to go on with the scientific work at the prison or to occupy the relatively privileged position and the humane conditions which went with it. He was soon sent to serve his sentence in the relentless drudgery, cold, malnutrition and brutality at a hard labour camp in the Soviet East - the world he described in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. By his release in 1953 he was already suffering from severe intestinal cancer. Like most political prisoners, he was sent into |perpetual exile' under close police surveillance in a desert village in Soviet Asia. Grudgingly and after long delays, the authorities allowed him to go to a Tashkent hospital where his cancer was arrested by massive doses of radiotherapy and hormone injections.

As Martin Seymour-Smith points out, the ethical and moral vision of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and of the prisoners depicted in the book, is a kind of Christian, non-Marxist communism. It is from that non-dogmatic moral standpoint that Marxism and Soviet society are attacked and rejected. This was Solzhenitsyn's own view of things in the 1950s. By the time of the dismissal of the charges against him in 1957, during Khruschev's political thaw, he had reached a radical rejection of Marxism-Leninism and had become a religious believer.(7) Solzhenitsyn bas certainly valued Christianity's contribution to society in his mature work as well as accepting the Christian ethical code. He is obviously sincere in his belief in some kind of Divine Power. Whether he is, or ever was, a believing Christian as such is very doubtful, he has never been willing to be too specific on this point.(8)

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Cancer Ward are Solzhenitsyn's finest works - stylistically rich, successful in characterisation, subtle in the ironies they bring out, emotionally balanced and morally restrained. The convincing portrait of Ivan Denisovich, a simple, nonintellectual man, free from condescension or sentimentality on the author's part and the sympathetic portrait of the hideous Rusanov, the secret policeman stricken by cancer are among the finest achievements of Russian fiction this century. They are the products of the shattering impact which imprisonment bad upon Solzhenitsyn and the values which he adopted in the 1950s and 1960s.

The novel The First Circle written between 1955 and 1963 and the huge documentary The Gulag Archipelago written between 1958 and 1968 are not quite on the same level, though both are remarkable and powerful works. Gone was the brilliant, arrogant young student determined to write a history of the Russian revolution in a series of novels which would rival or better Tolstoy. Gone was the self-confident, doctrinaire Marxist. |Bless you prison, for being in my life!'(9) Solzhenitsyn wrote with an almost religious ecstasy. He had lived for years with despair, hunger and brutality and after his release had been close to death for many months from seemingly incurable cancer.

|Before I was arrested, I knew very little about such things. I drifted into literature unthinkingly, without really knowing wbat I needed from it, or what I could do for it. I just felt depressed because it was so difficult, I thought, to find fresh subjects for stories. I hate to think what kind of writer I would have become (for I would have gone on writing) if I had not been put inside."(10) The break with his outlook as a young man seemed absolute.

Nikita Khrushchev, whose power base in the Soviet Union was far from secure, gave the final decision for One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich to be published, creating the impression that new liberalisations of the regime were on the way and thus making use of a valuable political tactic. Solzhenitsyn became a national celebrity within the USSR, praised lavishly by party propagandists. Within a few years, Khrushchev had been removed, Solzhenitsyn's manuscripts had been confiscated by the KGB and he lived under the threat of imminent arrest, all his works were banned in the Soviet Union. There began an extraordinarily courageous period of public criticism and defiance of the regime by Solzhenitsyn, culminating with his arrest and deportation to the West in 1974. During the brief period of his official acceptance in Russia he had toned down his novels Cancer Ward and The First Circle, removing some of the specifically anti-Leninist passages. Criticism of the Stalin years was possible under Khrushchev, while an attack on Leninism itself, of course, was not. Soizhenitsyn hoped to publish these books in the Soviet Union in this way, believing that the truth about the past would emerge gradually. It was in this modified form that the novels appeared in the West, thus helping to foster the illusion in left-wing circles, which clung to the idea of the revolution as a positive progressive event in history, while regretting the betrayal of the revolution by Stalin, that Solzhenitsyn somehow shared an ideological common ground with them.(11) This however, was a view of things which Solzhenitsyn had finally left behind long ago during the body searches conducted in sub-zero temperatures by concentration camp guards.

It was an intellectual and intuitive triumph of Solzhenitsyn's to grasp the fact that the large scale repression and genocide of the Stalin regime had already been created in embryonic form by Lenin and Trotsky. The gulag or concentration camp system with its tens of millions of victims, the widespread torture practised by the secret police and the totalitarian hysteria of the Soviet Union had their psychological roots in Lenin's ideological insistence that, our morality is entirely subordinated to the interest of the class struggle of the proletariat ... Morality is that which serves to destroy the old exploiting society and to unite all the toilers around the proletariat which is creating a new communist society'.(12)

The Bolsheviks had set up a secular religion, which like the English Rule of Saints was a military despotism enlivened by witchcraft trials', as Orwell unforgettably described it. From this ideology, as from Hitler's ideology, the concentration camps naturally grew - all methods were justified ideologically, any method could be used in reality in order to advance an historical process interpreted and defined by the party, the authority of which was not to be challenged.(13) The fullest and clearest expression of this understanding of events is in The Gulag Archipelago, which Solzhenitsyn realised could never be published in the Soviet Union. The Gulag Archipelago is a mixture of fine documentary journalism and autobiography, a compelling statement of facts and beliefs and interpretations, but not an artistic demonstration of them. It is Solzhenitsyn's failure as a writer that, unlike Dostoyevsky or Orwell, he could not integrate his most important political insights into a major work of art.

The Gulag Archipelago, however, was finished in 1968, it sums up, as I have indicated, the values which had grown out of Solzhenitsyn's ordeal in the camps, yet even as he was finishing it, his thinking began to change. The following year he once again took up the project of writing a long series of novels on the years leading up to 1917 and its aftermath which he had planned as a young student. This series is called The Red Wheel and Solzhenitsyn has been working on the novels which make up the series simultaneously over the last twenty years. The first, August 1914 was published in 1971 and another volume Lenin in Zurich appeared in 1976. A much expanded and revised version of August 1914 appeared in English in 1989.

The feeling which most readers coming from Solzhenitsyn's earlier work to these books are likely to have is one of disappointment and shock to the point of disbelief. The characters are embarrassingly contrived caricatures, whether they are set up as mouthpieces for, or opponents of Solzhenitsyn's beliefs. He quite fails to bring the historical figures to life on the page and intrudes his own mostly banal comments into the narrative in the most crude way. A Tsarist officer is called |a noble knight', there is a hideous portrayal of an uncorrupte& young peasant soldier, loyal and pure, an argument between a spoilt young woman with revolutionary beliefs and a professional engineer which is contrived and lifeless, a mere dramatised polemic ... Worst of all are the chapters devoted to Pyotr Stolypin, the Russian Prime Minister assassinated in 1911, whom Solzhenitsyn admires with frantic intensity and lack of reserve. Stolypin is |a fine figure of a man', Solthenitsyn tells us as he describes a session of the Russian parliament, whereas one of his opponents is |some socialist windbag'. The whole impression is one of a terrible lack of depth, an absence of imagination, a polemical urge replacing the subtlety and awareness of contradictions and ambiguities which are essential to all worthwhile fiction. The novels of The Red Wheel series are reminiscent of the political formula fiction approved by the Soviet regime. Thus Lenin in Zurich is a mirror image of so many adulatory Soviet depictions of Lenin - naive and wooden glorification has been replaced by Solzhenitsyn by naive and wooden denunciation.

In Solzhenitsyn's earlier work Marxist ideology had been received on the basis of tolerance, scepticism and the nond-doctrinaire apllication of ethical values. But the Solzhenitsyn of The Red Wheel novels is no longer in touch with that ethical vision, instead he is the proponent of a rival political ideology. In that ideology or hierarchy of ikons and demons, Stolypin has replaced Lenin as the principal deity. This point can hardly be overstated - Marxism-leninism depends on the deification of political leaders, the ideology of the later Solzhenitsyn depends on essentially the same approach. Solzhenitsyn's position is neither |right' nor |left' in the Western sense, he can best be described as belonging to the Slavophile tradition of the 19th century, a tradition which celebrates ancient Russian values and the Orthodox Church with a taste for authoritarian governments and a hostility to all forms of liberalism and humanism. In Solzhenitsyn this has been combined with the values of his mother's family which might be collectively termed patriotic commercid energy and initiative. It is Stolypin who combines and exemplifies all these qualities and it is Stolypin - a secular messiah who died, as did that other secular messiah, Lenin, with his work unfinished - whom Solzhenitsyn now worships. The texture of the Stolypin chapters of August 1914, demonstrate, I think, that worship is not too strong aword. It is fascinating to read in the preface to the expanded version of August 1914 by the translator, Harry T. Willetts, that some of the chapters in the novel were written by Solzhenitsyn in 1937 and have been included basically unchanged in the text published four decades later.

Orwell wrote that the career of most novelists can be seen as a parabola: |Joyce has to start with the frigid competence of Dubliners and end with the dream language of Finnegans Wake but Ulysses and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man are part of the trajectory'.(14) The same is true, to an almost painfully evident extent, of Solzhenitsyn. The young student and army officer, rather after the tradition of the Russian Orthodox Church worshipped an ikon - the ikon was called Lenin. Under the pressure of imprisonment, exile and severe disease, Solzhenitsyn produced fine and enduring fiction. He became, not a man who wonshipped an ikon, but the chronicler of the latrine bucket, the punishment cell and the cancer ward and the power of human endurance and generosity to transcend such things. Later, as the prison years receded, the ikon returned, only this time it is called Stolypin.

It must be added that despite terrible pressures and enormous temptations, Solzhenitsyn has never compromised with any extemal force. His artistic decline has been a wholly internal phenomenon. The case of Solzhenitsyn is an important one because it is that of a political prisoner, dissident and persecuted writer, celebrated and triumphant world figure, encompassing five decades of artistic and psychological development. Solzhenitsyn's career will remain relevant as a constant reminder of human potential and human limitations. Far beyond this, Ivan Denisovich and Cancer Ward will endure as demonstrations that the degradation of the latrine bucket and the communal cell can be overcome, not by faith in this or tbat political ikon, but by humour and generosity and by a tenacious hold on the primal decencies and basic sanity of human life.


(1.) The Gulag Archipelago. Part 1, chapter 5. (2.) As late as January 5, 1975, Lord Home wrote of the common ground between Tory philosophy and the ideas of Solzhenitsyn in |The lesson we could learn from this man out of chains' in The Sunday Express. (3.) The paperback edition of Giovanni Grazzini's Solzhenitsyn (1973), referred to the subject's |devotion to Leninism'. Francis Barker from a left wing standpoint approved of Solzhenitsyn's earlier novels, as did most left wing intellectuals and newspapers. For Francis Barker, see below (No. 11). Solzhenitsyn's story Zakhar the Pouch was included in the left wing anthology: For Freedom: Theirs and Ours introduced by Michael Foot (1968). (4.) Specifically, the speeches in Washington to the American Federation of Labor/ Congress of Industrial Organisations published in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Speaks to the West, and the BBC TV and Radio 3 interview and broadcasts in 1976 published in Warning to the Western World (Bodley Head). (5.) See Solzhenitsyn: A Biography (1984) by Michael Scammell and Burg & Feifer, Solzhenitsyn (1972) as well as almost all the autobiographical passages in the novels, especially The First Circle. (6.) See Scammell as above (No. 5) as well as the early chapters of The Gulag Archipelago. (7.) Martin Seymour-Smith, Fifty European Novels (1979), the best short critical account of Solzhenitsyn's first novel in English. For an account of his religious conversion, see The Gulag Archipelago, Part 4. (8.) See Michael Scammell, Solzhenitsyn, Epilogue. (9.) The Gulag Archipetago, Part 4, chapter 1. (10.) The Oak and the Calf, A Memoir. (11.) Solzhenitsyn: Politics and Form by Francis Barker (1977) attempts to trace the development and evolution of Solzhenitsyn' ideas, but only in (Marxist) ideological terms. (12.) Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 17, pp.321-3 and in the selection On Religion (Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1965). (13.) Orwell, Collected Essays, |Wells, Hitler and the World State'. (14.) Orwell, Collected Essays, |Charles Dickens'.
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Title Annotation:analysis of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's novels
Author:James, Anthony
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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