Monday, August 4, 2008

Alexander Solzhenitsyn - His Prophetic Role

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

The great Russian writer, Alexander Solzhenitsyn died yesterday at his home near Moscow. He was eighty-nine years old. One could make a very powerful argument that he was the most important writer of the 20th c. This, because he wrote with the intensity and daring of a prophet in opposition to the Soviet Union's totalitarian regime. Solzhenitsyn exposed, through his novels and his investigative and historical accounts, the Soviet Union's hidden slave labor camps, known by the acronym "the gulag." In fact, his most enduring work is entitled The Gulag Archipelago. This massive three-volume work, over 300,000 words in length, is an unrivaled denunciation of the Soviet Union's repression of any and all political dissent. It chronicles in great detail the lives of countless men and women who were subjected to long and undeserved sentences in the Gulag. His goal was to be the "living memory" of these innocent victims. When this work was first published in the West, the Soviet authorities reacted by branding him a "traitor" and having Solzhenitsyn expelled from the country in 1976. He eventually settled in Vermont where he continued on another massive work, which was an historical treatment of the Russian Revolution in the form of a trilogy of novels. His earlier novels, of high literary merit, include One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The First Circle and Cancer Ward. Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970. His acceptance speech was a stirring description of the writer's deep commitment to truth. He is credited, together with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, as being one of a triumvirate who helped "bring down" the Soviet regime in the late 20th century. But he was the one who knew this from the inside, as a victim of this regime, and he paid the highest price.

He was an uneasy guest here in America, because he denounced the "vulgar materialism" of the West, and what he perceived to be the cowardice of the West in only weakly opposing the world's various communist regimes. He did this rather boldly in a famous Address to Harvard graduates in 1978. The Western press turned on him, and though he was grudgingly considered a courageous dissident, he was essentially ignored from that time onward. Rather misunderstood, he was labeled a "monarchist" and "political reactionary." President Ford, on the advice of Henry Kissinger refused to meet with him even though he was the Soviet Union's most virulent and effective critic. He returned to his beloved Russia following the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991. His influence there slowly waned, as he seemed to be out of touch with a younger generation that sought to forget the past, and move on to a more materialistic style of life in post-communist Russia. His legacy may suffer because of that, but he is always mentioned together with Russia's great writers such as Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekov and Pasternak, whose use of the written word was appreciated as a gift - and hence their role as writers to be a vocation to reveal the truth about life - more than as a means of entertainment. Solzhenitsyn was a believing Orthodox Christian, and while in Vermont, his spiritual director was Fr. Alexander Schmemann (+1983), the former dean of St. Vladimir's Orthodox Seminary. Fr. Schmemann admired him greatly, but they clearly had their disagreements as recorded in Fr. Alexander's published journals.

Here is a striking example of a lone, single voice - "the voice of one crying in the wilderness" - standing up to a murderous regime with incredible courage and resolve. The pressure on him to either conform or be silent must have been nearly unendurable, as he and his family suffered through numerous death threats from the KGB. Only his notoriety in the West saved him from disappearing again (he had earlier served an eight year prison sentence for mildly criticizing Stalin in a letter) into a Soviet labor camp. Such a stance remains deeply encouraging, because ultimately, people still want to hear the truth, especially when it is boldly spoken by someone who is willing to suffer for that truth. The many criticisms that he may have to accept as an uncompromising, flawed human being seem to be insignificant in comparison to his role as a prophet-like writer who denounced the suppression of freedom and truth for the sake of all ideologies that sought to dehumanize human beings created "in the image and likeness of God." Memory Eternal!

Fr. Steven

Related Links:

Wikipedia Entry for Solzhenitsyn
Solzhenitsyn's 1978 Harvard Address

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