Book Reviews - Winter 2019

Enigma From the East

A Soviet émigré’s never-ending battle to be understood

By Gary Saul Morson | December 3, 2018
Solzhenitsyn speaks to reporters in West Germany in February 1974, shortly after his expulsion from the Soviet Union. (Wikimedia Commons)
Solzhenitsyn speaks to reporters in West Germany in February 1974, shortly after his expulsion from the Soviet Union. (Wikimedia Commons)

Between Two Millstones: Book I, Sketches of Exile, 1974–1978 by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn; translated by Peter Constantine; University of Notre Dame Press, 480 pp., $35

In February 1974, the Soviet Union stripped its best-known writer, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, of his citizenship and exiled him to the West. Solzhenitsyn, taking up temporary residence in Switzerland, was confident he knew two things: what the West was like and how his planned novels about the Russian Revolution would unfold. As this first volume of his memoirs demonstrates, he turned out to be wrong about both. An enemy of the Soviet regime, he soon discovered that the culture of the West was also alien to his sensibility. He was caught “between two millstones.”

Another exiled Russian writer, Anatoly Kuznetsov, cautioned Solzhenitsyn against becoming involved in public life too quickly. He needed to acculturate gradually, Kuznetsov explained, the way a deep-sea diver must surface in stages, or he would experience a cultural equivalent of the bends. And that is just what happened.

In the present, well-translated volume, which includes a fine introduction by our foremost Solzhenitsyn scholar, Daniel J. Mahoney, Solzhenitsyn recounts his first years in the West. As a Nobel Prize winner who had been defended by Western intellectuals, he assumed that these educated people would want to know what he had to say. He soon learned that they could not imagine how his different experiences might lead him to see the world differently. Pigeonholing all he said into their own, ready-made political categories, they could not or would not understand him.

When they discovered he was neither a socialist nor a Western-style democrat, intellectuals mistook him for a Western-style conservative. Sure of their own sophistication, they could not grasp that the experience of communism, the Gulag, the Soviet army, and state-enforced atheism might have led Solzhenitsyn to valuable insights that transcended Western categories. Almost everything he said was misinterpreted, and Solzhenitsyn constantly experienced “bewilderment.”

Solzhenitsyn was dumbfounded when, in 1974, The New York Times labeled him a reactionary, a nationalist, and an enemy of democracy. Once he arrived in the West, he published his originally secret “Letter to Soviet Leaders,” written in the vain hope that Russia’s rulers would seriously consider his advice. He urged not an immediate transition to Western-style parliamentary rule but a transitional period in which Russians would become accustomed to the rule of law and respect for the rights of others. A cultural change was needed for democracy to be sustainable. Solzhenitsyn’s study of Russia’s nine-month failed experiment with democracy in 1917 made him recognize “the insane attempt at transforming our country to democracy in a single leap.” History has vindicated him: the rapid failure of Russia’s experiment with democracy in the 1990s led, as he predicted, to a new authoritarianism.

Solzhenitsyn was appalled at the Western assumption that life is about the individual pursuit of happiness, which in practice meant materialism.

When Solzhenitsyn called for gradual change to democracy and observed in his 1974 “Letter to Soviet Leaders” that “it is not authoritarianism itself that is intolerable, but … arbitrariness and illegality,” Western journalists gasped. When he castigated the shallowness of reporters, they accused him of opposing a free press. And when they discovered he had embraced Russian Orthodox Christianity, and hoped for a Russian spiritual rebirth, they called him a dangerous, perhaps fascistic nationalist. This charge particularly mystified Solzhenitsyn because in his “Letter” he recommended that Russia give up its domination over Eastern Europe and let the “peripheral nations” of the Soviet Union go their own way: “Let us find the strength, sense, and courage to put our own house in order before we busy ourselves with the cares of the entire planet.” What sort of nationalist calls for his country to give up its empire?

Solzhenitsyn was appalled at the Western assumption that life is about the individual pursuit of happiness, which in practice meant a materialism “that was eclipsing all spirituality.” He saw hedonistic Europeans growing less and less able to make personal sacrifices, even to defend themselves. They confused what was legal with what was moral. When still in Russia, he had instructed that royalties from sales of The Gulag Archipelago be used to help people persecuted by the Soviets, and now discovered that since he had not executed the proper documents, he was, in the eyes of the Swiss government, a tax delinquent!

“I was torn by the never-ending battle within me,” Solzhenitsyn explains, “to write or do battle?” He decided that writing was more important. Above all, he wanted to finish The Red Wheel, his multivolume novel about the revolution. Here, too, he encountered surprises. Solzhenitsyn discovered damning new material in Zurich, where Lenin had lived in exile, that altered his view of the Bolshevik leader. He also changed his mind about Tsar Nicholas II, the Russian radical movement, and the reformist minister Peter Stolypin, and so decided he had to rewrite the first novel of the series, August 1914, which had first been published in 1971. Since the new material did not fit into the old form, he had to experiment. The result was the longer and more intricate 1983 edition, which proved more interesting from a strictly literary point of view.

Research at the Hoover Institution at Stanford caused an even greater “shift in my thinking that I did not expect.” Solzhenitsyn had accepted the conventional view that the February 1917 revolution established democracy, which the Bolsheviks abolished eight months later. But he soon discerned “baseness, meanness, [and] hypocrisy” in the leaders of the provisional government, along with “suppression of other thinking people. … The most educated people, who up to that point were so bitterly opposed to arbitrary rule, now turned cowardly and fell silent or lied.”

Solzhenitsyn again encountered a formal problem. Any coherent account of this period was bound to mislead because from day to day, even from hour to hour, people did not know what was going on and mistook false rumors for facts. Struggling with “an intense search for … form,” he developed ways to narrate events as people experienced them. Usual narrative forms presume the author knows the outcome and significance of incidents, but Solzhenitsyn wanted readers to experience the chaos of lived moments. So he “invented new genres” able to capture radical presentness—the throb of events that might have led anywhere. Only then could the Bolshevik seizure of power be understood.

To understand his own choices and those made by historical figures, Solzhenitsyn grasped that he must repeatedly discern “the path not taken.” Reading these memoirs, we too experience events as they were unfolding for the author. We sense the choices he might have made and later regretted not making. As in his novels, we put our fingers on the pulse of history.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Comments powered by Disqus