03 August 2008

Road to Moscow

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918–2008) died earlier today at 89 in Moscow. Most major papers have printed stories with roughly the same slugline: that his writings made the world aware of the "problems" of communism in the Soviet Union. So sayeth the International Herald-Tribune, the Washington Post, The Times (London), even The Guardian, to list just a few English-language dailies.

What an ignorant load of bollocks — both among the papers and among the populace.

Solzhenitsyn was an influential writer. However, he was at least as influential for the fact of his exile as for his writings. Further, he was hardly the first writer to tell the West of the tyranny of the Soviet version of communism; he was beaten to the punch (in the West) by Orwell, Koestler, and Pasternak, to name just three others. Had people been paying more attention, perhaps other mistakes could have been avoided, and not just concerning the Soviet Union. What Solzhenitsyn really did demonstrate was a willingness to criticize what he saw as wrong with even reformed Russian government: A refusal to settle for "slightly better" when "significantly better" was achievable. His criticism of problems in the West during his exile and his continued criticism of problems in post-Soviet Russia after his return in 1994 at least demonstrate that he continued to pay attention to his surroundings (even as his opinions became disturbingly close to ultranationalist).

Then, too, there was that pesky Nobel Prize in Literature to consider, regardless of the questionable provenance of that prize's awards. But he wasn't even the first Soviet writer to decline to travel to accept the award due to fear he would not be allowed back in the country — Pasternak beat him to that dubious achievement. Nonetheless, it's quite curious that he is best known among those other than literary scholars for a long work of nonfiction published well after he won that Nobel prize: The Gulag Archipelago. Although it is a much more accessible work, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich does not have the same credibility with the casual reader, even though it (as an avowed work of fiction) is in many senses "truer" than the illusorily comprehensive and factual Archipelago.