LI bought the NYT in Ohare yesterday, and the first thing we thought about Solzhenitsyn’s death is – no headline? Truly, we survivors of the Cold War are slowly being forgotten.
Of course, I figured the obituary would be cast in the usual triumphal anti-communist speak. For liberals, Solzhenitsyn posed problems that weren’t apparent at the time the Gulag Archipelago came out. Liberals expect that the exposers of systems, the revealers of mass murder, will be liberals. For a liberal like myself, the Medvedev brothers were the perfect dissidents. Solzhenitsyn, on the other hand, was obviously a reactionary of a certain type – as Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a socialist legislator in France, impoliticly pointed out. But no one is made to be a hero for all occasions. Solzhenitsyn, supporter of the U.S. in the Vietnam war, supporter of Pinochet and nuclear missiles, was politically a disaster. But this doesn’t discredit what he did. That the Soviet government of the Brezhnev era felt that their regime in its entirety was discredited by the Gulag was a sign of their senility and coming fall. However wild Khruschev was, he was right that the only way forward was to thoroughly air out the crimes of the Stalin era. Of course, no country likes to do this. Rightwingers will come up with the most absurd justifications for slavery and apartheid – the British have never reckoned with the crimes of Queen Victoria’s reign, although the terror famines in India are surely the template for Stalin’s policies in the 1930s, just as the concentration camps in the Soviet Union started out in imitation of the French and British penal systems - if one wants to find the roots of mass murder in the Soviet Union, it is pretty easy to find them in the imperialist and penal systems developed by the Europeans and the Americans in the 19th century. Solzhenitsyn's notion that it all sprang from the French revolution is sadly deluded.
Still, one can’t measure the moral import of the denunciation by the moral character of the denouncer – the best denunciation of the British policy of letting Irish die in the potato famine was written by John Mitchel, who valiantly tried to overthrow British rule and was sent to Australia as a political prisoner. But later in his life, Mitchel, escaping to the U.S., became an ardent racist and defender of the Confederacy.
What does get me about the obits is the obligatory comparison to Tolstoy. Solzhenitsyn was never more the Stalinist bred than his notion that to be a great writer, he had to imitate Tolstoy – a notion he shared with Sholakov. In reality, Solzhenitsyn’s politics were nothing like Tolstoy’s – imagine the defender of the Doukhbors and the Chicago anarchists making a defense of the U.S. in the Vietnam war! Solzhenitsyn’s politics were much closer to those of the Holy Synod, who excommunicated Tolstoy in 1901.
Perhaps I should read the proverbially unreadable Red Wheel for my investigation into alienated reactionaries. The Gulag by pure coincidence, sounded in parts like Celine getting in a lather. There is an image in it of being shoved into a pipe, the interior of which is lined with sharp hooks that was so close to Celine... hmm, let’s see if I can find that on the Net...
“The exceptional character which written and oral legend nowadays assigns to the year 1937 is seen in the creation of fabricated charges and tortures. But this is untrue, wrong. Throughout the years and decades, interrogations under Article 58 were almost never undertaken to elicit the truth, but were simply an exercise in an inevitably filthy procedure: someone who had been free only a little while before, who was sometimes proud and always unprepared, was to be bend and pushed through a narrow pipe where his sides would be torn by iron hooks and where he could not breathe, so that he would finally pray to get to the other end. And at the other end, he would be shoved out, an already processed native of the Archipelago, already in the promised land. (The fool would keep on resisting! He even thought there was a way back out of the pipe).”
I don’t know if it is my imagination, but it seems like the cheering even on the right about Solzhenitsyn is muted. Perhaps it is the embrace of Putin – how funny! They loved him when he praised Pinochet, but Putin – because America needs a new cold war, god damn it – has cast old Solzhenitsyn out of the club. But Putin and Solzhenitsyn were bound to converge - the ex KGB chief and the chief denouncer of the KGB.