Solzhenitsyn’s History Lesson

Solzhenitsyn’s History Lesson

Knowledge of Khrushchev’s reaction cited above is personal; he was the author’s grandfather.


The notion that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is the most tragic figure of twentieth-century Russia has become a cliché. A man ennobled by suffering, whose courage and unique experience made him “a moral compass for the nation,” has been consumed by that same suffering. At the age of 80, Aleksandr Isaevich has become a living shell for his former artistic and political splendor. For a writer with real gifts, such a fate is tragic indeed.

In Russia, once you are “god” (a martyr, a czar, a president), you remain so forever. To step away from the spotlight in your lifetime, to recognize your limits, is something few Russians have been able to master. Ever since the publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in the early sixties, and more so after The Gulag Archipelago appeared in the West a decade later, Solzhenitsyn has stood as the most monumental, respected, even revered figure in contemporary Russian culture. The injustice of his being unable to receive his Nobel Prize in Literature in person (it was awarded in 1970) and his final expulsion from his homeland in 1974 made him also a historical figure of global importance.

After two years in Europe he moved to the United States, where the snows and birches of Vermont reminded the exiled writer of his native Russia. So great was the author’s desire to preserve his Russianness that he surrounded himself with a tall fence and refused to deal with America and the world altogether. The great icon of Russia’s samizdat dissident movement, aware of this powerful responsibility to remain “great,” was afraid to corrupt and Westernize his unique and mysterious Russian soul. This vanity and contempt for the outside world was revenged by fate–The Red Wheel, a four-part fictional work, which Solzhenitsyn spent almost all his exile writing, is sadly little more than a crank’s mausoleum within which his Nobel Prize-worthy talent has been interred.

Solzhenitsyn’s great gift was in witness. His best works are essentially autobiographical. The First Circle (which was circulated in clandestine form in 1966) came out of the author’s experience as a mathematician in a group attached to the scientific research institute of the secret police during his early postwar imprisonment. The gulag camp for political prisoners in which he found himself some years later became the setting for One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (published in the literary journal Novy Mir in 1962). In internal exile in Tashkent he was stricken with stomach cancer; having survived radiation treatments, he employed the hospital as setting for Cancer Ward (circulated clandestinely in 1966). Finally, monumentally, in 1973 The Gulag Archipelago appeared, topping them all with its great artistic truth. In Solzhenitsyn’s own words, “In this book there are no fictitious persons, nor fictitious events,” but the result nonetheless was infinitely powerful literature.

When in the early seventies the still-unpublished Gulag secretly circulated in Moscow, the retired Nikita Khrushchev, who had vigorously supported the first publication of Ivan Denisovich while still in power, read the manuscript. Khrushchev was pleased to see the righteousness of his political battle for de-Stalinization confirmed by great art. However, his wife, Nina Petrovna, refused to finish the book after glancing through only a few chapters. Her reasoning was, “It cannot be true. If it were true we wouldn’t be alive now.” Even knowing many of Stalin’s acts at first hand, she could not accept the artistic account of those crimes; such was the power of Solzhenitsyn’s incredible talent.

But being a witness was not enough for him; the temptation to be a prophet was too overwhelming. At hand was a topic more important than his own life: Russia. And in 1971 the world witnessed the appearance of August 1914, the first part, or “Knot” (a historical turning point), of The Red Wheel, a story of how the wheel of history brought Russia to the Communist Revolution.

This attempt was great and promising. Although the novel was not easy to follow, its rough and uneven style was compensated for through its presentation of a dramatically new interpretation of Russian history. Inspired by the example of Jesus in the desert, Aleksandr Isaevich sacrificed worldliness for the cause: While isolating himself in Vermont, he began to convey a great historical and fictional revelation of his country’s misfortunes. But the artificial, hermetic environment of the mountains of New England produced an equally artificial pre-revolutionary Russia. When the long-awaited four Knots of The Red Wheel were finally published in Russia in the nineties, one Moscow writer noted, “In our time you just can’t live and write in a vacuum. He may be great, but for another time and another generation.”

First, the cycle is hard to track. The abundance of characters with their separate lives seems random. Their only connection is Russia circa 1914 or 1916. But instead of being intertwined in one artistic knot, as Tolstoy would have managed, they appear as unlinked, parallel layers. Colonel Georgi Vorotyntsev’s is the main line in the novel, meant to combine the world of war and the world of peace, the capitals Saint Petersburg and Moscow. Vorotyntsev’s disillusionment in the army, his complicated love life, his connections with Guchkov, the prerevolutionary Duma president, and other politicians, do portray a picture of Russia in its variety, but they fail to cement the story. There are also ideas in the novel that to many seem out of touch with historical reality. For instance, the importance Solzhenitsyn attributes to the zemstvo–the nineteenth/early-twentieth-century institution that tied peasant communities to local and regional authorities–in Russia’s fate appears implausible. Although we have Russian examples in which the most nonsensical characters (as in Gogol) or unconventional ideas (as with Nabokov) are still brilliantly convincing, this is because of a great artistic style, lacking in Solzhenitsyn.

This is the area in which Solzhenitsyn fails completely, in fact. His desire to conserve the untouched, “authentic” Russian language strongly affects his writing and leaves it clotted with dense passages. It should come as little surprise, then, that the English edition of November 1916 is far smoother stylistically than its Russian original. In the spirit of another of the author’s ambitious projects, the Russian Dictionary of the Expansion of Language, in which the least-used words are to be reflected rather than the most common ones, all Knots of The Red Wheel are written in an almost contemptuously unreadable style. Indeed, in the introduction to November 1916 the author warns us, “I was reluctant to burden my book and the reader with the verbosity, indeed the empty verbiage, the redundancies, the irrelevancies, and the wishy-washiness so often characteristic of these utterances.”

Although the concern Solzhenitsyn expresses refers to specific parts of narrative set in smaller type, which present either historical background or stenographic records of speeches and meetings, one can’t help fearing that forcing his way through “verbosities and irrelevancies” has become this writer’s purpose, his destiny. The reader’s gravest suspicion is confirmed when, after conquering the introduction, he/she reaches the book’s actual contents. To have every narrative development of the story stated in a chapter description is familiar to us as a nineteenth-century form abandoned in modern fiction. But Solzhenitsyn, the Solzhenitsyn who shocked the world with the verisimilitude of Ivan Denisovich and the reality of The Gulag Archipelago, is in The Red Wheel above space and out of time.

Reading those chapter headings, I hoped they would reveal some great import behind them. If the description of Chapter 19 takes a page and a half, there should be some profound meaning underpinning it all. According to the author there is: The chapter was supposed to contain a never-written August 1915 Knot. But the subject was obviously too big for a book chapter, and has only resulted in a very long, very boring narration in small print. Solzhenitsyn himself admits in the introduction that “only selfless readers” would “follow us so far into the past.” I was trying to be one of those selfless readers but discovered that it takes more than mere selflessness to read this; it takes martyrdom. Consider the following:

Sanya took a big jump and hung from the edge of the trench, dirtying himself against its clay walls, then hauled himself out onto the grass, and strode boldly off to get to his warm bunker, dry out, and eat something hot as soon as possible. It was a relief not to be humiliatingly churning up mud in a hole but walking as befits a human being.

The worst sort of Socialist Realist was capable of such passages. Here, poetic components are present: alliteration of j’s, g’s and h’s show the uncomfortability of Sanya’s position. “Himself,” “humiliatingly,” “human,” indicate the innocence of the young man subordinated to the conditions of war. But the effect of such balanced construction is lost because it doesn’t connect the word with the feeling it is supposed to evoke.

In many accounts of Solzhenitsyn’s life, in articles and memoirs about him, people who know him personally mention that he was a knizhnik, a bookman, one who trusted books for experience more than he trusted life. Maybe after the horrible years spent in the gulag it was only normal to hide away from life’s troubles. But according to Nabokov, inarguably a great literary authority and acclaimed stylist, “In a first-rate work of fiction the real clash is…between the author and the world” (Speak, Memory). Thus, the artist cannot afford to shut himself off. Solzhenitsyn knows all the artistic devices to employ, but, sadly, his words stay empty, surprisingly unable to shape images:

The whole world was completely invisible. No Stwolowicze, and no Yushkevichi, with its white churches. No Poland. No Russia. No Germany. Under the invisible cloud-wrapped dark depth of the sky–nothing, just one man.

Significant words and striking phrases are used here in vain. They don’t produce a live, sensitive picture of a lonely man in the plain of war but leave just a dull impression, as in another example, even better:

In twenty years of life and struggle Lenin had experienced every kind of opponent–the haughtily ironical, the sarcastic, the sly, the base, the obstinate, the persistent, not to mention the spluttering-rhetorical, the quixotic, the effete, the slow-witted, the lachrymose, and other miscellaneous shits.

In fairness, the book is not without trenchant observations and well-written pages. For example, the inner monologues of both the Emperor and the Empress are constructed in a clever way and are not only revelatory of their characters but show how their personalities influenced the soon-to-come revolution. But the modest number of stirring passages is not what we expect from a literary personage of Solzhenitsyn’s caliber. The moving passages get lost in the ocean of opaque verbiage, and the novel presents itself as one dull surface without sparkly waves or sunny reflections. Solzhenitsyn’s style would be best described by the good Russian word veshchat (to pontificate).

The writer majestically pontificates with little respect for the reader, regardless of one’s attention, interest or the necessity of the narrative itself. His czarlike and prophetic utterances–“Art demands distillation of actuality”–and his referral to himself in the third-person as “the author” and “he” sound frighteningly above humanity. Jesus did go to the desert to acquire truth, but he was God, after all. Solzhenitsyn (because it was so harshly earned) had a better chance at prophecy than many others, but the sad truth is that humans rarely forgive pontification in other human beings.

When Aleksandr Isaevich returned to Russia in 1994 after twenty years of exile, he was greeted as a saint, a martyr, almost God himself. He was considered the hope of the people in general, as well as of the new post-Communist regime. He was expected to enlighten, to lead, to explain. Yeltsin and Gorbachev, democrats and Communists, nationalists and socialists, met with him to learn from the great man’s wisdom. His collected works came out, all his articles and essays were published. He was given any tribute he desired, was asked to anchor a TV and a radio show. Russia finally proved wrong the famous maxim that a prophet is not honored in his homeland. The country had its prophet back and respectfully clung to his every word. They waited for his words, either on TV screens or in books, with breathless eagerness.

Grave disappointment ensued. I don’t know anyone who failed to switch to another channel when Solzhenitsyn was veshchat in his weekly programs, or was able to get through the writer’s bookish and dead style. After a year or so both the TV and the radio show were canceled. Aleksandr Isaevich accused the media authorities of antipatriotism and conspiracy, but, to tell the truth, his public appearances were boring, declaratory and uninformative. After Ivan Denisovich, The Gulag Archipelago and Cancer Ward, the great man had lots of words but nothing to say.

That tragedy is visible on the page once more. Instead of becoming an immortal monument to Solzhenitsyn’s literary glory, The Red Wheel as a whole, including November 1916, is a doleful gravestone for his self-buried but once obviously immense talent.

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