Solzhenitsyn: A Prophet Honored in His Own Country, but Not in the U.S. Media

“It is very grievous that Pushkin's thought, that 'we can love only the dead,' is confirmed when geniuses pass away.”

-- Russian cultural ambassador Mikhail Shvydkoi, on the death of Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

Sunday saw the death of a truly great man.  Alexander Solzhenitsyn was a literary genius, an indomitable patriot and a cultural critic of the highest order.  He was indispensable in ending probably the bloodiest and certainly one of the most evil regimes in history. 

In his masterpieces, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn revealed the inhumanity and moral poverty of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.  In Ivan Denisovich, Solzhenitsyn focused in great detail on a single prisoner, enabling the world to taste for itself the bitter, frozen horror routinely inflicted by the communists on innocent men.  In Gulag Archipelago he documented the mind-boggling scale of the communist oppression, which killed tens of millions of innocent victims and enslaved tens of millions more.  With his pen Solzhenitsyn shattered communism's greatest claim to legitimacy, its myth of moral supremacy.  Deprived of its moral justification, the communist regime had no claim to power other than brute force. It wasn't enough. 

Solzhenitsyn viewed himself as a prophet, and he confronted and condemned evil wherever he found it.  His greatness is being acknowledged around the world and particularly in Russia:

    The Times (London): “He was the conscience of a nation whose writings exposed the horrors of the Communist Gulag and galvanised Russian opposition to the tyranny of the Soviet Union.”

    The Age (Melbourne): “…a man who turned novel writing into a force for freedom.”

    Agence France Presse: “He toiled obsessively to unearth the darkest secrets of Stalinist rule and his work ultimately dealt a crippling blow to the Soviet Union's authority.”

    Russian politician Sergei Mitrokhin: “The books by Solzhenitsyn excruciated Stalinism as a dominant ideology in the former Soviet Union….”

    Russian historian Roy Medvedev: “In my life his novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich … caused quite an upheaval.  But a turnover in the thoughts and opinions occurred not only in my head but also in the whole intellectual world.  Writers, workers of science, the arts and representatives of intelligentsia started looking at the surrounding world without rose-colored spectacles.”

    Tass: “Alexander Solzhenitsyn's contribution to the political, public and cultural life of this country is immeasurable.  His name spelled in gold letters has gone down in Russian and world history and the history of the human rights movement.”

Solzhenitsyn is beloved in Russia for driving a stake through the heart of the Soviet tyranny, but his death has provoked a distinctly colder response in the American press.

The Los Angeles Times obituary left me scratching my head.  “Hailed as Russia's greatest living writer, [Solzhenitsyn]…won back his citizenship and the respect of his fellow Russians after the collapse of the Soviet Union.”  “Won back” their respect?  For decades before the Soviet Union fell, the man was idolized by his countrymen.   

More from the LA Times: “He saw the Soviet Union as cruel and suffocating 'under the malevolent and unyielding nature of communism.'” He “saw?”  Does the LA Times think Solzhenitsyn was mistaken about the Soviet despotism? 

Finally, this stinging slap: “His image as the conscience of Communist-ruled Russia dimmed after his repatriation and his diatribes on the denigration of his nation that were at times tainted with paranoia, anti-Semitism and bigotry.” 

National Public Radio gave short shrift to Solzhenitsyn's massive accomplishments. Much of NPR's airtime went instead to sneering at his late work, The Red Wheel, as a “dreadful falling-off of Solzhenitsyn's literary talent.” NPR warned darkly that “critics said it revealed a deep, anti-liberal bias,” and “fueled suspicions that Solzhenitsyn…had a problem with Jews.”

Anti-Semitism is an explosive accusation, especially in an obituary where the deceased cannot defend himself, even more so when the evidence for it is questionable.  Why so much hostility?  Because Solzhenitsyn the prophet confronted evil where he found it, including in the United States, and what he identified as evil in America was profoundly disturbing to the left.  His commencement address at Harvard in 1978 was a powerful indictment of elitist liberalism. 

Solzhenitsyn addressed the West's “decline in courage,” especially among “the ruling groups and intellectual elites.”  He cited by name a leading American diplomat who advocated “unilateral disarmament” rather than standing up to the challenge from the East.  He charged American pacifists with responsibility for the rivers of blood in Vietnam and Cambodia because they undermined the U.S. effort in the Vietnam War.  He charged the press with “heroizing terrorists” and publicly revealing “secret matters pertaining to one's nation's defense.” He chided academic researchers for conforming to “fashion” and “forming a herd” rather than thinking independently.  Western intellectuals “refused to see communism's crimes,” and when they could no longer be denied, “tried to justify them.”

Solzhenitsyn pointed at Western hedonism, the elevation of rights over responsibilities and the irresponsible use of freedom to plumb “the abyss of human decadence.”  Westerners, he said, selfishly “operate at the extreme limit” of the law, rather than exercising “voluntary self-restraint.”  Westerners seek material gain rather than spiritual growth.

Most challenging of all to media progressives, Solzhenitsyn attacked the very heart of the secular liberal worldview, “rationalistic humanism or humanistic autonomy: the proclaimed and enforced autonomy of man from any higher force above him.”  Western loss of moral backbone stemmed from the Enlightenment: “man's sense of responsibility to God and society grew dimmer and dimmer.”

The Washington Post obituary described the Harvard address as “scathing,” and the New York Times obituary as a “hectoring jeremiad” and “insensitive, haughty and snobbish.” The obituary in The Los Angeles Times dropped the biggest bombshells: “Solzhenitsyn called for a moral and spiritual reawakening in his homeland and the West based on fundamental Christian values, and a rejection of the materialism, hedonism and selfishness that he insisted was corrupting civilization.  Such views led one critic to denounce him as 'the Russian ayatollah.'”

Why did America's leading liberal newspapers slash at Solzhenitsyn?  Because their ideological ox was gored.  Solzhenitsyn didn't condemn the U.S. for imperialism and racism – America's sins in the eyes of the Left – but for conservative concerns like spiritual weakness at home and moral cowardice abroad.  And he blamed elite liberal intellectuals.

Solzhenitsyn put liberals in a difficult position.  Having granted him vast credibility – a Nobel Prize – for his trenchant criticism of Soviet communist oppression, they couldn't blithely dismiss his trenchant criticism of Western liberal decadence.  How did they respond? The same way the commissars might have, with petty vindictiveness.  Call him names in his obituary.  A fundamentalist Christian anti-Semitic ayatollah.

Pushkin's observation that “we can love only the dead” may hold true in Russia.  It certainly doesn't hold true for the American media.