Alexander Solzhenitsyn is dead. It is a testament to the banality of our times that most people probably do not know what that means. Since the end of the Second World War there have been a very few truly great men. Out of those tiny few, fewer still have combined a great mind with a great soul. Solzhenitsyn was one of those very, very few -- and maybe, there was no one alive as great as he. Maybe, we will never see his likes again.
His biography is fairly straightforward: a believing Marxist and devout atheist, Solzhenitsyn was an artillery officer in the Red Army during the Great Patriotic War (which is what the Soviets called the Second World War.) He was arrested, as so many million others were, by the vicious organs of the Soviet security services acting in slavish, terrified devotion to the Vozd, Stalin, the sadistic paranoid who ruled Russia and its imprisoned nations for more than a quarter of a century.
The young Russian officer endured the terrors and nightmares of the Gulag, the Soviet equivalent of the Nazi concentration camps. The Gulag was even more than that. When the Nazis came to power and wanted to design their Hellish concentration camp system, Hitler sent Rudolph Hess to the Soviet Union to study and to take notes about just how to construct Hell on Earth. Hess was, as always, a studious demon. The cattle car transportation systems, the senseless work projects, the attack dogs around the camps -- all the elements of evil that would soon live in Dachau and Buchenwald lived first in Karaganda and Kolmya.
In the camps of the Gulag, the brilliant Russian atheist found God. He also kept meticulous notes. He chronicled the inhabitants, the processes, and the regions of Hades. When Solzhenitsyn was released from the Gulag, under the thaw after Stalin, he wrote a short story for Novy Mir, the Literary Gazette, entitled "A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich."
We tame moderns cannot imagine the courage that it took simply to submit that short story. The author, after all, was a Zek, a political prisoner, who had been released. It would have been less than nothing for the KGB to simply re-arrest him and send him to spend the rest of his life in the very monstrous system from which he had been released. No one else, as far as we know, did what Solzhenitsyn did - although others would follow in his footsteps.
The short story was an incredible success in totalitarian Russia. Huge numbers of people sent letters into Novy Mir about the short story, relating what had happened to their family or even to themselves. One estimate of the number of people who entered through the gates of the Gulag was sixty-six million, a staggering figure that dwarfs our ability to grasp the sheer size of the lines that walked into cattle cars, travelled to remote corrective labor camps, and, often, died there.
This alone would have qualified Solzhenitsyn for greatness, but his work had barely begun. In an age in which literary genius is conspicuous by its absence, Solzhenitsyn was a literary giant. His solemn soul and incisive mind encompassed all the gifts of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and Turgenev. Most of writing was in novels, as the last bright glow of that period of literary greatness at the end of the reign of the Tsars.
He poured out novels like The First Circle and Cancer Ward, which made a compelling case that Solzhenitsyn was the greatest author of the Twentieth Century. Although condemning the Soviet Union was not chic, his moral and literary power was so overwhelming that he won the Nobel Prize for Literature - perhaps the last time that the Nobel Committee has actually awarded a non-scientific award to a very politically incorrect person. Married with children, something that he never dreamed to posses was a Zek in the Gulag, he was threatened with everything by the Soviets: We will send you back to Hell; we will arrest all your friends; we will hold your wife and children at our whim. Nothing broke him. Is there anyone alive like him? If there is, I cannot name the person. He was indigestible. Finally, thirty-five years ago, the Soviets shoved him on a plane and sent him to America. His wife and children was still in Moscow, but Solzhenitsyn threatened even greater embarrassment to the Soviets if they did not release his family. The craven communists caved. The martyr won.
It is easy to compare Solzhenitsyn to other dissidents like Sakharov, but this is a grave mistake. Andrei Sakharov was a brilliant scientist who did, indeed, stand up to the Soviets. But he also was the "Father of the Soviet H-Bomb." He won prestigious awards from the Soviet government. He was feted by the very scientist in the West who the Soviets most wanted to please. Sakharov also cut moral corners. Rather than simply condemn Soviet evil, he compared it to America in Vietnam. He sought the soft shoulders, Solzhenitsyn , the hard curves.
His masterpiece, a work unprecedented anywhere at any time in human history, was The Gulag Archipelago, a three volume history of "our sewage disposal system." With a combination of detail and eloquence, Solzhenitsyn page by page, chapter by chapter, book by book, goes through the forgotten stories, the horrific details, and the minute procedures of the Gulag. Books - a very few books, all of which I have read - described the Gulag before Solzhenitsyn, but these sad and serious books are like Kindergarten picture books beside Solzhenitsyn's masterpiece.
All this might not have been quite as monumental if he not been for the fact that Solzhenitsyn became profoundly religious, and remained so until the end of his life, after his arrest and transmission to the Gulag. When all of the rest of the civilized world, as well as the Marxist world, was tossing God into the dustbin of history, Solzhenitsyn realized that only God really matters. He chided the West for embracing materialism and forgetting God, a lesson that is just as true today as thirty years ago.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn was never that popular in America. Gerald Ford famously refused to meet him, out of fear of upsetting the Soviets. The Russian's words stung nearly all Americans, Leftists but also "conservative" Americans who believed that an overflowing basket of consumer goods could bring peace or joy or goodness. Who would say, in our age of thoughtless plenty, that Solzhenitsyn was wrong?
We live in an age without real greatness. People do not suffer for the sake of goodness. The word "sacrifice" is a shibboleth. We worship things and not God. We seek to be the tallest midget in the circus, rather than real giants. Alexander Solzhenitsyn was an anachronism: A real giant, in every sense. Let us small souls be silent in respect for the death of a giant.