Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

I note the passing of the great Nobel Prize winning author with deeply mixed feelings. In my much younger days, I was a fan of Solzhenitsyn's writing. I actually plowed through 2 volumes of The Gulag Archipelago, and read some of his fiction, especially One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.
In one respect, I still think of him now as I did then, as a heroic witness, as a brave recording angel from the catastrophic blood soaked century that has just passed. As best he could, he recovered and preserved the identities and stories of people arbitrarily consigned to oblivion. His courageous work made a full accounting of the criminality of the Soviet regime possible. His witness put the legions of victims of that regime before the imaginations of people who would prefer to forget and to move on. For all that, he deserved the official state honors he received at his funeral, and he will be gratefully remembered by his countrymen.
Solzhenitsyn later on came to represent an old Russia that I would prefer to leave behind, the old idea of Holy Russia, a nation with a messianic task in history. I think of it as the Russian Orthodox version of the Evangelical American idea of the messianic mission of the United States. I'm not at all fond of relgious nationalism in any form. The Soviet disident who spoke most directly to my American democratic and liberal heart was the late Andrei Sakharov, who dreamed of a democratic, liberal, and modern Russia emerging out of the ideological tyranny of the Soviet era. I'm not sure either man got what he wanted in 21st century Russia.
If Solzhenitsyn had ever met me, he would almost certainly be horrified; horrified most especially at my sexuality, but even more horrified at my liberal vision of universal enfranchisement and religious pluralism. He would certainly be horrified at the Christian Universalism upon which that vision rests. And yet, his brave witness against the evil and the nihilism that defiles our basic humanity played a large role in setting me out on my present course.

Thank you for all you did and for all you suffered. God speed old man.

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