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Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

It was thirty years ago this summer that I graduated from college. I remember it like it was yesterday. I remember yawning through a commencement address by a local congressman on the "evils" of inflation. I remember my feeling of frustration at a society that seemed increasingly inclined to throw moral values and foundational principles to the wind with very little regard for what might replace them. The movie of the summer was "Grease." I drove into Salem and watched it one evening. Depressing. It was set in the Fifties (Seventies young people were fascinated by the Fifties), but it definitely expressed a very Seventies message: The supreme virtue is conformity. Dropouts should go back to school, and prudes should cast off their self-righteousness and become as wild and worldly as everyone else.

I was vexed. Finished with school, and preparing to enter upon my new life as a school teacher, I saw a culture which had been founded on religious freedom sliding into a sickening moral relativism, and there didn't seem to be anyone sounding the alarm.

But there was. I discovered it one afternoon when I opened the Portland Oregonian and saw the text of Solzhenitsyn's address to the graduating class of Harvard University. Solzhenitsyn had been in the States for four years at that point, but he summed up the moral anemia of the American civilization better than any preacher or moralist in the cold war era.


Got a text message from Melissa that the great Russian writer has passed away. I hadn't heard the news. Not exactly an untimely death--he was 89. Still, it is a great loss. Hard to see him go.

Solzhenitsyn's career as a writer was really an outgrowth of his years in the Gulag. Solzhenitsyn was a patriot, and had been decorated for bravery in World War II. But he was sentenced to the Gulag for something he had written in a letter to a friend. Eight years later, he was released and banished to Siberia. This banishment turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because it gave him time to focus on his writing.

But not without some determination on his part to carve out a part of his day and reserve it for himself. He had been given a job of some kind--can't remember right off hand, but I think it was in a factory or something--where he had to work virtually every waking hour. Solzhenitsyn knew that this would never work, so he devised a plan to address the issue head-on. At precisely 5 pm, he politely informed his boss that he was going home, as he had things to do. His boss told him to get back to work, but he repeated (politely, of course) that he really had to leave. And then he walked out. His boss had a fit, but Solzhenitsyn just ignored him. The next day, at precisely 5 pm, he repeated the same simple announcement. Of course his boss exploded, but Solzhenitsyn very calmly told him that he had things to do, and he had to leave. It was unheard of, of course, for a prisoner to tell his boss that he would not work the required hours. But since this was a job for recently released prisoners, he probably wasn't getting paid more than basic subsistence. Anyway, he didn't get sent back to prison, and he was able to continue his writing.

Eventually, he was able to get a regular job. During his university days, he had made the decision to major in Science and Math instead of Literature. This turned out to be a very wise decision. Once Solzhenitsyn was allowed to accept regular employment, he always had a good job. Word got around that he was an excellent Physics teacher, and he never had trouble getting work, especially in Siberia, as you can imagine. This allowed him to continue his writing undisturbed. If he had chosen to major in Literature, he probably never would have become a writer.

Solzhenitsyn had gotten out of prison in 1953, but he did not publish his first book until 1962. A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. It was a novel about a Baptist believer who was in prison for his faith. You couldn't just publish a book like that without official permission, but, ironically, Krushchev was solidifying his power by repudiating Stalin, so this book got approval because it looked like something that would reinforce Krushchev's view. If you haven't read it, you should. Solzhenitsyn himself was not a Baptist. He was always a devout Russian Orthodox. You could call him a "State Church" man, although I doubt that Solzhenitsyn himself would ever use that term to describe himself. It's been a long time since I read the book myself, so I can't give you much of a review, but you can just about imagine the impact of a book about an unregistered Baptist being persecuted for his faith. It was an immediate sensation. It didn't change the world for Baptists. Baptist pastors had gone to prison before this book was published, and they continued to go to prison after this book was published. But the effect on Russia was far greater than those who originally approved the book could ever have imagined. I guess you could call it the "Uncle Tom's Cabin" of the Soviet Union. And coming from Solzhenitsyn, who was a Russian Orthodox, it was an extraordinary statement. Basically, he was saying that these people were decent folks who didn't deserve to go to prison.

As I mentioned earlier, repudiation of Stalin had become politically correct, because of Krushchev. Churchill always used to say that the worst thing that ever happened to the Russian people was the birth of Lenin. And he always added that the second worst thing was the death of Lenin. This, of course, is because Stalin used Lenin's death to seize power. But he was ruthless, and perhaps Krushchev's greatest contribution was his decision to publicly repudiate the Stalinist era. Gradually, though, it became evident to the powers that be that Solzhenitsyn's own repudiation of the Stalinist era was really a repudiation of the Soviet system itself. As the years passed by, Solzhenitsyn became more and more isolated as a writer, because of his refusal to kow tow to the established order. But it didn't seem to bother him much. Not, that is, until the cops overplayed their hand. Can't recall the precise details, but if I remember correctly, they raided his place and confiscated his writing. This is really what tripped the wire for Solzhenitsyn. He gave instructions for The Gulag Archipelago, which had already been smuggled to Paris, to be published.

Well, this really put the big boys in the Kremlin in a tizzy. The Gulag Archipelago was a monumental work. It established Solzhenitsyn as a great writer, in league with Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. They couldn't, I mean they just couldn't put him in prison. So they threw him out. He eventually came to the United States. President Ford was scared to death of offending the Soviet Union, so he refused to see him, but Solzhenitsyn was allowed to settle in Vermont. His children became American citizens; one of them is an accomplished musician, another a writer like his father. But Solzhenitsyn himself remained a Russophile to his dying day. He returned to his homeland as soon as he was allowed to.

History will remember him for what he did for Russia and Russian literature, but I will always remember him most fondly for what he did (or tried to do) for America. I'm not referring to The Gulag Archipelago. Americans don't read thick books like that. But his essays and speeches, especially his address to the graduating class of Harvard in 1978 (A World Split Apart) confronted smug Americans with the sickness in their own society (humanism), which paralleled the dialectical materialism that ruled the Communist world. The key statement in his address is the following:The split in the world is less terrible than the similarity of the disease plaguing its main sections.In other words, the moral decline in America was just another form of the same sickness that plagued the Soviet Union.

Shortly after his speech, Time Magazine published a bunch of reactions from well known Americans. I don't remember all of them, but I did manage to find the article. The comment by George Meany is the one that most caught my attention at the time. For those of you who don't remember George, he was president of the AFL-CIO, and he was troubled by Solzhenitsyn's lament about a society with so much material well being, that had become so impoverished spiritually. Meany said, "I cannot recognize any incompatibility between material and spiritual well being." Typical union man.

During the Cold War, it was popular to see a parallel between the contemporary, repressive Soviet system, and the Czarist systems of the preceding centuries. Richard Nixon, a life-long student of Russian history, held this view (see The Real War). Speaking honestly, I must confess to some sympathy for it myself. But Solzhenitsyn most definitely did not subscribe to this notion. For Solzhenitsyn, the suggestion that the Russian people were inherently totalitarian was deeply offensive. His life-long repudiation of Communism was never a repudiation of things Russian. He loved Russia. His insertion into the American scene at such a critical time might be viewed as an accident of history. I am more inclined to see it as a gift from God. And the fact that the Americans did not respond to his message does not make it any less worthy. "And they, whether they will hear, or whether they will forbear, (for they are a rebellious house,) yet shall know that there hath been a prophet among them." (Ezekiel 2:5)

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