Solzhenitsyn: Yesterday and Today
The other day I said I’d have a few thoughts on the passing of Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Then the war between Russia and Georgia hit. But back in Feb. 2000, I wrote the following as part of a series on Solzhenitsyn and in re-reading it, much of it applies to today. My musings on Vladimir Putin at the time were also pretty good.
Again, from Feb. 2000.
I must admit, reading Solzhenitsyn certainly taxes the brain. And it can force one to step back and reevaluate some long-held beliefs. Twenty years ago to the month, he wrote an important piece for “Foreign Affairs” magazine [Feb. 1980]. Having just plowed through it myself (and I feel like I was using oxen to aid me, not modern John Deere equipment), all kinds of thoughts are swimming through my head.
To begin with, I don’t agree with everything he wrote. And, as history later proved, he was way too pessimistic about the ability of the West to elect leaders of substance, i.e., Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, who would not be afraid to confront the abuses of the U.S.S.R. of 1980. Remember, this was February and the results of the upcoming presidential election in America were still very much in doubt.
But the real reason for discussing Solzhenitsyn, was to see what parallels existed today. When you read some of my selected passages, you will be drawn to the Hot Spots of today. Why should the West be on guard at the emergence of Vladimir Putin? Did we make a big mistake in not being more forceful about Russia’s actions in Chechnya? Should the U.S. kowtow to China? I have also included some interesting thoughts on the
behavior of the combatants in World War II.
It would behoove many of the political leader’s of today to read some of Solzhenitsyn’s works. You don’t have to agree, just pause for thought.
[On the West’s attitudes towards Communism. Potentially, substitute an authoritarian Vladimir Putin if you desire. And also think about how the West is handling China.]
“Two mistakes are especially common. One is the failure to understand the radical hostility of communism to mankind as a whole - the failure to realize that communism is irredeemable, that there exist no ‘better’ variants of communism; that it is incapable of growing ‘kinder,’ that it cannot survive as an ideology without using terror, and that, consequently, to coexist with communism on the same planet is impossible.
“The second and equally prevalent mistake is to assume an indissoluble [permanent] link between the universal disease of communism and the country where it first seized control - Russia.”
[On the tendency of the West to dismiss the worst abuses of communism.]
“Until the most recent times the very existence of the Gulag Archipelago, its inhuman cruelty, its scope, its duration, and the sheer volume of death it generated, were not acknowledged by Western scholarship....In overall evaluations of Soviet history we still encounter the raptures with which ‘progressive’ public opinion in Europe greeted the ‘dawning of a new life,’ even as the terrorism and destruction of 1917-21 were at their height in our country.”
[On the Russian State before the advent of Lenin...and today, looking ahead, the potential for Russia if they ever get their act together.]
“Before the outbreak of war in 1914, Russia could boast of a flourishing manufacturing industry, rapid growth and a flexible, decentralized economy; its inhabitants were not constrained in their choice of economic activities, significant progress had been made in the field of workers’ legislation, and the material well-being of the peasants was at a level which has never been reached under the Soviet regime. Newspapers were free from preliminary political censorship, there was complete cultural freedom, the intelligentsia was not restricted in its activity, religious and philosophical views of every shade were tolerated, and institutions of higher education enjoyed inviolable autonomy.”
[On the role of foreign policy-makers.]
“I note here a tendency which might be called the ‘Kissinger syndrome,’ although it is by no means peculiar to him alone. Such individuals, while holding high office, pursue a policy of appeasement and capitulation, which sooner or later will cost the West many years and many lives, but immediately upon retirement, the scales fall from their eyes and they begin to advocate firmness and resolution. How can this be? What caused the change? Enlightenment just doesn’t come that suddenly! Might we not assume that they were well aware of the real state of affairs all along, but simply drifted with the political tide, clinging to their posts?”
[On reports from Moscow.]
“Moscow has come to be a special little world, poised somewhere between the U.S.S.R. and the West: in terms of material comfort it is almost as superior to the rest of the Soviet Union as the West is superior to Moscow. However, this also means that any judgments based on Moscow experiences must be significantly corrected before they may be applied to Soviet experience in general. Authentic Soviet life is to be seen only in provincial towns, in rural areas, in the labor camps and in the harsh conditions of the peacetime army.” [All still true today (2000), except the labor camp comment.]
[On the World War II end-game. The comments are useful when one looks at the plight of some of the nations in the Caucasus and their attitude towards the West today.]
[On the people who immediately fell under the control of American and British forces] “Such men were in no sense supporters of Hitler; their integration into his empire was involuntary and in their hearts they regarded only the Western countries as their allies (moreover they felt this sincerely, with none of the duplicity of the communists). For the West, however, anyone who wanted to liberate himself from communism in that war was regarded as a traitor to the cause of the West. Every nation in the U.S.S.R. could be wiped out for all the West cared, and any number of millions could die in Soviet concentration camps, just as long as it could get out of this war successfully and as quickly as possible. And so hundreds of thousands of these Russians and Cossacks, Tatars and Caucasian nationals were sacrificed; they were not even allowed to surrender to the Americans, but were turned over to the Soviet Union, there to face reprisals and execution.
“Even more shocking is the way the British and American armies surrendered into the vengeful hands of the communists hundreds of thousands of peaceful civilians, convoys of old men, women and children, as well as ordinary Soviet POWs and forced laborers used by the Germans - surrendered them against their will, and even after witnessing the suicide of some of them....At the time, it seemed more advantageous to buy off the communists with a couple of million foolish people and in this way to purchase perpetual peace. In the same way - and without any real need - the whole of Eastern Europe was sacrificed to Stalin.”
[On China. While this statement was made in 1980, when the U.S. was seen to be using China as a wedge against the U.S.S.R., there is much to chew on re today’s environment.]
“American diplomacy has gambled on another shortsighted, unwise - indeed mad - policy: to use China as a shield, which means in effect abandoning the national forces of China as well (Taiwan), and driving them completely under the communist yoke. Where is the vaunted respect for the freedom of all nations? But even in purely strategic terms this is a shortsighted policy: a fateful reconciliation of the two communist regimes could occur overnight, at which point they could unite in turning against the West. But even without such a reconciliation, a China armed by America would be more than a match for America.” [“China armed by America?” Rather prescient.]
Finally, Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote the following back in 1990 for Time magazine. The Wall had collapsed.
“The clock of communism has tolled its final hour. But the concrete structure has not completely collapsed. Instead of being liberated, we may be crushed beneath the rubble.”
I think it’s fair to say that Russia is having trouble removing it.
Hot Spots will return next week.