Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, RIP
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Nobel Prize winner in literature, passed away on Sunday, August 3, 2008, at the age of 89. Solzhenitsyn was certainly no great defender of the West, but I shall always remember his brave attacks on the Soviet system of oppression. Before I read any Ayn Rand or Ludwig von Mises or F.A. Hayek or Murray Rothbard, I read Solzhenitsyn. In fact, I read virtually all of Solzhenitsyn's books, from One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich to Cancer Ward, as a junior high and high school student.
But no book of his had a bigger impact on my early intellectual development than the first volume of his multi-volume work, The Gulag Archipelago, which came out in 1973. Solzhenitsyn wrote in his prefatory note:
I dedicate this to all those who did not live to tell it. And may they please forgive me for not having seen it all nor remembered it all, for not having divined all of it.
For years I have with reluctant heart withheld from publication this already completed book: my obligation to those still living outweighed my obligation to the dead. But now that State Security has seized the book anyway, I have no alternative but to publish it immediately.
The following passage, which opens Chapter 3, "The Interrogation," left an indelible mark on my consciousness. Intellectual and theoretical critiques of communism notwithstanding, it was this description of the sheer physical brutality of the Soviet regime that has remained among the strongest indictments of that system:
If the intellectuals in the plays of Chekhov who spent all their time guessing what would happen in twenty, thirty, or forty years had been told that in forty years interrogation by torture would be practiced in Russia; that prisoners would have their skulls squeezed within iron rings; that a human being would be lowered into an acid bath; that they would be trussed up naked to be bitten by ants and bedbugs; that a ramrod heated over a primus stove would be thrust up their anal canal (the "secret brand"); that a man's genitals would be slowly crushed beneath the toe of a jackboot; and that, in the luckiest possible circumstances, prisoners would be tortured by being kept from sleeping for a week, by thirst, and by being beaten to a bloody pulp, not one of Chekhov's plays would have gotten to its end because all the heroes would have gone off to insane asylums. (Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, I-II. Translated from the Russian by Thomas P. Whitney. New York: Harper & Row, 1973, pp. 93)
Whatever one's views of Solzhenitsyn's works or his wider intellectual impact or influence, I honor his courageous commitment to revealing the truth about one of the most horrific regimes in modern history.