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Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was an epic researcher, a fair stylist, a proud grouch, and, last but absolutely not least, a kind of Western pop icon. He would rain righteous indignation on the last epithet, but it happens to be true. The Gulag Archipelago did less for its homeland, where it was reiteration of the obvious for some and treasonous slander for others, than for the West: Here, the book ended the Western liberal romance with communism even more decisively than the sight of Soviet tanks rolling into Prague.
In his later years, Solzhenitsyn was celebrated less in his homeland (he was deported in 1974) than in the West. He happened to fit with Western notions of the Great Russian Writer — we had a real, live Tolstoy in our midst! American pop culture had fun embracing him, too: A particularly memorable episode of Seinfeld featured a pompous Russian-writer character named Yuri Testikoff who was based on Solzhenitsyn. And that beard — every gnomic utterance about the evils of rock and roll, say, or American waffling in Vietnam, was rendered profound by filtering through that beard.
Thing is, a Tolstoy makes a terrible houseguest. Once in the U.S., Solzhenitsyn retreated behind a formidable fence and emerged only for the occasional get-off-my-lawn jeremiad about the decadence and weakness of the Western culture. Unlike, say, Nabokov, whose gratitude to America was deep and genuine even after he departed for Montreux, Switzerland, Solzhenitsyn never shrank from iterating that his tenure on these shores was a strictly temporary arrangement.
In 1991, he turned his sight back on his homeland, publishing a massive op-ed called “Kak Nam Obustroit’ Rossiyu,” roughly translatable as “How We Ought to Arrange Things in Russia.” The tension was right there in the headline. Obustroit’ was a very peculiar, somewhat archaic word choice: Solzhenitsyn, it seemed, saw Russia’s future in its past. His 1994 return there had a touch of messianic spectacle — he alighted at the country’s easternmost tip and then took a train to Moscow — and, before the Russian elections of 1996, there was brief talk of his running for president (nothing came of it). Thereafter, the Russians remained as perplexed about what to do with the surly prophet in their midst as the Americans were in the eighties. He was given his own TV show, and he tried on the role of a hectoring public intellectual, with soporific results. His last major work was a two-tome treatise on Jews and Russia that some considered anti-Semitic. It would have been more controversial, had anyone really read it.
Applying the standards of Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn is unfair and misleading; Solzhenitsyn was less a novelist than a letopisets, a chronicler. Taken as a whole, his body of work comprises not a writerly oeuvre, but the most unequivocally moral judgment of the Soviet attempt to subjugate the individual. But, gladly, the very existence of Solzhenitsyn’s work also renders that attempt a glorious failure. —Michael Idov