JUNE 25, 2021
A FRIEND WAS IN a rather posh salon in Houston and, as usual, brought along a book to read while having her roots touched up. This day’s reading was The Gulag Archipelago, the first volume of the hardbound edition with the rather intimidating photograph of Solzhenitsyn on the back cover in full disapproving, Old Testament mode. She slowly realized that her fellow customers were staring at the photo with “a look of horror.” She recalls the scene: “They were baffled as to why I would be reading such a thing, so I gave them about a three-minute exegesis. Now they were truly mystified. It does sound like a ghastly thing to read, doesn’t it?” In an attempt to justify her choice of reading matter, my friend deferred to the Russian:
I stammered out what I think is one of the most important things in Solzhenitsyn’s writings, the passage that ends with “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” To my very great surprise, this hit them like a bombshell. All three vigorously exclaimed the truth of it and wondered that they had never thought of it. Then they wandered back to their chairs for blow-drys.
Those elegant ladies mirrored the reaction of many in the West to this impertinent visitor from the East. When Solzhenitsyn was stripped of his Soviet citizenship and exiled first to West Germany in 1974, and two years later to the United States, his arrival was judged as a propaganda victory. But from his compound in Cavendish, Vermont, while continuing his assault on the Soviet Union, Solzhenitsyn also indicted what he saw as the decadence, appeasement, and spiritual decay of the West. Most famously, in his commencement address at Harvard University in 1978, he declared the West had lost its capacity for what he called “civil courage.” The ungrateful guest had spoken, and the honeymoon was over.
Newcomers to Solzhenitsyn’s work, in particular young readers for whom his name is embalmed in rapidly receding history, are advised not to begin with Between Two Millstones. Rather, read his books in roughly chronological order, beginning with his short novel A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the story of a prisoner (zek) in a slave-labor camp published in 1962, followed by the novels Cancer Ward and The First Circle, both first published in English in 1968. For Solzhenitsyn, the membrane separating fiction and reality is always porous. The Gulag Archipelago, written between 1958 and 1967, is an investigation of the Soviet penal system and a rare book that helped change the world.
The thread unifying the second volume of Between Two Millstones (translated by Clare Kitson and Melanie Moore) is Solzhenitsyn’s ongoing research and writing of The Red Wheel, his cycle of four novels (with more planned) spanning Russian history from the eruption of World War I in August 1914 to December 1917, just after the Bolshevik Revolution. In his foreword, Daniel Mahoney calls the assemblage of The Red Wheel “an almost superhuman effort to recover the truth about 1917 and Russia’s descent into the totalitarian quagmire.” For Solzhenitsyn, fiction can be an instrument of truth, as it was for many of his Russian predecessors.
In his memoir, he is forever lamenting the distractions — travel, press interviews, meetings with politicians, quarrels with such fellow Russian dissidents as Andrei Sinyavsky — that keep him from working on the books, while praising his wife Natalya as his devoted editor and researcher and his sons as typesetters. With the help of his family, Solzhenitsyn turns his home in Vermont into a publishing house. Early in the book, Solzhenitsyn exults in the freedom he finds as a writer in the United States:
And I never ceased to be surprised and grateful: the Lord had indeed put me into the best situation a writer could dream of, and the best of the dismal fates that could have arisen, given our blighted history and the oppression of our country for the last sixty years. Now I was no longer compelled to write in code, hide things, distribute pieces of writing among my friends. I could keep all my materials open to view, all in one place, and all my manuscripts out on capacious tables.
At times, Solzhenitsyn personifies himself as Russia, a tendency that irked those who accused him of being a pan-Slavist reactionary yearning for the tsar’s return. But Solzhenitsyn’s conception of a writer’s job is utterly alien to that of most contemporary Western writers, for whom self-expression is uppermost. “Today’s United States and I,” he writes, “live at opposite ends of the twentieth century and on different continents.” In contrast to many American writers, for whom history is a myth, Solzhenitsyn mingles the roles of creative artist, documentarian, and Tolstoyan chronicler of human striving and folly. He brings to mind the image of a middle-aged Tolstoy who would write War and Peace and Anna Karenina according to the strictures of the older, moralizing Tolstoy, author of What Is Art? Here he is as Matushka Rossiya, Mother Russia: “I felt I was a bridge stretching from prerevolutionary Russia to the post-Soviet Russia of the future, a bridge over which the heavily laden wagon train of History is lugged over, across the entire abyss of the Soviet years, so that it’s priceless load would not be lost to the future.”
Between Two Millstones is not a conventional, tidy literary memoir. It is too episodic and digressive for that. Solzhenitsyn’s style tends to be bluntly conversational, surprisingly slangy even in translation, never striving after elegance. Seldom has the act of writing been so viscerally described. His prose shares nothing with social science, academic history, or American autobiography, and his books, both novels and nonfiction, are notoriously difficult to judge by strictly aesthetic standards. Often they are, as Henry James sniffed at many 19th-century novels, “large loose baggy monsters.” They must be judged by how well they accomplish Solzhenitsyn’s mission: exposing and combating the spiritual corruption of the East and the West that underlies the savagery of recent history. “[T]he problems of the twentieth century,” he writes,
cannot all be laid at the door of current politics: they’re a legacy of the three preceding centuries. A writer has to reflect on the deeper elements of these problems rather than fiddle around with today’s superficial issues. It is the call from time from above. From the top.
One can’t imagine a Western writer talking this way, and that alone makes the book’s faults seem a bit more forgivable. Nevertheless, be warned: Solzhenitsyn can be tedious. He’s not above haranguing the reader, and his travelogues are tiresome. His Soviet years left him deeply suspicious of almost everyone. He is not politically correct. When he meets Margaret Thatcher he kisses her hand and thinks: “And both the course and power of her thinking process were those of a man.”
In 1990, shortly before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Solzhenitsyn’s citizenship was restored and he returned to Russia four years later. He died in Moscow in 2008 at age 89. Reflecting on his early years in exile, Solzhenitsyn writes: “Do I regret that, for the ten years starting from Letter to the Soviet Leaders, I did not abandon my intensive social and political commentary or my attempts to ‘save’ the West? That activity was perhaps a mistake, but I don’t regret it: ‘my soul demanded it’ — I had no choice.”