Solzhenitsyn: A Voice for When History Repeats Itself

Solzhenitsyn and American Culture: The Russian Soul in the West | Ed. David P. Deavel and Jessica Hooten Wilson | Notre Dame

It was late in this troubled year when I read David P. Deavel and Jessica Hooten Wilson’s curated collection of essays, Solzhenitsyn and American Culture: The Russian Soul in the West. As I vigorously nodded and underlined my way through the volume, I found myself attempting to remember how often I have either quoted or heard quoted the twentieth-century Russian author throughout the preceding twelve months. Too many instances to recall, which isn’t surprising given the increasingly ominous parallels between his time and ours. Never has Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s work has been more relevant, which makes Deavel and Hooten’s book more than another literary curiosity for Russophiles. Rather, it is a timely exploration of what Solzhenitzyn’s profound moral vision can offer to the degraded soul of the West. 

Solzhenitsyn was many things: philosopher, novelist, political prisoner, spiritual visionary, soviet dissident, humanitarian. A former soldier in the Red Army, he was imprisoned in 1945 after penning mildly critical comments about Stalin in a private letter. He was sentenced to eight years in a Soviet work camp where he witnessed atrocities that transformed him from an unquestioning communist into a Christian humanist. After his 1953 release from prison into exile, Solzhenitsyn began to write about his experiences in the Gulag, writings which caused him to emerge as one of the world’s foremost critics of communism, as well as one of the most humane advocates for international repentance and compassion. In Solzhenitsyn and  American Culture, Deaval and Wilson return Solzhenitsyn to the forefront of cultural conversation by compiling a collection of contemporary essays that connect Solzhenitsyn’s voice for twentieth-century Russia with the burgeoning crises in today’s America. 

The book features essays gathered  into five topical categories: “Solzhenitsyn and Russian Culture”; “Solzhenitsyn and Orthodoxy”; “Solzhenitsyn and the Writers”; “Solzhenitsyn and the Politicians”; and “Russian Writers and American Readers.” This organization makes the book easily navigable,  approachable even to readers who are unfamiliar with the scope of Solzhenitsyn’s canon. In addition to the editors, contributors include luminaries like Peter Leithart, Eugene Vodolazkin, Edward Ericson Jr., Joseph Pearce, and Ralph Wood - a rich collection of contemporary scholars, authors, and thinkers who, like Solzhenitsyn, find themselves fighting for a humane moral vision in the midst of increasingly intense cultural upheaval.

The first group of essays, “Solzhenitsyn and Russian Culture,” offers insight into the Russian mind and is particularly important to those of us mired in what has become the stereotypical Western myopia. Although he spent eight years in prison and nearly twenty years in exile, Solzhenitsyn remained ardently Russian, embracing dissidence rather than ex-patriotism. Throughout his life, he considered himself a true Russian, resisting the anti-human spirit of Soviet communism in favor of the deep roots of traditional Russian culture -- including the “dark embrace” of human suffering and the well-honed habits of intense philosophical inquiry, which are well-known characteristics not only of Solzhenitsyn’s canon but of the wider heritage of Russian literature. So although Solzhenitsyn left Russia for nearly two decades, he carried its soul to the West, inviting his readers into the ethos of his fracturing native land. In these essays, both Russian and American thinkers wrestle with Russian and Western cultural identities with all of their inherent glories, contradictions, and polarities. The essays in this first section invite readers to journey deeper into the work that Solzhenitsyn began: bringing the Russian soul into the West. 

Another section concentrates on Solzhenitsyn’s spirituality—a crucial but sometimes neglected emphasis in his body of work. “Because Solzhenitsyn was not a theologian, the spiritual fervor of his work is often overlooked,” explain Deavel and Wilson.  Although raised by a devout Eastern Orthodox mother, Solzhenitsyn renounced the faith as a communist youth, only to return to a robust Christianity later in life. This section examines the impact of the Russian Orthodox Church on Solzhenitsyn as a writer and a man. Renowned scholar Ralph Wood’s essay, “The Distinctively Orthodox Nature of Solzhenitsyn’s Literary Imagination,” is a noteworthy feature, scrutinizing the Orthodox theology that saturates Solzhenitsyn’s spirituality even though the man himself “cast his moral and religious transformation in broadly Christian rather than specifically Orthodox terms.” 

Like many of the great Russian authors, Solzhenitsyn was prolific, leaving behind five novels (including two multi-volume tomes: The Gulag Archipelago and The Red Wheel),  three lengthy memoirs, and a large body of short stories and “miniatures.” And this book features a wide array of essays that concentrate on understanding, contextualizing, and expanding Solznenitsyn’s literary legacy, a project of immense importance in an American literary landscape obsessed with “canceling” voices that fall outside of the prevailing progressive zeitgeist. Solzhenitsyn’s work is itself a clarion call against such ideological overreach (“Thanks to ideology, the twentieth century was fated to experience evildoing on a scale of millions,” he wrote in The Gulag Archipelago), and the essays provide a useful set of interpretive keys and summary explanations of Solzhenitsyn’s often daunting but exceedingly relevant literary canon. This section includes the seminal essay, “The Literature of Dissent in the Soviet Union,” by the world’s foremost Solzhenitsyn scholar (and his personal friend), Edward Ericson Jr, an essay worth the cover price in itself. 

Solzhenitsyn is remembered primarily as a political dissident, but this is only a fragment of the story. Politics were of secondary concern to Solzhenitsyn the humanist. As a young man, he was a communist but he rejected Marxism not primarily out of intellectual dissent, but due to moral awakening birthed out of witnessing the horrors of Soviet domination. His conclusions were ultimately spiritual rather than political, a division he identified as necessary in order to avoid merely providing an ideological alternative to communism. “For Solzhenitsyn, correct political response should stem from a true understanding of history and from a moral or prophetic vision,” Deavel and Wilson write in the introduction. In the end, he advocated not for disembodied political reforms, but first and foremost for sincere repentance and compassionate justice from individuals and societies. In the group of essays, “Solzhenitsyn and the Politicians,” the contributors forge many connections between the political climate of Soviet Russia and the soft totalitarianism of today’s America, but for the most part, they succeed in avoiding cheap alarmism in favor of thoughtful civic inquiry. Additionally, most of the essays were written prior to the events of 2020, making many claims of the book not only relevant but prophetic. 

A final section, “Beyond Solzhenitsyn: Russian Writers and American Readers,” offers essays that orient Solzhenitsyn’s body of work within the great tradition of global culture, both literary and political. Essays in this section “contextualize his work in discussions of other literary greats” —Dale Peterson’s “Russia and the Mission of African American Literature” is stunning, for example—as well as highlight the man’s divinatory voice, which not only condemned ideological tyranny in his own land but warned us that we in the West are not exempt. Peter Leithart and Jacob Howland’s essays emphasize this second dynamic in brilliantly sharp (albeit somewhat frightening) relief. In these final essays, we are invited to see Solzhenitsyn not as a lone freedom fighter, but as one of a myriad of valiant witnesses with strong moral visions. Thus, we turn the final pages with the sense that a torch is being passed from one embattled but hopeful generation to another. 

Heidi White is managing editor of the FORMA and a regular contributor to the Close Reads Podcast Network. She lives and teaches in Colorado Springs, CO.