Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Some people change the world (sort of)

Marxist theory says that individuals do not matter at all – history progresses through great shifts caused by internal contradictions connected with classes. Curiously enough, Marxism has produced more cults of personality than possibly any other political ideology. It actually started with Marx himself, who broke up the First International to prevent it from slipping into Mikhail Bakunin’s control.

The followers of Ayn Rand, who proclaim themselves to be the exact opposite of Marxists though all too often they are the mirror image, believe in change and progress through a few brilliantly gifted individuals. One suspects that put into practice this ideology would, too, result in rather unpleasant consequences. But the basics of Randianism are considerably more accurate and attractive than those of Marxism.

The point is that neither theory is correct. There are, of course, individuals who make a great difference to events but mostly changes are cumulative – small and more or less continuous.

Occasionally, one can point to one individual who either made so much difference that his or her absence from historical events would have meant a complete change in direction (Lenin is an example that springs to mind) or managed to focus in himself or herself certain changes and ideas to the extent of being seen as a bearer of those.

Alexander Isayevich Solzhenitsyn, whose death was announced yesterday, was a supreme example of the second. He was not the only person to write about the horrors of the Soviet system nor was he the first one to do so or the best writer in the field. But, somehow, he became the emblem of the fight against Communism and its supporters, some knowingly evil, some just stupid, in the West.

Solzhenitsyn's first and, possibly, most important appearance was in the relatively liberal (by Soviet standards) journal Novy Mir, in 1962 when his novella “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” appeared. It had been heavily edited by Alexander Tvardovsky, himself a poet and an editor of genius, and has remained Solzhenitsyn’s best work of fiction. (Many years later when the latter had become a grand old man he insisted on publishing the original, rather unwieldy piece of prose. I have never come across anyone who has managed to read that.)

It seems that Tvardovsky was sent two manuscripts, one by Solzhenitsyn about life in the camps and another by Lidiya Chukovskaya about the life outside the camps while the purge was raging. He sent both to Khrushchev for decision and Nikita Sergeyevich decided on “Ivan Denisovich”. Thus history is made. Chukovskaya’s novella, “Empty House” and her other works were published in the West and were not available in Russia till the nineties. She is, as it happens, a very good writer and a very courageous woman.

The publication caused a sensation. For the first time in the Soviet Union a truthful account of life in the camps was published and could be discussed openly. There were a few other tales of this kind, then the curtain came down again.

I remember reading the novella as a teenager and finding it impressive but not nearly as shattering as my parents and their friends found it. I had not lived through the whole period when everyone knew what was going on and nobody was allowed to mention it. Anyone who wonders why people from the Soviet Union are a little odd in their attitudes might like to contemplate what it feels like to lead that sort of existence.

Solzhenitsyn, subsequently was forced into “internal exile”, a well-known Russian phenomenon and spent his time feverishly writing and, when necessary, hiding his work or getting friends to smuggle it out to the West, though he had a very ambivalent attitude to his work being published abroad. His view was that he survived imprisonment, camps of various kinds, and a bout of near fatal cancer that had been cured almost miraculously in Tashkent, in order to be a witness for the truth. (One wonders how he and Whittaker Chambers would have got on. Not very well, I suspect.)

The best novels are those that are based directly on his experience, “First Circle” and “Cancer Ward”, though these, too, had to be edited quite seriously. The sad truth is that Solzhenitsyn was not a very good writer but what he had to say was vitally important to us all. His testimony for truth made him one of those on whom great historical changes depend.

The ultimate example of this was “The Gulag Archipelago”, written in secret in the Soviet Union, buried in various places, away from prying eyes, and smuggled out to the West to be published in various languages in 1973, a year before the author’s own deportation from his homeland.

The writing of “Gulag” between 1958 and 1968 is a phenomenal achievement, made even more so by the knowledge that if any of it had been found, if even one of Solzhenitsyn’s few friends (he could not afford too many) betrayed him, he would have found himself in another labour camp for many years or, possibly, in a psychiatric hospital where the torments were even more horrific. Still, he wrote it and hid it and allowed friends to take it out.

In 1970 he received the Nobel Prize for literature but did not actually collect it till after his deportation. He did not want to leave the country for fear of not being allowed back and the Swedish government, rightly, refused to give it him at the embassy in Moscow.

“Gulag Archipelago” is not the first book about the Soviet repressions, nor is it the best book, though the later, edited versions are extremely readable. Actually, the subject matter is such that even the original three-volume version is readable, despite the repetitions and unnecessary diversions. On the other hand, Robert Conquest’s “The Great Terror” came out in 1968 to much acclaim; there had been various memoirs, not least “Under Two Dictators” by Margarete Buber-Neumann.

Conquest’s book did a great deal of damage to the bien-pensant left in the West with his careful collection of as much material as he could find; his completely matter of fact tone; and by the fact that it came out in the year when the Soviet tanks put an end to the notion of “Communism with a human face”. This was yet another example of enemies agreeing on the truth of political events and the large well-meaning crowd being left out in the cold. Knowledgeable and principled opponents of Communism recognized that it could not have a “human face” and predicted that the Soviet Union will have to intervene forcibly. The Soviet apparat agreed. It was the soggy, well-meaning, slightly leftish public opinion that was shocked.

“Gulag Archipelago” and Solzhenitsyn’s life and personality caused even more of an outcry. The world seemed to divide into those who read and understood the book (or, at least, parts of it) and those who refused to have anything with it, maintaining hysterically that it was all an imperialist plot to discredit the socialist ideal. The point was that “Gulag Archipelago” abandoned any pretence that everything in the Soviet Union was fine until Stalin came to power. (Conquest did not pretend but his theme was more limited in scope.)

The horrors of the Leninist system and of the short interregnum were detailed as far as Solzhenitsyn could gather material. The publication of the book was one of those events about which one can say with some certainty that the world would never be the same again. In the Soviet Union banned and samizdat copies circulated but the whole work was not published till 1989. So far as I know it is still in print.

Solzhenitsyn’s life in exile was less of an exemplar. His refusal to have anything to do with his neighbours in Vermont led to some resentment at first. Eventually, the neighbours shrugged their shoulders. If he preferred to stay at home and write, surrounded by extra security; if his contacts were the international great and the good rather than the good citizens of Vermont; so be it.

For some people Solzhenitsyn continued to be the great oracle as he attacked the West for its weakness, venality, materialism and corruption as well as for not intervening more decisively in the Russian Civil War of 1918 – 1921. Others felt that this showed some ingratitude but, more importantly, a refusal to understand what democracy and liberalism were really about. In words that have become sadly familiar to us, Solzhenitsyn proclaimed that democracy was all wrong because mere humans cannot really debate and disagree on God’s order of things.

Then there was the problem of his supposed anti-semitism. The subject is too convoluted for me to go into now. The row centred on his proclamation of trenchant Russian nationalism and his assertions that the Russian autocracy was not anti-semitic. Whether he was himself that way inclined remains the subject of ferocious arguments – his followers in Russia certainly were. The Russian nationalist dissidents of the last decade of the Soviet Union were not liberal or democratic in their outlook and despised the likes of Andrei Sakharov. Had Mr Kagan and his colleagues spent some time talking to them before 1991, they might have been a little less optimistic in the subsequent years.

What Solzhenitsyn did was to write feverishly. He produced various papers that ranged from his entirely admirable Nobel speech to his less than admirable late analyses of what was happening and what should happen in the Soviet Union and then in Russia. But mostly he was writing “The Red Wheel” cycle of novels about the Soviet tragedy as seen through the lives of a few people. Very few people, if any, have managed to get through the novels. He republished his early works in their unedited version and that was not a huge success either.

In 1994 he went back to Russia to be greeted with official acclaim. Finally, his own homeland accepted him for his achievements in the fight against the powers of darkness. He was not happy because he did not like the way the country was going – as few did in the mid-nineties. Putin’s regime, on the other hand, he accepted and even supported publicly as being a truer Russian model. One wonders how he squared that entirely with Putin’s comments about the collapse of the Soviet Union being the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.

It is a little hard to summarize a man of such calibre so soon after his death, which explains the raggedness of this piece. A towering figure of the fight against the Evil Empire, undoubtedly; much over-rated as a writer because of what he wrote rather than how he wrote it; and a questionable and controversial political thinker. There is no question, though, that he was one of those who changed the world (sort of).