“For a country to have a great writer … is like having a second government. That’s why no régime has ever loved great writers, only minor ones.”
The great Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who died 3 August 2008 aged 89, made this remark 40 years ago, in The First Circle (written in the early 1960s, and first published in the West in 1968).
The mighty man, who stood up to one of the most tyrannical states in history – and outlived it by almost 20 years – was buried this week at the Donskoy Monastery, Moscow, as he had wished. That was a far more dignified and respectable departure than what the late, unlamented Soviet Union received when it disintegrated in 1989-90.
From the time his death was reported, post-Soviet Russia, and the rest of the reading and caring world, stood in solemn, grateful silence in awe of the living legend that Solzhenitsyn had become in his own life time. As a small-time writer of no consequence, I join them in my own personal salute.
As every writer – major and minor – who has ever heeded his or her conscience knows, standing up to governments is an extremely hazardous business, especially in a world where might often emerges as right, at least in the short term. In the twenty first century, governments may adopt more subtle methods of suppressing dissent, but their final effect is no less sinister than those brutal ones that Soviet Union followed at the height of the Cold War in the 1950s and 1960s.
I must admit here and now that I haven’t read any of Solzhenitsyn’s celebrated works. But that doesn’t diminish my admiration for him as one of the world’s best known writer-dissidents. Any man who stands up to Big Bad Governments defies all odds, and a man who employs only ideas and words in such a struggle is a greater hero in my mind than anyone else.
A high school teacher of mine, who was a great fan of Solzhenitsyn, once told us: “Never underestimate the power of well written and sincere words.” That was in the mid 1980s, when the writer was living in exile in the United States and the Soviet Union still seemed unshakable. But subsequent events have proved how prophetic those words were.
In a sense, many of us will never quite discover the true Solzhenitsyn. Unless we learn Russian at this stage in life, we can only read Solzhenitsyn through English translations — and as I have discovered this week by browsing widely online for writing by and about him, the quality of these translations vary considerably.
One of the more insightful, short autobiographical pieces is on the Nobel Prize website, where he talks about how he finally came to publish his writing:
“During all the years until 1961, not only was I convinced that I should never see a single line of mine in print in my lifetime, but, also, I scarcely dared allow any of my close acquaintances to read anything I had written because I feared that this would become known. Finally, at the age of 42, this secret authorship began to wear me down. The most difficult thing of all to bear was that I could not get my works judged by people with literary training. In 1961, after the 22nd Congress of the U.S.S.R. Communist Party and Tvardovsky’s speech at this, I decided to emerge and to offer One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.
“Such an emergence seemed, then, to me, and not without reason, to be very risky because it might lead to the loss of my manuscripts, and to my own destruction. But, on that occasion, things turned out successfully, and after protracted efforts, A.T. Tvardovsky was able to print my novel one year later. The printing of my work was, however, stopped almost immediately and the authorities stopped both my plays and (in 1964) the novel, The First Circle, which, in 1965, was seized together with my papers from the past years. During these months it seemed to me that I had committed an unpardonable mistake by revealing my work prematurely and that because of this I should not be able to carry it to a conclusion.”
Thus, the 1960s was the turning point when hitherto obscure Solzhenitsyn burst into the literary landscape of his native country, and his uncompromising stand against the suffering of his people brought him worldwide attention.
Solzhenitsyn’s open letter to the Fourth Soviet Writers’ Congress, on 16 May 1967, was particularly outspoken and expressive of his views of the social responsibility of writers and artistes:
“Literature that is not the breath of contemporary society, that dares not transmit the pains and fears of that society, that does not warn in time against threatening moral and social dangers — such literature does not deserve the name of literature; it is only a façade. Such literature loses the confidence of its own people, and its published works are used as wastepaper instead of being read.”
By then under siege by the entire might of the USSR, and having only his formidable guts and wits as his defence, he already had a strong sense of destiny. In the same open letter, he added: “I am of course confident that I will fulfill my tasks as a writer in all circumstances — from my grave even more successfully and more irrefutably than in my lifetime. No one can bar the road to truth, and to advance its cause I am prepared to accept even death. But may it be that repeated lessons will finally teach us not to stop the writer’s pen during his lifetime? At no time has this ennobled our history.”
Solzhenitsyn’s global stature in the world of letters was reaffirmed in 1970 when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. But he could not receive the prize personally in Stockholm – he was afraid he would not be allowed back into the Soviet Union. He finally collected his prize only at the 1974 Nobel ceremony after he had been deported from the Soviet Union.
In his Nobel Prize Lecture (delivered to the Swedish Academy but never actually given as a lecture), I came across these words which epitomise the man and his views:
“Woe to that nation whose literature is disturbed by the intervention of power. Because that is not just a violation against ‘freedom of print’, it is the closing down of the heart of the nation, a slashing to pieces of its memory. The nation ceases to be mindful of itself, it is deprived of its spiritual unity, and despite a supposedly common language, compatriots suddenly cease to understand one another. Silent generations grow old and die without ever having talked about themselves, either to each other or to their descendants. When writers such as Achmatova and Zamjatin – interred alive throughout their lives – are condemned to create in silence until they die, never hearing the echo of their written words, then that is not only their personal tragedy, but a sorrow to the whole nation, a danger to the whole nation.”
Solzhenitsyn’s writing is studded with such gems that I’ve resolved to discover even if belatedly. After all, I’m now at the exact age (42) when he finally decided to start publishing his work — a monumental personal decision that has left its mark on history.
For now, my favourite Solzhenitsyn quote is one that resonates so well with my own current turmoils in life: “If one is forever cautious, can one remain a human being?”
I think I know the answer.