The AP has reported that the Nobel Prize winning Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn has died (see here). Solzhenitsyn was a solid anti-Communist, who wrote about his bad experiences in a Soviet labor camp. The book in which he did that is entitled The Gulag Archipelago.
I first heard of Solzhenitsyn in the seventh grade, when my liberal social studies teacher lent me a copy of The Gulag Archipelago. I had a hard time getting into it, since reading was somewhat of a chore for me, plus I had problems with his writing style. But I hope to read his works sometime in the future, for he was truly a remarkable man.
The second time I encountered Solzhenitsyn’s name was when I read Gerald Ford’s A Time to Heal (for some reason, I could tolerate Ford’s writing style!). Ford was talking about his run against Ronald Reagan for the 1976 Republican Presidential nomination, and he said that he got a lot of right-wing criticism for his refusal to meet with Solzhenitsyn. In None Dare Call It Treason: 25 Years Later, John Stormer quotes from the Henry Kissinger-Brent Scowcroft memorandum that dissuaded Ford from meeting with the Russian dissident. Essentially, it said that doing so would offend the Soviets.
Believe it or not, that’s the way our foreign policy was before Ronald Reagan came along: We were reluctant to speak against the Soviet dictatorship, for that could offend them, and we didn’t want to provoke a nuclear war! Sure, we made bold moves every now and then, as Jimmy Carter did with his famous grain embargo. But, overall, we were walking on egg-shells in our relationship with the Soviets. We called this approach “detente.”
But Reagan came along and spoke truth to power. He built up our country’s military rather than relying on a bunch of phony “SALT” treaties. When he did make agreements with the Soviets, his policy was “trust but verify,” meaning he wouldn’t allow the USSR to get away with murder. He walked out of a summit in Iceland when Gorbachev pressured him to give up on Star Wars. In Berlin, he boldly said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!,” a phrase that some of his aides deemed a little unwise. He stood up for human rights and proclaimed the virtues of freedom, even when he visited the Soviet Union. And there was no nuclear war as a result. Instead, the Cold War ended.
But back to Solzhenitsyn! When Solzhenitsyn came to the United States, people expected him to give a glowing account of the American way of life. Instead, in his 1978 commencement address at Harvard, that bastion of secular humanism, he criticized the West for its materialism, moral decadence, and secularism (see here). As far as he was concerned, Russia didn’t need that kind of democracy, for it could chart its own path to freedom. Solzhenitsyn stood for the Kingdom of God, not the kingdom of America!
As I read about Solzhenitsyn on wikipedia and in the AP article, I see that, in general, he was not exactly a predictable person. He criticized the American anti-war movement for encouraging the U.S. to betray Far Eastern nations (i.e., Vietnam) to Communist tyranny, yet he also condemned the U.S. intervention in Kosovo. The AP article narrates that “[d]uring the 1990s, his stalwart nationalist views, his devout Orthodoxy, his disdain for capitalism and disgust with the tycoons who bought Russian industries and resources cheaply following the Soviet collapse, were unfashionable. He faded from public view.” He refused to accept Russia’s highest honor from Boris Yeltsin, whose Presidency he detested. And his relationship with Vladimir Putin was rather ambiguous, for he liked Putin’s acknowledgement of the importance of Christianity to Russian culture, although he disagreed with some of his actions. He was like an Old Testament prophet, who stood firmly by his convictions, regardless of their popularity. And he managed to win leaders over to his ideas.
And so the world lost a great man today. I hope to learn more about him in years to come.