There was always something suspiciously opportunistic about the way the West thrust greatness on Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The muted reaction to his death (a reaction bordering almost on indifference) has revived the old debate about western motives. It has been a long-held view in much of the non-western world and, indeed, even in independent quarters in the West that lionising Solzhenitsyn (Nobel Prize et al) had more to do with politics than literature.
The argument that the West never really took Solzehnitsyn seriously as a writer but paid him so much of attention simply because it saw him as a valuable pawn in its campaign against the Soviet Union gained currency when, after the end of the Cold War, western intellectuals and governments started to ignore him. Having served their purpose, he was now dispensable and whatever little symbolic value he still had for western political interests vanished when Solzhenitsyn returned home in 1994 and was embraced by the post-Soviet Russian establishment.
Solzhenitsyn’s western admirers were to suffer more angst as he drew closer to the Kremlin under Vladimir Putin, who assiduously cultivated him. He was attacked for praising Mr. Putin at a time when the West was criticising the Russian government over its human rights record. Subsequently, as he became more deeply nationalistic and anti-western in his public pronouncements, his erstwhile patrons shunned him, seeing him as an embarrassment.
The West’s relations with Solzhenitsyn had, in fact, started to cool off much earlier when, during his American “exile,” he gave a lecture at Harvard University in 1978 in which he (undiplomatically) attacked the western vision of the world and many of its values. He accused the West of suffering from “blindness of superiority” and trying to cast the rest of the world in its own image.
He said: “But the blindness of superiority continues … and upholds the belief that vast regions everywhere on our planet should develop and mature to the level of present-day western systems which in theory are the best and in practice the most attractive. There is this belief that all those other worlds are only being temporarily prevented by wicked governments or by heavy crises or by their own barbarity or incomprehension from taking the way of western pluralistic democracy and from adopting the western way of life. Countries are judged on the merit of their progress in this direction. However, it is a conception which developed out of western incomprehension of the essence of other worlds, out of the mistake of measuring them all with a western yardstick. The real picture of our planet’s development is quite different.”
Solzhenitsyn tore into contemporary western ideas of freedom and democracy and, in a devastating attack on the western claims about its superiority, said he, for one, would not recommend the western model of society to his countrymen. “But should someone ask me whether I would indicate the West such as it is today as a model to my country, frankly I would have to answer negatively. No, I could not recommend your society in its present state as an ideal for the transformation of ours. Through intense suffering our country has now achieved a spiritual development of such intensity that the western system in its present state of spiritual exhaustion does not look attractive. Even those characteristics of your life which I have just mentioned are extremely saddening.”
And then he ticked off the western media: “The press … of course… enjoys the widest freedom. (I shall be using the word press to include all media.) But what sort of use does it make of this freedom? Here again, the main concern is not to infringe the letter of the law. There is no moral responsibility for deformation or disproportion. What sort of responsibility does a journalist have to his readers, or to history? If they have misled public opinion or the government by inaccurate information or wrong conclusions, do we know of any cases of public recognition and rectification of such mistakes by the same journalist or the same newspaper? No, it does not happen, because it would damage sales. A nation may be the victim of such a mistake, but the journalist always gets away with it. … or we may witness shameless intrusion on the privacy of well-known people under the slogan: everyone is entitled to know everything. But this is a false slogan, characteristic of a false era: people also have the right not to know, and it is a much more valuable one. The right not to have their divine souls stuffed with gossip, nonsense, vain talk’.”
His hosts and the “liberal” audience were aghast. And, then, the penny dropped: Solzhenitsyn was too independent to be trusted; he might have been anti-communism but he was no admirer of capitalism and western-style democracy either. Some see that lecture as a turning point in the West’s attitude towards Solzhenitsyn — the point at which it realised the folly of talking up a man who was as uncompromising in his hostility to some of the leading western assumptions as he was in fighting Stalinism. It had created a “monster” who was threatening to devour it.
“From that moment, Solzhenitsyn was as repudiated in the West as in the Soviet Union. The poor old boy, so went the on dit, had become disoriented by his terrible experiences, embittered to the point where his judgement had become warped ... He was subjected to that condescending marginalisation that is the western equivalent of confinement in a Soviet asylum,” Andrew Cusack, Associate Editor of The New Criterion, a well-known literary American magazine, writes in his blog.
Seen against this backdrop, it becomes clear why the West has shed few tears for the man it once hailed as a “hero” and literary icon. “I am utterly amazed and totally disgusted that the passing of this giant — the Tolstoy and Dostoevsky of our time — has evoked so little press interest,” wrote an Indian admirer of Solzhenitsyn, Ganpat Ram, on a British media website.
The obituaries, revealingly, preferred to focus not so much on Solzhenitsyn the writer as on his “courageous crusade” against communism. Here was a writer who was given the Nobel Prize for Literature and now we are being told that, no, he was only as good as his fight against Stalin — he just happened to be a writer as well. Commentators unabashedly confessed that though they had great “admiration” for him, they never got round to finishing any of his books.
As The Observer columnist Henry Porter noted, even allowing for the fact that Solzhenitsyn was, often, a difficult person, the obituaries were “strangely cool, sometimes even hostile.” The implication of much of what had been written was that Solzhenitsyn was a “bore, unconcerned with style and too reverberative and earnest for the West’s literary salon.” He quoted one writer as saying Solzhenitsyn might have been a “brave witness” but that did not mean that he was also a good writer. In the end, his writing failed to “outlive his subject.”
“What I suspect this writer is saying is that Solzhenitsyn had served a purpose in the Cold War but had long since outlived his usefulness to the liberal West, which, now that the Gulag had been exposed and dismantled, could quietly forget any notion of his literary genius,” Mr. Porter pointed out.
Within days of Solzhenitsyn’s death, The Times ran a long story headed, “Letter to The Times that showed the darker side of Solzhenitsyn,” on his “cantankerous side” and his intolerance of others’ views. The newspaper dipped into its archives and pulled out a letter Solzhenitsyn sent to it in 1974, the year he was expelled from the Soviet Union, attacking Zhores Medvedev, a fellow exile, accusing him of being an “apologist” for the then Soviet regime. But The Times declined to publish the letter because it contained unsubstantiated allegations against Medvedev and Solzhenitsyn refused to provide evidence to back his claims.
“The Times, to Solzhenitsyn’s irritation, refused to print the letter unless the author could provide evidence that he had quoted Dr. Medvedev accurately. The dissident, who was then at the height of his fame, angrily declined and sent the letter to Aftenposten, a Norwegian newspaper, and a Russian-language newspaper based in Paris. The letter appeared in both publications but it was never published in English,” the newspaper said.
For good measure, it had extensive quotes form Dr. Medvedev, who lives in London, portraying Solzhenitsyn as intolerant, egotistical, arrogant and ungrateful to those who helped him — a man who “habitually cut off his friends when they ceased to be useful to him.”
So, in a sense, Solzhenitsyn ultimately met his match in his western “friends.” How apt.
6 months ago