Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn: Some Lessons for Americans

Dr. Douglas is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Illinois, Urbana.

Within the past few years, Mr. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn has gained a certain amount of notoriety in the United States, most obviously after his expulsion from the Soviet Union and his well-publicized confrontation with the Russian government. Needless to say, his literary reputation has grown steadily in this country with the publication in English of such major works as The Cancer Ward, August 1914, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovith, The First Circle, and most recently, The Gulag Archipelago. It is generally understood by Americans that Solzhenitsyn has been a great fighter for freedom in our time. But the truth is that his importance in this regard is greatly undervalued in America — taken as a matter of course, we might say. Mr. Solzhenitsyn is in fact one of the great libertarians of our time, and the lessons he has for us are not regional or narrowly historical. They are not intended for Russians alone. They are directed not only at the Soviet government and the Communist system, as it is convenient and pleasurable for Americans to believe, but to all people who value freedom and see it slipping from their grasp.

To a certain extent Mr. Solzhenitsyn has been something of an enigma to Americans. A great many who read of his difficulties with the Communist government in Russia were not able to understand his desire to stay on his native soil when he could easily have accepted a comfortable asylum in any number of countries. A great many could not understand his feeling of tragic loss at having to leave his homeland when it seemed so much simpler to wage his fight from a distant position of safety. (Actually there was nothing at all strange about Solzhenitsyn’s desire to stay in Russia; it was no more strange than George Washington’s desire to stay in the United States when he had to face up to the English king’s tax collector and garrison troops.) And doubtless many Americans were puzzled, if not injured, by Solzhenitsyn’s dark hints to the press that the United States was not his idea of a libertarian’s paradise; that in spite of our history we have tended to allow our liberties to erode and decay; that we are a decadent culture.

Solzhenitsyn’s latest book to appear in the West, The Gulag Archipelago, is the strongest statement thus far of his political beliefs and his most forceful condemnation of Communist totalitarianism. In the Western or non-Communist world we have been offered over the years a number of books exposing the horrors of the Stalinist regime, so it may seem natural for many people to accept the book’s conclusions more or less routinely. Among certain intellectuals of the Communist world, on the other hand, it must have come as something of a shock. It is a treatise, not a novel; its truths are explicit not implicit. In recent years Solzhenitsyn has been praised both in Russia and in the Satellite countries as one of the great social/humanitarian novelists who accept the Communist verities in their purity, but inveigh against the excesses of the Stalinist era.

Spokesman for Communism?

Georg Lukas, for example, the well-known Hungarian literary critic and aesthetician wrote a book on Solzhenitsyn several years ago, in which one of his major theses was that Solzhenitsyn is a throwback to the literary tradition of "social realism" of the twenties. He speaks, so it is said, for an untarnished Communism of a kind that was beginning to be established in Russia before the rise of Stalin. To thinkers like Lukas, the Stalin era was a time of distortion and corruption, and what we need is a return to the simon pure, humanitarian Communism of Lenin and others of his stripe. Solzhenitsyn, according to this kind of thinking, was just the sort of man to effect the return and the purification.

But to defenders of the faith like Lukas, The Gulag Archipelago must have hit like a bolt of lightning. For it appears that Solzhenitsyn is not their man at all. The weight of the book does not support the theory that there ever was a pure, humanitarian form of Communism. It suggests instead that from the very beginning Communism was a corrupt political ideology, that it never served humanitarian or libertarian ends, but was always autocratic, despotic, and totalitarian in spirit. The lesson of the book seems to be that if you want to find the truth about any given political regime you must pay attention to what it actually does, not what it says. Outward ideology is a cipher, a nothing, a vapor; it is actual political practice, the presence or absence of individual liberty, that counts; this is the all, the everything, the alpha, the omega.

A Myth Dispelled

For many European intellectuals (and many Americans, too, needless to say) it became a convenient myth that Communism just needed to be put back on the track, that the thirties was a decade of excess. What was necessary was a corrective hand, a new Communist regime to correct the abuses and restore the virtues of democratic humanitarianism. The thesis of The Gulag Archipelago is that at no time — from the very moment of the 1917 revolution to the present — did the Communist regime in Russia show the slightest concern for freedom and individual liberty, that the political system of the Soviet government was largely an extension, a renewal, even an intensification of the kind of tyranny practiced for centuries by the Tsarist regime.

The Gulag Archipelago is a book about prisons — prisons, interrogations, beatings, the general system whereby human life is ordered and systematically controlled in the Soviet Union. Gulag is an acronym for Russian words meaning Chief Administration of Corrective Labor Camps. The archipelago is not a geographical locale, a string of islands, as one might immediately suspect, but a string of prison camps, scattered, says Solzhenitsyn, "from the Bering Strait almost to the Bosporus" — which is to say, across the whole of Russia. During the Stalin years these prisons, or camps, held between twelve and twenty million prisoners. The point is, however, the prisons were not an outgrowth of Stalin’s twisted, paranoid mind, but a longstanding system of control, developed in Russia under the Tsars and welcomed by Lenin when he came to power in 1917.

In a way, the system of prisons, labor camps, night-time arrests —whatever name we may give to it as a whole — became a more essential and central part of the Communist regime than it had been at any other time in Russian history, perhaps the history of the world. Terror became a branch of government, almost as we in America speak of our executive, judicial, legislative "branches"; namely, as a functional, essential, necessary way of operating. It was not just a temporary expediency, an historical wrinkle; it was a foundation-stone of the system.

The Evidence is Clear

Very remarkably, and with steady, relentless determination, Solzhenitsyn makes his case that the system of terror was not just a wave in Soviet history, but the whole ocean. The book is documented in great detail, although it is the documentation of the artist, the seer, that we see, not mainly the documentation of the rigorous historian; for Solzhenitsyn had to gather his evidence as best he could, in bits and pieces, from here and there. He was dealing, after all, with a system of government that does not make much information available to critics and historians.

Still, the weight of the historical evidence is clear. Soviet history, of course, is hard to assemble, and the Russian people themselves as Mr. Solzhenitsyn remarks, have a tendency to remember "not what actually happened, not history, but merely that hackneyed dotted line they have chosen to drive into our memories by incessant hammering." Ask a Russian about public political trials. He will remember one or two. "He will remember those of Bukharinand Zinoviev. And, knitting his brow, that of the Promparty too. And that’s all. There were no other public trials. Yet in actual fact they began right after the October Revolution. In 1918, quantities of them were taking place in many different tribunals,"1 and Solzhenitsyn supplies a whole chapter full of them, showing unequivocally that all of the abuses of the judicial system under Stalin were present from the very early days.

The book is full of superb ironies and devastating contrasts —contrasts of the tyrannies of old feudal Russia with those of the twentieth century, and invariably the modern, "humanitarian" Soviet system suffers by the contrast. Prisons were better under Peter the Great we find; torture was used less often; indeed it would seem that all the arts of oppression are more highly refined in the twentieth century than in the sixteenth.

What had been acceptable under Tsar Mikhailovich in the seventeenth century, what had already been regarded as barbarism under Peter the Great, what might have been used against ten or twenty people in all during the time of Biron in the mid-eighteenth century, what had already been totally impossible under Catherine the Great, was all being practiced during the flowering of the glorious twentieth century — in a society based on socialist principles, and at a time when airplanes were flying and the radio and talking films had already appeared — not by one scoundrel alone in one secret place only, but by tens of thousands of specially trained human beasts standing over millions of defenseless victims.2

Solzhenitsyn’s mood shifts from irony to rage, but his indictment is always the same: conditions of life were actually more humane under the Tsars. Reception at prison camp?

They would assign the newcomers brigade leaders from among the camp veterans, who would quickly teach them to live, to make do, to submit to discipline, and to cheat. And from their very first morning, they would march off to work because the chimes of the great Epoch were striking and could not wait. The Soviet Union is not, after all, some Tsarist hard-labor Akatui for you, where prisoners got three days’ rest after they arrived.3

Treatment of peasants? Consider the crime of six collective farmers who were tried and executed as plotters against the people.

After they had finished mowing the collective farm with their own hands, they had gone back and mowed a second time along the hummocks to get a little hay for their own cows. The All-Russian Central Executive Committee refused to pardon all six of these peasants, and the sentence of execution was carried out…. What cruel and evil Saltychikha, what utterly repulsive serf-owner would have killed six peasants for their miserable little clippings of hay? If one had dared to beat them with birch switches even once, we would know about it and read about it in school and curse that name.4

Yes, tyranny never disappeared in Russia, even in the early joyful days of the Revolution. But why, one wonders, would a political movement, conceived in lofty humanitarian and democratic terms choose the path of totalitarianism and almost immediately find itself devoted to practices that were as bad or worse than anything found in the regime it was displacing? One might answer the question in historical terms by pointing out that Russia had no long tradition of liberty behind it, that a new government could not, after all, be expected to differ very much from one which had been entrenched for a thousand years. Or one may answer, in more philosophical terms, that Marxist doctrine itself never really had any libertarian inclinations; that it was from the start dogmatic, doctrinaire, intolerant, despotic, collectivist, totalitarian.

Either of these answers may be true. But they are not of great interest to Mr. Solzhenitsyn who is neither an historian nor a philosopher — just a dogged individualist and libertarian who calls things as he sees them. His viewpoint is always nothing but that of a man who knows freedom when he sees it, and refuses to countenance the substitutes that use its name in deceit.

Twisting the Language

This relabeling and obscuring of things, the distorting and twisting of language is, of course, one of the most salient characteristics of modern Communism, as we in the non-Communist world have long been aware. George Orwell, for example, one of the most powerful and incisive critics of totalitarian government in the twentieth century described it to perfection back in the 1930s during the Spanish Civil War in his Homage to Catalonia, and later in Animal Farm and 1984. Political language, Orwell perceived, was used to obscure political reality. If you torture somebody or slap somebody in a cell, you find some euphemism or abstract phraseology that somehow hides the fact and convinces others that you are not really doing something bad after all. Needless to say, the Communists are not the only offenders, but they have probably been the most persistent and ingenious. Under this system political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets; this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of Scurvy in Arctic labor camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements.5

As a literary man, a man of words, Solzhenitsyn takes pains to document this tendency to rename things — to obscure, to befuddle, to confuse. Once again, of course, the practice goes back historically to the very roots of the Communist regime. During and immediately after the 1917 Revolution, for example, there was a tendency to rename everything that had to be held over from the Tsarist regime. "Thus the death penalty was rechristened ‘the supreme measure’ — no longer a punishment, but a means of social defense." In 1927, the Russian Central Committee abolished capital punishment except for crimes against the state and army. One such crime was "banditry," but in time it was obvious that "every armed nationalist who doesn’t agree with the central government is a ‘bandit,’ " and, similarly, "any participant in an urban rebellion is also a’bandit.’"6

Or consider prisons. In February 1917, all the political prisons of the Tsar, both those used for interrogation and for the serving of sentences were emptied. But, by December of that same year, "it had already become clear that it was altogether impossible to do without prisons, that some people simply couldn’t be left anywhere else except behind bars, because —well, simply because there was no place for them in the new society." All the same old institutions were needed, nothing was really new; but it had to be made to seem as if everything were new.

Of course they proclaimed immediately that the horrors of the Tsarist prisons would not be repeated; that fatiguing correction would not be permitted; that there would be no compulsory silence in prison, no solitary confinement, no separating the prisoners from one another during outdoor walks, no marching in step or single file, not even any locked cells…. What was really necessary, however, was to repudiate all those old, besmirched words. So now they called them political isolators — political detention centers — demonstrating with this phrase their view of the members of once revolutionary parties as political enemies and stressing not the punitive role of the bars but only the necessity of isolating (and only temporarily, it appeared) these old-fashioned revolutionaries from the onward march of the new society.7

Solzhenitsyn lays much of the blame for the perversions of language on the great Lenin himself. Stalin and his henchmen were carrying on a tradition that went back to the revolution and this can be seen clearly manifested in Lenin’s letters and state papers. Lenin is thus not the simon-pure man of the people that Communist visionaries have assumed him to be; the truth is that he was every bit as inclined to self-deception and verbal trickery as any of the apostles of terror who held sway in the thirties and forties. As early as 1917, Lenin called for the "merciless suppression of attempts at anarchy on the part of drunkards, hooligans, counterrevolutionaries, and other persons." Later on he came to see the enemies of the workers in rather broader terms, and in his essay of 1918, "How to Organize the Competition," he proclaimed the common purpose of "purging the land of all kinds of harmful insects." This classification of "insect" became a remarkably large one:

Under the term insects he included not only all class enemies but also "workers malingering at their work" — for example, the typesetters of the Petrograd Party printing shops. (That is what time does. It is difficult for us nowadays to understand how workers who had just become dictators were immediately inclined to malinger at work they were doing for themselves.)

The forms of insect-purging which Lenin conceived of in this essay were most varied: in some places they were placed under arrest, in other places set to cleaning latrines; in some, "after having served their time in punishment cells, they would be handed yellow tickets"; in others parasites would be shot….

It is not possible for us at this time to fully investigate exactly who fell within the broad definition of insects; the population of Russia was too heterogeneous and encompassed small, special groups, entirely superfluous and, today, forgotten. The people in the local zemstvo self-governing bodies were, of course, insects. People in the cooperative movement were also insects, as were all owners of their own homes. There were not a few insects among the teachers in the gymnasiums. The church parish councils were made up almost exclusively of insects, and it was insects of course who sang in church choirs. All priests were insects — and monks and nuns were even more so.9

What of Lenin?

What then must we conclude about a man like Lenin and the system of government he spawned? Was Lenin a good man corrupted by power? Was he a man whose humanitarian ideals were lost when faced with political reality and the complexities of governmental administration? Actually the biographical details are not important; nor are the specific historical reasons for the development of Russian Communism into a form of totalitarianism. What is more important is the more general lesson we learn from it all, which is nothing other than the fact that it is a characteristic of political systems that they tend to mask their power and true style under some kind of smoke screen, some kind of symbolic or mythical legerdemain, some kind of verbal deceit. Older forms of absolutism — a monarchy, let us say — might justify themselves by spinning out myths about the relationship between the monarch and some kind of deity; tyranny might be justified by drawing a parallel between royal whim and divine law. Under the Soviet system, where a great pretense is made that the people themselves are the rulers and proprietors, the techniques get a little more sticky and much more ingenuity is called for. Everything must go on behind some kind of doctrinal smoke screen. While there is the assumption that "the people," or "the workers" are sovereign and hold the reins of government, we can see from passages like those above, that the doctrine, the professed beliefs, are nothing but elaborate charades.

Is there Liberty?

Ultimately the only kind of concrete reality in the political sphere is individual liberty. It either exists or it doesn’t exist, and no reference to abstract vapors like "the people," or "the workers" makes any difference one way or the other. In the case of the Soviet system it is plain from the evidence offered by Mr. Solzhenitsyn that the system never provided anything but a continuation (in fact, an intensification) of the kind of tyranny that it pledged to replace — all else was window dressing, tissue-thin facade meant to distract the attention of the masses as a new set of rulers took the helm.

Again it will be remarked that all this may be obvious to large numbers of Americans who have never been slow to perceive the lessons that can be learned from other people’s political systems. But what is the relevance and application to American history of the experiences of this, an altogether different kind of political system? How can we compare, in any way, our experience with that of a regime which makes use of political prisons, of torture, of brutality, of secret police, and all the other tools and techniques of modern dictatorship?

At first blush no comparison seems possible. But remember the main lesson that Russian history has to teach us. It is that no form of political ideology or metaphysics can be entirely trusted; no system of government should catch us asleep. We must always get around behind the outward ideology and seek out the reality. Is there individual liberty or is there not? We Americans are sure that we enjoy it ourselves because we have institutions and traditions guaranteeing it, because it is talked of everywhere, and because our political institutions regularly trumpet the blessings they confer. But remember that the institutions and traditions are abstractions, and when we look at the philosophical abstractions in a mind like Lenin’s — with its full complement of "workers," "insects," "hooligans," and so on —we can see that any set of political beliefs must be looked upon critically. Any given political leader is wedded to and inseparable from the set of political shibboleths and platitudes in which his roots are planted. Liberty, on the other hand, is not tied to temporal dogmas; still, it is easy to forget because it is stern, hard and unglamorous; there is nothing soporific about it. How easy it is to forget liberty and live instead in a world of diverting and comforting abstractions which enable us to gain power over others or force our will on them.

And of course we Americans are susceptible to our own set of political myths. While we have no torture chambers, no Gulag Archipelago, we, too, are manipulated by candied ideologies, and our freedom of action is far more severely restricted than we care to admit. And it is restricted by means that are not very different from those which are used to justify a police state in the Soviet Union.

We, too, tend to live in a world of hazy political abstractions and bromides; we have faith in vague, misty, and poorly defined notions — yes, "the people," for example. It is always urged that this or that political act is "for the good of the people," even though most politicians who abundantly use the term would be hard put to explain what they mean by it. (The fact that two such utterly different political personalities as George McGovern and George Wallace both claim that their own personal appeal is "to the people" shows how nebulous and foolish the idea is.) The concept of "people" is usually used very much like the Communists use the concept of "worker" or "proletarian" —namely as a means of forestalling the necessity to think or actually grapple with reality.

Freedom of Speech?

Freedom of speech? It may seem obvious that in America the newspaperman can write whatever he likes; the citizen can mount a stump with impunity or publish a tract against the government without fear of winding up behind bars. Nevertheless, freedom of speech is not by any means as widespread as one may think. Anyone may speak freely, to be sure, as long as he doesn’t challenge the prevailing standardized beliefs, the current mythology of uplift and social reform; the nonconformist always faces the possibility of professional suicide, social ostracism or oblivion. One may speak freely within a certain very carefully circumscribed framework; outside of this framework freedom of speech is very restricted indeed. It will be answered that all kinds of wild men and eccentrics are allowed to speak their minds, but usually this is only after having been safely labeled as wild men or eccentrics.

A George Lincoln Rockwell, for example, would have little difficulty speaking on a university campus, even though his neo-Nazism would be repellent to the vast majority of the community. But then it must be remembered that his views are so outrageous — expressed almost entirely in bold cartoon form — that he could be admitted under the assumption that he was innocuous and that his views would not sway or mislead his audience. He challenges nothing; he touches no raw nerves. But consider the case of the Nobel-prize winning physicist, William Shockley, who was not permitted to speak at Harvard and present his unconventional and unpopular views on genetics; indeed, he was physically prevented from making himself heard. True, freedom of speech is guaranteed under our constitution, but very often freedom from having to go to jail is of little comfort to a person whose ideas are unpopular and contrary to present superstitutions. It is thus often best to express ideas that are conventional or in some other way certified harmless to the prevailing social stereotypes.

What of restriction by the government of individual freedom of action? Well, to be sure, the government makes no large-scale attempt to control individual behavior, at least in the full Orwellian sense; but we can hardly say that it makes no attempts at all. Needless to say, the existence of any government implies some limitations on individual freedom of action since the state must, at the very least, protect its citizens from injury at the hands of other citizens. But the degree to which our government looks after the "welfare" of its citizens today would certainly be shocking to the writers of our constitution. (Strange it is that so many Americans fail to see that "looking after somebody" is a form of control.)

The government is in the "regulation" business in a way that would at one time not have been thought possible. It tells citizens in great and patient detail what kinds of drugs they can buy, what kinds of schools and colleges they can attend and what kinds of things they should expect to learn there, what foreign countries they may visit, who they must rent their houses to, how they must equip their automobiles, and even what time they must wake up on a cold winter morning — all, to be sure, under the guise of protecting the interests of "all the People."

A Bill of Grievances

When he wrote his bill of grievances against the English king in the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson noted that the king had "erected a multitude of new Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our People, and eat out their Substance." But today we have a multitude of offices and officers that would have staggered the imagination of a Jefferson and sent it reeling; the tax collector of the federal government is much more assiduous than anything that could have been dreamed of by the Hanovers, and his methods of spying and snooping are so sophisticated that they would make the methods of the Russian secret police look like amateur triflings.

Remember, though, that this explosion of governmental "aids" and "services" is called for by "the people"; it is meant to answer to perceived social needs. But this brings us back once more to the main point. The government acts to meet the needs which are imagined to arise from some mythical collective. Individual liberty or individual will is not its main concern, or even its secondary concern, or even its tertiary concern. In fact, individual liberty or freedom of expression are hardly its concern at all. The atmosphere in which it moves is not one of concrete, tangible realities, but of steamy vapors and myths, simplistic formulas, bromides and shibboleths. Being closely immersed in this system it is not easy to see how we may be deceived by it (as we can easily see how the language of Marxism and Leninism cozens the Russians), but if we expect our liberties to survive, we must be careful to see that we do.

This, it seems to me, is the universal lesson Mr. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn has to teach. The twentieth century is the century of massive government control of individual liberty. Liberty is a concrete entity, not very different from a hat, a table, or a snow shovel. One ought to be able to recognize it when one sees it. But it is no longer very much in evidence because we have so consistently been fed and nourished on political myths — to the exclusion of freedom. Most of us living in the twentieth century have not noticed the erosions of freedom since our political leaders have ingeniously directed our minds to myths by which they may most easily control and direct our destinies.



1 The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation,

tr. by Thomas P. Whitney, New York: Harper & Row, 1974, p. 299.

2 Ibid., pp. 93-94.

3 Ibid., p. 577.

4 Ibid., p. 437.

5 George Orwell, The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, ed. by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus, New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968, Vol. IV, p. 136.

6 Gulag, p. 436.

7 Ibid., pp. 459-60.

8 V. I. Lenin, Sobrannye Sochineniya (Collected Works), Fifth edition, Vol. 35, p. 68. Quoted in Gulag, p. 27.

9 Gulag, pp. 27-28.