All Commentary
Friday, March 1, 1996

The Solzhenitsyn Files

The Truth Can Curb the Pathology of Power


“Freedom without a literature is like health without food. It just cannot be. To be sure, the yearning for freedom is deep in the hearts of men, even the slaves of the Soviets. But the yearning can turn into hard, numb despair if the faith upon which freedom thrives is not revivified from time to time by reference to its philosophy. It is not without reason that the communists do away with writers on freedom. . . .”

So wrote Frank Chodorov, former editor of The Freeman, over 40 years ago. The story of Alexander Solzhenitsyn provides a case in point. Michael Scammell skillfully teases out that story from over 150 recently declassified documents from Soviet archives. The only thing that detracts from the drama of the events described therein is that many of us already know how it turned out. For those readers not familiar with the whole affair, Scammell’s excellent introduction places everything in context. The book covers a 17-year period starting with the beginning of the end of Nikita Khruschev’s thaw in 1963 through Solzhenitsyn’s being awarded the Nobel Prize in literature and his years of exile.

In between, we are treated to a fly-on-the-wall view of Soviet Politburo agonizing over how to stop Solzhenitsyn’s searing criticism of the Soviet system without provoking adverse reaction from the West. The alternatives they consider range from “editing down” his works to the point of eliminating their appeal abroad to trying and imprisoning him. They eventually settle on exile and revocation of his Soviet citizenship.

It is enlightening to hear firsthand the Politburo’s morbid fear of criticism, their straitened views of free expression (“the Soviet writer will go his own way. Together with the Party”), the extent of their surveillance activities (knowing where he shops, what he spends, and recording his conversations with his children), their attempts to discredit him even after his expulsion, accusing him of employing some of their very own modus operandi (“lies, juggling of facts, intentional distortion of the truth, etc.”) and being out of touch with reality (KGB head and later party chairman Yuri Andropov claims, “there are indications that domestic and foreign policies of the Party enjoy the unanimous support of all the Soviet people,” for instance).

We also hear from Solzhenitsyn himself, in his courageous letter to the Fourth Congress of Soviet Writers as well as some of his seized manuscripts. We can see for ourselves the qualities of mind and character which made him such a threat in the eyes of the Soviets. Contrast the prescience of the following statement with the self-delusion of the Andropov quote cited above: “This is a government without prospects. They have no conveyor belts connecting them to ideology, or the masses, or the economy, or foreign policy, or to the world communist movement—nothing. The levers to all the conveyor belts have broken down and don’t function. They can decide all they want sitting at their desks. Yet it’s clear at once that it’s not working. You see? Honestly, I have that impression. They’re paralyzed.”

Although the documents included here of necessity reflect the Party’s perspective, most readers will take them not at face value, but rather as a glimpse into the pathology of power. The lesson of the demise of that power is that nothing is more effective in curing its pathology than the truth.