Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn dies at 89

by on August 3, 2008 at 7:41 pm in Current Affairs | Permalink

Here is one obituary.  He did not in every way favor liberty, but he did more for liberty than almost any other person of the late 20th century.  I find First Circle and Cancer Ward to be his best fiction, although they are not his most widely read works.

That said, I don’t favor nationalizing his funeral, as that would give the impression that Russia is now a free country.

Here is a piece on the economics of Solzhenitsyn, by the excellent Cecil Bohanon; Cecil was at the Liberty Fund conference with me.

Addendum: Read Bryan Caplan: "But if any writer can make future generations of Russians look on the
Soviet era with the horror it deserves, it’s the man who stared down
the Soviet Union at the height of its power – and outlived it by 17
years."

Unit August 3, 2008 at 7:55 pm

I hope this will spark a general revival of his life and work that will reach some of the many people that still don’t know about him.

M. Hodak August 3, 2008 at 9:05 pm

His 89 years must be nearly an unprecedented feat for both a gulag and cancer survivor.

meter August 4, 2008 at 9:34 am

“That said, I don’t favor nationalizing his funeral, as that would give the impression that Russia is now a free country.”

What an interesting sentence: nationalization = freedom.

Diana August 4, 2008 at 1:23 pm

89 despite the gulag, cancer and relentless criticism of everyone, east and west….this guy’s life is surely the best argument ever for the power of negative thinking.

matt August 4, 2008 at 5:49 pm

Gee Steve, maybe it was a Jewish conspiracy that kept it from being published here? Or maybe the fact that it’s a deeply anti-semitic work of dubious historical accuracy by a man who was increasingly showing his hatred for modernity and rationality and his love of atavistic nationalism made most publishers think it wasn’t likely to be a good bet for them. That’s what I’d put my money on, anyway.

Methinks August 4, 2008 at 10:49 pm

Good post, Matt.

Russia is in no way a free country today and Solzhenitsyn was fine with that. He was a huge fan of Putin and the new version of the Pioneers – a group called “Nashi”. That translates to “Ours”. The closest equivalent I can think of in the U.S. is the KKK. That said, Solzhenitsyn’s work was important in exposing the cruelty of communism to the West, where intellectuals were swooning over the promise of communism.

Matt August 4, 2008 at 11:44 pm

Those who can’t read Russian might also check out Ilya Somin’s good post on the Volokh conspiracy. The summary of “200 years” (which Somin has also read) is thus:

“For example in one of his last books, Two Hundred Years Together, Solzhenitsyn made the absurd claim that the czarist-era Russian government was not anti-Semitic and that Russian Jews bear as much or more blame than Russian gentiles do for the historic conflicts between the two groups. As Cathy Young has pointed out, in view of the czarist state’s “systematic oppression and violence” against the Jews, this is “a bit like asking blacks to accept their share of blame for Jim Crow.””

Since Steve is a racist he might not take that last bit so hard, though.

Methinks August 6, 2008 at 12:42 pm

Steve Sailor,

All this is overly simplified as well. It assumes that history began in 1917. Like Solzhenitsyn, I can only write from my own experience – especially since no reliable data is available from the Soviet era.

I’m Russian and I’m half Jewish and half Slavic. My Jewish great grandfather was one of the original members of the Checka in Derzhinsk. Pogroms existed long before the revolution and one of the worst and most persistent antisemitic conspiracy theories, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, was written by Russians to fan the flames of antisemitism. Claiming that antisemitic feelings among Slavic Russians stems from their participation in the rise of the Soviet Union is simply a lie. It is not surprising that an untested ideology promising equality appealed to many (but not all) Jews. Incidentally, the Cheka then arrested my great grandfather for a typical trumped up charge. That’s when it dawned on him that Soviets were even worse than the Czar.

But the life of Jews was in no way “softer” in Soviet Russia. They were denied work and entry to college because (and they said it explicitly) they were “Dirty Jews”. After my purely slavic mother married my father, she was denied work because she married a “dirty Jew”. That’s to say nothing of the constant harassing question: “what’s a pretty Russian girl like you doing married to a Jew?”

Then there’s the perception of what is racist and what is not. Americans view judgment based on race or religion as always discriminatory. Slavs do not. BTW, in America we’re all Russian to you, but in Russia, we’re “Russians” and “Jews” and both Slavs and Jews follow that convention. Slavs have absolutely no problem with discrimination based on race and religion. If you’re not a Slav, you’re inferior. It’s as simple as that and Solzhenitsyn embodied that attitude – racist in the West, perfectly normal in Russia.

This has not changed. My aunt reports a story from Moscow which did not make it to the international press. A 9-year old girl from the Caucuses was run down and brutally beaten to death by a posse of nationalist men. During the trial, news camera did “man on the street” interviews about the case. The most common response was “while it’s regrettable, I can understand how they feel because the blacks (a derogatory name for people with any bloody pigmentation in their skin) are coming here and taking all our jobs. This kind of thing will happen.” The men were acquitted (all it takes is out-bribing the prosecutor) Needless to say my aunt, a Slav, was nauseated. On the other hand, other members of my Slavic family are openly racist and don’t even notice it.

Solzhenitsyn’s attitude toward Jews mirrored the attitude of most Christian Slavs. That said, both my Jewish relatives and my Slavic relatives hold him in high esteem because he exposed the evils of the Soviet Union. In the order of priorities, this was a higher priority to them than any underlying antisemitic feelings he might have. It’s complicated. But you can’t possibly make the claim that Russian antisemitism in any way stems from Jewish contribution to the rise of the Soviet Union.

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nick May 14, 2009 at 9:28 pm

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