August 13, 2008
For many years Alexander Solzhenitsyn was a familiar presence in Hanover, New Hampshire. He had been arrested in 1945 and sentenced to eight years in prison after criticizing Stalin in a letter he wrote from the front where he was fighting in the Red Army. In 1962 he suddenly became famous in the Soviet Union with the publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a scathing account of life in the Soviet prison system, its publication possible because of Khrushchev’s “thaw” and de-Stalinization, as the premier shifted to a Trotskyist global strategy of revolution in the third world. Solzhenitsyn left the Soviet Union in 1974, lived for a while in Switzerland and then moved to Cavendish, Vermont, where he had a 51 acre heavily wooded estate. This was large enough that he might, for a moment, have thought himself in Russia again. In fact he might have thought the authentic mind of Russia lived wherever he was.
During the 1970s I frequently saw him in the Dartmouth Library, reading, looking things up. Today the Dartmouth Library catalogue list 107 items by Solzhenitsyn, including Russian originals, this astonishing productivity testimony to his volcanic energy, an energy also suggested when one day I saw him spring up two at a time the steps in front of a Dartmouth building.
Most of us read in translation his books right as they came out: Lenin in Zurich (1976), Cancer Ward (1980), One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, published in a new English edition in 1995. In 1989 I was teaching an undergraduate seminar in the literature of World War I: Rupert Brooke, Alan Seeger, Wilfred Own, Isaac Rosenberg, Remarque, Hemingway. That year Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914 came out, so I assigned that as well. This was his bid to challenge Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and, needless to say, it fell far short.
The Gulag Archipelago: An Experiment in Literary Investigation (1974) was his major work, an enormous account of the arrest and transportation to the slave labor camps of millions of Russian citizens, many of them innocent. Sometimes the arrest followed the knock on the door. Sometimes it could happen at the theater, or while shopping. Often the prisoner was never heard from again. On a grand scale The Gulag Archipelago was a gigantic version J”Accuse (1898), Emil Zola’s 4000-word letter to the president of France on the Dreyfus case. In 2003 Anne Applebaum published Gulag: A History, acknowledging that prison camps were not new to Russian history.
We remember that in Crime and Punishment Raskolnikov is sent to a camp. But the Soviet Gulag was on an unprecedented scale.
In his autobiography the late Marvin Liebman, a friend of mine, recounts an episode in the Kolyma camp in Siberia, involving then United States Vice President Henry Wallace. (I had heard this story from Marvin before his book appeared.)
“Elinor Lipper told me about the eleven years she spent in the most horrible conditions in Kolyma in Siberia. She revealed that much of the Soviet economy was based on slave labor… To provide this labor pool, the Soviet authorities arbitrarily arrested innocent people from every segment of Soviet society, convicted them and sent them to Siberia. They were thus able to instill terror into all Soviet citizens, and, at the same time, continue to maintain the slave labor pool in spite of an attrition rate of almost 70 percent each year. Simple and effective. Lumbering was the industry at Kolyma.
“Because of her medical background, Elinor was assigned to various primitive hospitals. Her skills made her valuable to camp authorities, and so she survived. She was lucky. Most other prisoners died, but there were always plenty to replace the dead… The Great Gulag of the Soviet Union.
“During the war, a rumor swept Elinor’s camp that the president of the United States was coming. Everything was scrubbed, the watch towers were even taken down. Kolyma now became a vast Potemkin village. But it wasn”t the President who came. It was the vice president Henry A. Wallace. The inmates were gathered together to greet him. Wallace smiled and waved. He was told that this was a camp for incorrigible prisoners who were mentally ill.
“Suddenly, a woman ran from the ranks and threw herself at Wallace’s feet. She screamed in Russian how the prisoners were being treated, how they were dying, how they were innocent, as innocent as the snow at his feet. “Please,” she sobbed, “please help us.”
“She was taken away, of course, while Wallace’s translator told him that she was mentally ill and he could not understand what she was saying… I subsequently discovered that Wallace’s translator that day had been Owen Lattimore…
“When we returned to New York in 1952 I arranged for Elinor, at her request, to meet Henry Wallace. I got his number through directory assistance, and he answered the phone himself. I was amazed that it was so easy to et hold of a former vice president of the United States. I told him about Elinor and said she wanted to meet with him. He invited us to his farm in South Salem, New York. She told him what had actually happened that day in Siberia. As she spoke his face paled. “I didn”t know,” he said, “I didn”t know “ please believe me “ I didn”t know”.”
“I saw in him the sense of betrayal that was entangling many of us who had worked with the communists… Now Lattimore was under attack by Sen. Joseph McCarthy for “his close association with the communist conspiracy.” I had been sympathetic to Lattimore’s plight, but when I found out what he had said in Siberia, I felt betrayed by him, too”
In 1953 while I was at the Naval Intelligence School at the Anacostia naval base, I made a careful study of Lattimore, the Institute for Political Relations, and Lattimore’s editorship of the important magazine Pacific Affairs. This was one of those times when McCarthy was right. But because it was McCarthy who had attacked Lattimore, many jumped to Lattimore’s defense. Despite the fact that Whittaker Chambers had told Bill Buckley that McCarthy was damaging the anti-Communist cause, Buckley continued to support McCarthy longer than he should.
On June 8, 1978, Solzhenitsyn spoke at length to a Class Day audience at the time of the Harvard commencement. In a jeremiad he denounced the materialism and godlessness of Western democracy, its short-sightedness and lack of courage as it faced the powerful Soviet enemy. The West, he argued, needed the Soviet Union to win World War II. Listening to this address, his audience must have seen that Solzhenitsyn did not understand the West at all.
With the help of the Soviet army, Germany was defeated by May 1945. By August 1945 the two atom bombs had been dropped on Japan and the surrender taken place in Tokyo Bay on the deck of the battleship Missouri. The United States had fought two wars on opposite sides of the earth, and been indispensable to victory in Europe. Twenty years after Solzhenitsyn spoke at Harvard, the Soviet Union collapsed under pressure exerted by the Reagan administration, the scientific-military pressure of his proposed Strategic Defense Initiative (anti-ballistic missile system), a secret program of technological sabotage (see Thomas C. Reed, At the Abyss), the moral pressure Reagan exerted on the “evil empire,” and a failing Soviet economy.
Because the Soviet Union had been defeated in the Cold War, Solzhenitsyn was able to return to Russia. When he died he lay in state in an open coffin at the Academy of Arts and Sciences, honored by President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB operative but now a Christian, an autocrat, and in effect a modern Czar. Putin placed a bunch of red roses at the foot of Solzhenitsyn’s coffin. We now appear to have returned to old-fashioned Power Politics, with the United States stationing anti-missile sites in Poland and the Czech Republic, and Ukraine and Georgia proposed for membership in NATO. Putin, who no doubt sees all this as encirclement, is, as I write, reasserting Russia’s hegemonic role in the caucuses. Russia is even about to return to Cuba with heavy bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons. It’s 1962 and the Cuban missile crisis all over again”this time not about revolution in the Third World but Russian Realpolitik.
Jeffrey Hart is a long-time senior editor at National Review and Professor Emeritus of English at Dartmouth University. He is the author of 10 books, including The Making of the American Conservative Mind: National Review and Its Times.