Sunday, August 03, 2008

Alexandr Solzhenitsyn 1918-2008

Solzhenitsyn, who died today, was an author I had only vaguely heard of before I got the news I was going to Russia in 1993. I didn't know him by name, actually, but by the title of his largest work--The Gulag Archipelago. When I found out that I was going to be going to Moscow, I thought it would be a good idea to have at least an idea of the culture I was going to be living in for the then-foreseeable future. I picked up a paperback edition of volume 1...

...and it scared the pants off me. Invasive governments, extensive interrogations, trumped-up charges, the necessity of towing the Party line, and the cynical use of hope as a carrot to keep even the prisoners going, as with the horse in Orwell's Animal Farm.

Upon my arrival in Moscow, the place seemed a city filled with ghosts. The Stalin Gothic wedding-cake high-rises, built with Gulag prisoner labor, the stagnant, lilypad-clogged pool--the world's largest heated pool at the time, though it was evidently defunct--in place of the once-largest Russian Orthodox cathedral at the center of town, the monasteries throughout the city and elsewhere, vacated after the Revolution and thereafter used as either stables or as prison camps for those not in the Lubyanka prison (an old hotel situated, with typical irony, across the street from Children's World). But more haunting to me than all of these was the pervasiveness of Party symbology even almost two years after the fall of Communism. Red stars abounded, in the artwork of the subway, or spinning in the wind at the top of the Kremlin towers. Sheaves of wheat, freshly harvested by the Serp or Sickle. Such things were everywhere, in chandeliers, plaster moldings, and even the building footprint of various edifices, such as the Red Army Theater. My students at the time almost universally repudiated Solzhenitsyn. "He leaves during the worst of our troubles, and comes back once everything is A-OK. He's a coward." His time spent in prison, his ceaseless interrogation by Soviet officials, his efforts--at risk of his own skin and those who confided in him--at documenting in the legitimate press what had only to that point been in Samizdat all fell by the wayside for these students. I had various disagreements regarding other things he was saying, but to dismiss him for cowardice? It seemed the college students knew little of what had come before.

On my return, after recovering enough from the Russian Appendectomy to carry my luggage, I read the three volumes of Gulag Archipelago, all 1840 pages, and, through its repetition, its documentary setting-forth of the horrendous doings of the Stalinist regime, I kept returning to a comment one of the other University professors I talked to weekly said to me in her apartment not far from the Dinamo station one bitterly-cold night shortly before I left back for the States. Cheap sausages, she said. It was all because people wanted to be sure they could buy cheap sausages.

It was certainly more complicated than that, but the spirit of it holds true. Groceries stayed cheap until Gorbachev called it a night. There were many that wished for the "good old days." So what if the rabble were getting roughed up? Order must be kept. The populace must be secure. Those sausages came at a pretty high cost, looking back. The Russians had a rather dismissive pejorative nickname for Hitler, considering that the German Fuehrer killed only a fraction of what Stalin was able to. Great thinkers, poets, novelists, the greatest playwright in the country. We Americans consider ourselves smarter, not so easily taken in as uneducated peasants looking for a decent price for their carts of beets. But what have we been willing to give up for a "sense of security;" what more will we be willing to give up for a "decent price for gas?"

Yuri Dombrovsky was another author, among so many artists, that were imprisoned and sent off to [preferably] die in the network of secret prisons scattered about the great expanse of the Soviet empire. His novel The Faculty of Useless Knowledge is a pretty tough-to-handle read regarding the interrogations. Orwell says in 1984 that Room 101, the interrogation room, contains "the worst thing in the world." He wasn't far off. Who is in charge of the room now?

Pic: Chasnik: Fabric Design (1920s), swiped from unknown source, 2004


Lydia said...

I've only read "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" and his Nobel speech, but I HAVE to read more of him. He was one of the most remarkable people of his generation.

Lydia said...

Oh, and did you hear that Nabokov's unfinished novel (don't remember the title) is going to be published? Nabokov had requested that it not be published, but his son gave the OK on it. So there you go.

Lydia said...

Whops, I was wrong; I read the speech he gave at Harvard, not the Nobel speech. I stand corrected.

WhooperLuvr said...

We may look down on the peasants trying to find a decent price for beets, but look what we're willing to overlook in the name of saving a few cents. Even before the whole gas price crisis redux (if you remember the late '70s, folks, there isn't anything new going on here), we're willing to overlook the sweatshop labor and other human rights violations in developing countries so we can buy crap for 89 cents cheaper at Wally-World.