Sunday, July 29, 2012

Alexander Solzenitsyn

Alexander Solzhenitsyn. 
by Tarek Heggy. 

Written in 1981.

The life of the Nobel laureate, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, from the day he was born in 1918 until he was deported from the Soviet Union in 1974, epitomizes the brutal oppression visited by the Soviet Union on its citizens.  In this model communist society, which serves as a shining example of the successful implementation of the dictatorship of the proletariat to all the others, fundamental freedoms are conspicuously absent and human rights violations the order of the day.

Alexander Isayevich Solzhenitsyn was born on December 11, 1918 at Kislovodsk.  Six years later, his father was killed in an accident, and his mother moved with him to Rostov-on-the-Don, where she worked as a typist.  Life was hard in the early days of Stalin's rule, especially for a young widow and her orphaned son.  Young Alexander was an outstanding student from primary school and up to Rostov university, where his genius in mathematics and physics won him a scholarship for graduate studies. Throughout those years, Solzhenitsyn remained true to his love for culture in general and literature in particular, and took a correspondence course in literature at the Moscow Institute of Philosophy, Literature and History.  He obtained his diploma from the Institute in 1941, one year following his appointment as teacher of mathematics at a secondary school in Rostov.

During those years, he tried to publish his novels and short stories in the literary review, Znamya, but they were all rejected by the editor.  When Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union began, Solzhenitsyn joined the Red Army as an artillery officer on October 18, 1941, and fought at the battles of  Kursk and Konigsberg (later Kaliningrad).  His heroism earned him several promotions, and by 1945 he was a captain with two decorations for bravery in defense of his country: the Order of the Patriotic War, Class II, and the Order of the Red Star.

In July 1945, he was suddenly arrested by the secret police, the NKVD, and charged with making derogatory remarks about Stalin in private correspondence with a friend and in his personal diary.  He was detained without trial in the Lubyanka prison in Moscow pending further investigation of his case by the secret police, then sentenced by a special tribunal of the NKVD to eight years hard labour as a traitor to Leninist socialism and to the socialist society.  Solzhenitsyn served his sentence in a number of Soviet prisons, but instead of releasing him when his term was up in 1953,  the secret police arbitrarily decided to exile him to Kok Tern in the Dzhambul region of Kazakhstan, where he remained until 1956.  During his exile, it was discovered that he had cancer and he was sent to a hospital in Tashkent to undergo treatment.

For more than eleven years of imprisonment and exile, Solzhenitsyn underwent horrible sufferings which he movingly describes in "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich".  The novel is considered a literary masterpiece in its description of the sufferings of hundreds of thousands of detainees in the Soviet Union, although I, personally, share the opinion of the Daily Telegraph's literary critic who considers "My Testimony" by Anatoly Marchenko to be the best account of life in Russian prisons and labour camps since Dostoevsky's "House of the Dead". Solzhenitsyn uses the same setting for his  play, "The Tender Foot and the Tramp".  His outstanding novel, "Cancer Ward", recounts his experience with exile and his brush with death from cancer.  During his years of imprisonment and  exile, his family knew nothing about him.   Thinking him dead, his wife remarried but went back to him after his release (1956) and his rehabilitation (1957).

In 1956, his case was reviewed by the Military Section of the Supreme Court of the Soviet Union, which issued the following ruling under No. 4N/083/56:  "On February 6, 1956, the Court examined the appeal raised by the Military Prosecutor against the decision passed by the Fifth Tribunal of the NKVD on June 7, 1945, and predicated on paragraphs 10 and 11 of article 58 of the RSFSR Criminal Code, sentencing to eight years imprisonment in correctional labour camps Alexander Isayevich Solzhenitsyn, born in 1918 in the city of Kislovodsk, holder of the highest scientific awards and commander of an artillery unit before his detention who fought in the war against the Fascist German armies and was awarded the Order of the Patriotic War, Class II, and the Order of the Red Star.  Having heard the report of comrade Konev and the statement of Colonel Terkov, Assistant Military Prosecutor, the Court rules as follows:  the charges against Solzhenitsyn which are that between 1940 and 1945 he committed acts  of anti-Soviet propaganda among his friends  and took steps aimed at forming an anti-Soviet organization are declared null and void for absence of proof of the alleged crimes...."

Throughout these years, all Solzhenitsyn’s attempts to publish his works were met with adamant refusal.  However, in November 1962, Khrushchev himself authorized publication of "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich", Solzhenitsyn's harrowing novel about life in a Siberian labour camp under Stalin, in the context of Khrushchev's destalinisation policy. After Khrushchev’s downfall in 1964, Solzhenitsyn again became persona non grata and was the target of violent attacks by official Soviet writers. But by then,   which is around the time the literary dissident's movement was born,  he had acquired many supporters and admirers.  The attacks continued for almost ten years, during which the author was accused of being a traitor to socialism and an agent of American imperialist powers.  He was persecuted in his private life and transferred from one place to another.  The attacks reached a crescendo when he was awarded the 1970 Nobel Prize for Literature and continued unabated until he left the Soviet Union in 1974.

Those who have followed the case closely affirm that Solzhenitsyn would have been assassinated or locked up in a psychiatric institution like so many others had it not been for the support of the free world and of the European communist parties, particularly those of Italy, France and Spain, and had his case not become a cause celebre  at the centre of world public opinion. Although the case of Solzhenitsyn provoked a great political furor and much international publicity, the history of communist societies is rife with similar, albeit less sensational, cases. The moral to be  drawn from the story of Alexander Solzhenitsyn is that in communist societies, where the rule of law  is replaced by `revolutionary legitimacy', there is no room for divergent views, which are invariably branded as anti-revolutionary and imperialist.  In fact, conformity or otherwise to `revolutionary legitimacy' is determined at the sole discretion of whoever happens to be in power at any given time.  The vicissitudes of Solzhenitsyn's fortunes prove just how flexible the concept of revolutionary democracy is:

1-      At a first phase, he was a legendary hero who had fought valiantly for the socialist fatherland and had been decorated twice for bravery.
2-     At a second phase, he was accused of betraying that same fatherland and sentenced to eleven years hard labour in the Siberian labour camps.  
3-      A third phase saw an upward turn in his fortunes.  He was absolved by the Supreme Court of the crimes for which he had paid with eleven years of his life and nominated for the Lenin Prize in 1963 for "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich". Solzhenitsyn’s rehabilitation did not mean that the climate of tyranny and oppression had changed, but only that his writings served the interests of the new rulers.
4-      With Khrushchev's fall, a new stage in the decline of Solzhenitsyn's official standing began.  Once again he was denounced as an agent, a traitor, an enemy of socialism and a mediocre writer.

What emerges from Solzhenitsyn's life and writings, especially in the period between 1967 and 1974, and from all that has been written about him in the Soviet Union and abroad is that under communist rule, art and literature are tolerated only to the extent that they serve the regime and echo its slogans, regardless of intrinsic value.  Since the October Revolution, the Soviet Union has regarded its artists and writers as foot soldiers in its war against the enemy, deploying them to trumpet the victories of the regime and attack its critics.  A look at the novels,  plays, short stories and literary articles published in the Soviet Union since 1917 will show how the functional role assigned by the political leadership to literature and art has devitalized these traditionally strong forms of expression and rendered them sterile.  It is enough to compare the works put out after 1917 by the 'approved' authors, whose names are listed in the Soviet Encyclopaedia, with those of the great pre-revolutionary Russian writers, to realize the extent of the tragedy.  That the Soviets regard authors as instruments to be used for the furtherance of the regime's interests is clear from many official statements issued by the Soviet Writers' Union and from numerous articles which have appeared in Pravda.  A statement worth quoting here is that delivered on October 5, 1967, by the editor-in-chief of Pravda, M.F. Ziemanin, at the Press House in Leningrad:  

"The Western press has recently been full of malicious fabrications, using many of our writers whose works have reached the hands of our enemies.  The camp formed by the Western press to defend Tarsis only stopped its activities when Tarsis left for the West, thereby proving that he - Tarsis - was not sound of mind.  Nowadays, Solzhenitsyn is at the centre of capitalist propaganda.  He too is psychologically unbalanced.  He is a schizophrenic, a former prisoner who was subjected to oppression, deservedly or otherwise, and is now seeking revenge against the Soviet government through his literary works.  The only topic he  seems able to write about is life in the labour  camps, it has become a kind of obsession with   him.  Solzhenitsyn's works are an attack against the Soviet regime in which he sees nothing but bitterness and cancerous growths.  He sees nothing positive in our society. By virtue of my functions, I have access to unpublished works.  One of these was Solzhenitsyn's play, "The Feast of the Victors", which deals with the persecution of those who returned from the front.  It is an example of the anti-Soviet literature for which people in the past were imprisoned.

Clearly, we cannot publish his works, that is his one wish that we cannot gratify.  However, if he were to write stories that are in keeping with the interest of society, we will publish them. Solzhenitsyn will not want for bread and butter; he is a teacher of physics, let him teach.  He likes to make public speeches and to read his works to an audience...he was given the opportunity to do so...He considers himself a literary genius."

This text clearly expresses where literature stands in the country that, in a previous age, gave humanity some of its greatest writers and composers.  Today, any literary work that does not conform strictly to  the general line of the state is considered to be anti-Soviet and serving reactionary imperialist forces.  The problem is that the general line of the state differs from one ruler to the next - Lenin to Stalin, the transition to Khrushchev, then to Brezhnev and so on and so forth.  How can talents grow and develop when they are circumscribed by the party line?  How can literature be expected to fulfill its traditional function of educating, enlightening and correcting society in such circumstances?  Literature not only holds up the mirror in which society can see itself reflected, but, as the  light which seeks out and reveals all that is negative in that society -   in the political, economic and social spheres - is a vital tool for democracy, working relentlessly in the interest of society as a whole.

Repression in socialist societies, headed by the Soviet Union, has not only emptied literature of its essence and transformed it into an organ of state, it has created a new model of morality characterized by social apathy and selfishness.  Those who think that the Soviet people are all dissidents, whether overt or covert, are mistaken.  Apart from a small group, the Soviet people have been shaped by sixty years of a repressive police state into a unique moral mould.

First of all, the ordinary Soviet citizen has a totally unrealistic picture of the outside world, created by the all-powerful communist media which, as we mentioned in our book, "Communism and Religions", is the most dangerous weapon in the hands of the communists, whether before they come to power or after.  He believes that workers in the United States, France, West Germany, Canada and Britain live lives of poverty, suffering and humiliation.  As the Russian writer Lidiya Chukovskaya puts it, a huge wall has been erected between him and the outside world.  A good example of the ability of the Soviet media to shape the minds of Soviet citizens according to the party line and in total disregard of accuracy and truth is given by Hedrick Smith in his book, "The Russians".  As the Moscow correspondent of the New York Times in the early seventies, Smith had come to know Andrei Sakharov well.  Known as  the father of the Soviet H-bomb, full member of   the Soviet Academy of Sciences at the age of thirty-two, Sakharov had donated all his savings, some 140 thousand roubles (representing the proceeds of the huge financial privileges he had received as a member of the elite club of Soviet nuclear scientists, which Sakharov says were paid  to him secretly in sealed envelopes), to a government fund for a new cancer research centre.

In 1974, Smith met a prominent Soviet medical scientist.  The conversation turned to Sakharov and the scientist, unaware that Smith knew him personally, volunteered the information that Sakharov was mentally unbalanced.  When Smith disclosed that he was personally acquainted with Sakharov, the scientist leant over to whisper in his ear: "And how was he when you met him?  Is he really mad?"

Sakharov himself had a similar experience while on holiday at a Black Sea resort.  He became friendly with a group of Soviet intellectuals, to whom he did not disclose his real identity.  For days on end they spoke to him of Andrei Sakharov, the father of the Soviet H-bomb who had become a raving madman.  In an interview with the Swedish radio correspondent, Olle Stenholm, Sakharov expressed the situation very well:

"I am sceptical about socialism in general.  I don't see that socialism offers      some kind of new theoretical plan, so to speak, for the better organization of society...We have the same kind of problems - that is, crime and personal alienation - that are to be found in the capitalist world.  But our society represents an extreme case with maximum restraint, maximum ideological restrictions, and so forth...Moreover, and very characteristically, we are also the most pretentious - that is, although we are not the best society we pretend that we are much more..."

The situation described by Sakharov is the natural outcome of the role assigned by the party in the Soviet Union to thought, literature and to the mass media, whose discipline to the party line can be likened to that of military troops in battle to their commander: unthinking obedience.  If we compare the role of the Soviet mass media to that of the American. which were instrumental in bringing about the downfall of the president because of the Watergate scandal, we would immediately see the difference between what the Soviets denigrate as bourgeois democracy' and their brand of revolutionary democracy.  Another small example is worth giving here.  In the United States, Western democracy has created a new profession in the field of medicine: a representative of the media who is in contact with hospitals and medical centres to track down any cases of malpractice.  Any suspicion of malpractice is followed by a thorough investigation and, if confirmed, the media launch a strong campaign with serious consequences for the person or persons responsible, including civil liability.  This system is just one of many which have emerged in various fields as positive byproducts of the democratic process and its integration in all aspects of life in Western societies. An interesting comparison here is the account of Soviet medical facilities given by Solzhenitsyn in "Cancer Ward".  Throughout the six hundred pages of the novel, we are given a bitter description of medical services in a state that boasts the best free medical care in the world.

The glaring discrepancy between reality and the image projected by the mass media is not limited to the field of medicine, but is a phenomenon that extends to all aspects of life in the Soviet Union.    In fact, it is a natural consequence of the peculiar concept of democracy prevailing in the Soviet Union, where any opinion that does not conform to the official line is regarded as seditious talk by agents in the pay of foreign enemies.  According to Sakharov, Soviet citizens have been brainwashed by the Soviet media into believing that no one on the face of the earth tells the truth for the sake of truth.  The world is divided into parties and everyone belongs to one or the other of these parties, to which he gives his full loyalty.  This belief, nurtured by the Soviet mass media, has allowed the regime to keep the intelligentsia in line and to immunize most of the Soviet people against what they hear from the Western world.  Certainly too, the State's monopoly over the job market helps it maintain its grip on people who are totally dependent on it for their livelihood.

Those who do step out of line pay a heavy price.  To cite but a few examples:  Daniel and Sinyavsky spent more than five years in prison camps for smuggling out of the Soviet Union literary works that the authorities considered slanderous to the Soviet state; the poetess Natalya Gorpanyevskaya lost her job and was committed to a mental institution because she took part in a demonstration held in Red Square to protest against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia; the historian Anatoly Petrovesky was dismissed from his job and blacklisted because he signed a statement in support of Daniel and Sinyavsky; the members of Sakharov's immediate family were persecuted simply because of   their association with him, and so on and so forth.  All this confirms the validity of Harold Lasky's proposition that a people who relinquish their political rights in exchange for promises of economic security will soon discover that they struck a losing bargain, for there is  nothing they can do if the promises are not kept. 

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