Stephen Kotkin on Solzhenitsyn

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Historian and author Stephen Kotkin of Princeton University and Stanford University's Hoover Institution talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the historical significance of the life and work of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Solzhenitsyn's birth.

Many people believe the Soviet system had redeeming features. For example, Hitler—Nazism—was absolutely beyond redemption. The Holocaust and what Hitler did made it seem that if you said anything nice about the Nazi system, you were apologizing for it. In the case of the Soviet Union, people imagined that there was a better revolution inside the Stalin regime, somehow. That 1917 was a purer, better form of Socialism that had been usurped or degraded by Stalin’s rule. Solzhenitsyn proved the contrary. Not only did he prove the contrary, but he did it in a way that tens of millions of people were interested to read. So, that’s an incredible accomplishment now on his centenary.

David Walsh in Voegelin View

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David Walsh with a thoughtful essay at VoegelinView on Solzhenitsyn’s thought and life.

Yet limitless cruelty could not succeed in its most important goal. It could not kill the human spirit. That is Solzhenitsyn’s legacy to world history.

It surely ranks with the greatest medical or technological breakthroughs of our era. None of the latter succeeded in conquering the mortality that is the fate of every living being. Yet Solzhenitsyn did accomplish just such a remarkable feat. He uncovered what is indestructible in a person. Religion and philosophy had always talked about the immortality of the soul, but few had so clearly lived it or, if they did, articulated it so deeply. For Solzhenitsyn, immortality was not a vague notion of another life but that part of himself that could not be destroyed.

BBC Forum: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

The BBC’s flagship discussion program, The Forum, has run a 44-minute episode entitled Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: Revealing the Gulag. According to its website:

The Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was a towering literary figure whose novels, chronicles and essays have lifted the lid on the horrors of the Soviet gulag network, which over several decades incarcerated millions of often innocent prisoners. Born a hundred years ago, Solzhenitsyn survived the brutal conditions of a gulag in Kazakhstan and it was this harrowing experience that provided the impetus for his best-known works, starting with his novella, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and culminating in The Gulag Archipelago, a multi-volume history of the Soviet forced labour camps from 1918 to 1956. 

Bridget Kendall is joined by two Solzhenitsyn scholars: Professor Daniel Mahoney from Assumption College in the United States and Dr. Elisa Kriza from Bamberg University; and by Professor Leona Toker of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, an expert on labour camp literature.

Go here to listen online or download the entire episode. And here below is a 2-minute excerpt:

"Remembering – and still learning from – Solzhenitsyn"

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Douglas Kries at The Catholic Thing with an appreciation of Solzhenitsyn.

Marxism not only misunderstood the origin of evil, but likewise misunderstood what is to be done with its effects – with suffering. Solzhenitsyn came to realize that while there was no correlation between what he and the other political prisoners in the camps were charged with and what they were made to suffer, the Christians within the archipelago – at least the best of them – learned how to make suffering redemptive. That is, they knew how to turn their suffering into a continuous penance stemming from a continuous confession.
— Douglas Kries

Fearless Prophets: Martin Luther King Jr. & Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

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A few days ago Princeton University hosted a panel discussion entitled Fearless Prophets: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, commemorating the 50th Anniversary of King's Death and the Centenary of Solzhenitsyn's Birth, and featuring:

Daniel Mahoney, Augustine Chair in Distinguished Scholarship, Assumption College;
Eugene F. Rivers, III, Founding Director, Seymour Institute for Black Church and Policy Studies;
David L. Tubbs *01, Associate Professor of Politics, The King's College.

It was moderated by Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, Princeton University.

See the video of the event here.

Kirk Kolbo: Solzhenitsyn at 100

Over at Ricochet, Kirk Kolbo looks back on Solzhenitsyn’s life and thought.

What his critics never understood is that for Solzhenitsyn, politics was never the main thing. Over the course of a lifetime, as he explained to his biographer, he had moved “ever so slowly towards a position … of supporting the primacy of the spiritual over the material,” a philosophy to which all his works are a testament.

As with his literary forebears, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn’s writings are rooted in Russian history and culture, but the themes are universal. Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, his speech addressed literature and its relationship to culture and the human spirit: “Art inflames even a frozen, darkened soul to a high spiritual experience.” A self-described optimist, Solzhenitsyn was convinced that “[i]n the struggle with falsehood art always did win and it always does win! … One word of truth shall outweigh the whole world.”

Historians generally agree that the moral force of Solzhenitsyn’s writings, particularly The Gulag Archipelago, contributed significantly to the fall of the Soviet Union, the collapse of the non-Russian Soviet empire in Eastern Europe, and in the West an end to the idolization by many of Soviet communism. When it occurred, and all his writings were allowed to be published there, Solzhenitsyn returned with his wife to Russia in 1994, where he died in 2008.

BBC Russian Service on Solzhenitsyn's Centennial

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Chloe Arnold of the BBC Russian Service interviews Richard Tempest, Alexander Strokanov and Margo Caulfield for a story on Solzhenitsyn's centennial.

“Солженицын - прекрасный пример того, как можно ненавидеть коммунизм, ужасно относиться к СССР, но в то же время любить Россию, быть русским патриотом. Те, кто положительно относится к коммунизму, не могут принять его, потому что Солженицын - антисоветский писатель. Пожалуй, самый заметный и сильный среди всех антикоммунистических писателей. Живущие ностальгией по советскому прошлому воспринимают его сложно. Но те, кто не связывают Россию и СССР в целое, кто критически или объективно относятся к коммунизму, они понимают ценность Солженицына. И, думаю, что его ценность только растет”, - считает Строканов.

At long last, the complete "Trilogy" available to stream with English subtitles!

We have heard you, our patient (but demanding!) readers, and are delighted to present to you today, on Solzhenitsyn’s 100th birthday, newly uploaded versions of the complete Trilogy of films about Solzhenitsyn by Sergei Miroshnichenko. All of these come with excellent English subtitles. Happy watching!

New York Times: The Writer Who Destroyed an Empire

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Michael Scammell’s op-ed piece in today’s New York Times.

Solzhenitsyn should be remembered for his role as a truth-teller. He risked his all to drive a stake through the heart of Soviet communism and did more than any other single human being to undermine its credibility and bring the Soviet state to its knees.
— New York Times


At a ceremony today on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Street in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin unveiled a new monument of Solzhenitsyn. (Scroll down for video.)

11 December 2018. Russian President Vladimir Putin lays flowers at the new Moscow monument to Solzhenitsyn.

11 December 2018. Russian President Vladimir Putin lays flowers at the new Moscow monument to Solzhenitsyn.

Aleksandr Isayevich believed that, without understanding our country’s past, there could be no sensible path toward its future. And so he trained his thought and words onto her future, in an attempt to identify possible ways of rebuilding Russia, so that the dramatic and profoundly difficult trials that fell to her would never again repeat, so that our multinational people could live in dignity and justice. That is how he saw his mission, his goal, the point of his service.
— Vladimir Putin, 11 December 2018

A "Centennial Tribute" by Daniel J. Mahoney

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City Journal has posted a centennial tribute by Dan Mahoney to Solzhenitsyn and his thought.

Solzhenitsyn spoke in the name of an older Western and Christian civilization, still connected to the “deep reserves of mercy and sacrifice” at the heart of ordered liberty. It is a mark of the erosion of that rich tradition that its voice is so hard to hear in our late modern world, more—and more single-mindedly—devoted to what Solzhenitsyn called “anthropocentricity,” an incoherent and self-destructive atheistic humanism. Solzhenitsyn asks no special privileges for biblical religion (and classical philosophy), just a place at the table and a serious consideration within our souls.
— Daniel J. Mahoney