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:

Jay Nordlinger on Solzhenitsyn: A life and an Example

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Over at National Review, senior editor Jay Nordlinger reflects on Solzhenitsyn’s legacy.

In 2001, I interviewed a woman named Youqin Wang, a lecturer in Chinese at the University of Chicago. She had a life project: to memorialize the victims of the Cultural Revolution.

She had been inspired by two writers: Anne Frank and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. When she was a girl in Beijing, she read Anne’s diary and started to keep one of her own. She even addressed it “Dear Kitty,” as Anne had.

It was illegal to keep a diary. You could be killed if caught with one. This was in the middle of the Cultural Revolution. But Youqin kept a diary — destroying each page, shortly after she wrote it.

At Beijing University, she found a copy of Cancer Ward. She thought she was reading about her own experience. How could this Russian understand her so well? Youqin was so excited, she couldn’t sleep. Later, she read The Gulag Archipelago, and her life was set: She knew she had to commemorate the murdered, just as Solzhenitsyn had. They should not be forgotten.

Little Anne Frank was arguably the foremost witness to Nazism. Solzhenitsyn was arguably the foremost witness to Communism. Those are the twin evils of the 20th century (and lingering, of course). Think of Youqin Wang, with those two people, Anne and Solzhenitsyn, at her back.
— Jay Nordlinger

"Russia. The West. Ukraine" out in Russian

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CoLibri Books have just published a new collection of Solzhenitsyn’s thoughts, entitled “Россия. Запад. Украина” (“Russia. The West. Ukraine”), compiled by Natalia Solzhenitsyn. This is a beautifully presented slim 5x7 hardback of 176 pages. It opens with a 4-page introduction from the compiler, followed by a 110-page section entitled “Россия и Запад” (“Russia and the West”). This section, presented in chronological order, is comprised of 21 selections excerpted from Solzhenitsyn’s speeches, press-conferences, interviews, and essays, beginning with the Walter Cronkite/CBS interview of June 1974, and ending with the Der Spiegel interview of July 2007. There follows a 39-page second section entitled “Об Украине” (“About Ukraine”), comprised of 11 selections, again presented chronologically, from the prophetic part V, chapter 2 of the Gulag Archipelago (written in 1967), to the author’s Izvestiya article from March 2008, just months before his death. The book is rounded off by a 9-page “Краткие пояснения” (“Brief explanatory notes”) that place each selection in context and provide precise bibliographical information about earlier publications across various languages.

This book, timed for the centenary of Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn, collects his thoughts about the true meaning of Freedom, about Russia and the West’s false conceptions of each other, and about new dangers that threaten modern civilzation.
A separate section is devoted to a Slavic tragedy—the writer’s “perpetual sorrow and pain”—to Ukraine, about relations with whom he had written already a half-century ago, and until his very last days.
— from the publisher

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.

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

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

Jordan Peterson on Solzhenitsyn, the man who destroyed the Soviet Union

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Wednesday’s Times excerpts Jordan Peterson’s foreword to the new Vintage Classics edition of The Gulag Archipelago. Peterson also reads his entire foreword on video here.

If there was any excuse to be a Marxist in 1917 there is absolutely and finally no excuse now. And we know that mostly because of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and The Gulag Archipelago. Thank Heaven for that great author’s outrage, courage and unquenchable thirst for justice and truth. It was Solzhenitsyn who warned us that the catastrophes of the Soviet state were inextricably and causally linked to the deceitful blandishments of the Marxist utopian vision. It was Solzhenitsyn who documented the price paid in suffering for the dreadful communist experiment, and who distilled from that suffering the wisdom we must all heed so that such catastrophe does not visit us again.
— Jordan Peterson

Gulag Archipelago (abridged) newly re-issued by Vintage Classics

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A beautiful new re-issue of the abridged Gulag Archipelago (authorized by Solzhenitsyn) is just out from Vintage Classics in the UK. This thoughtful new edition adds a profound foreword by Jordan B. Peterson that goes to the very heart of what this terrifying and uplifting book is all about, as well as a new glossary and index that will help readers orient themselves anew in Archipelago's rich material.

Nov-Dec issue of St. Austin Review focuses on Solzhenitsyn Centenary

The new issue of St. Austin Review contains several interesting articles about Solzhenitsyn, including an editorial by Joseph Pearce on the lasting significance of Solzhenitsyn; Daniel J. Mahoney on Solzhenitsyn’s “capacity to illumine the truth of things”, Fr. Benedict Kiely on the miniature “Remembrance of the Departed”, and Susan Treacy on Solzhenitsyn and Shostakovich.

Some heroes are also giants. Within the context of the twentieth century we think perhaps of St. Pius X or St. John Paul ii, those holy heroes who battled with the evils of modernism in its various guises. and one must include in such a number the giant and heroic figure of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
— Joseph Pearce

Warning to the West now available as e-book

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“Warning to the West”, a collection of Solzhenitsyn’s speeches to the Americans and the British in 1975 and 1976, is newly available from Vintage Digital, both on Amazon (UK) and iTunes (UK).

During 1975 and 1976, Nobel Prize-winner Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn embarked on a series of speeches across America and Britain that would shock and scandalise both countries. His message: the West was veering towards moral and spiritual bankruptcy, and with it the world’s one hope against tyranny and totalitarianism.
From Solzhenitsyn’s warnings about the allure of communism, to his rebuke that the West should not abandon its age-old concepts of ‘good’ and ‘evil’, the speeches collected in Warning to the West provide insight into Solzhenitsyn’s uncompromising moral vision. Read today, their message remains as powerfully urgent as when Solzhenitsyn first delivered them.