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A footnote on Solzhenitsyn

August 4th, 2008 - 5:58 am

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who died yesterday at 89, was one of our greatest chroniclers of Soviet tyranny. Beginning in 1962 with his short novel A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and continuing with The Cancer Ward and the multi-volume Gulag Archipelago, he unforgettably anatomized the inner workings of that hideous, soul-destroying engine of totalitarianism.

Reflections on Solzhenitsyn’s life and work are appearing everywhere. For example, the London Telegraph and the London Times carry characteristically excellent obituaries.

There is one point, however, that deserves special emphasis, namely that the evil of Communism was, is, every bit as murderous, fanatical, and life-blighting as Nazism. A brief but illuminating editorial in The New York Sun observes that “once Solzhenitsyn had written, no one could any longer doubt that the evil of Stalinism was comparable to the evil of Nazism.”

I agree with the Sun‘s editorialist that no right-thinking person should any longer be able to doubt that Communism and Nazism were but two faces of the same evil coin. But the myth of Communist “idealism” was, and perhaps still is, a hardly perennial. George Steiner, reviewing The Gulag Archipelago in The New Yorker in 1974, typified the attitude of the left-wing Western intellectual: “To infer that the Soviet terror is as hideous as Hitlerism,” Steiner lectured, “is not only a brutal oversimplification but a moral indecency.”

The real moral indecency is Steiner’s, and it is worth noting just how persistent is the temptation to excuse tyranny providing only that it comes from the left. There are few, perhaps, who would go as far as the odious Eric Hobsbawm. In 1994, Hobsbawm discussed the former Soviet Union with a television interviewer. What Hobsbawm’s position comes down to, the interviewer suggested, “is saying that had the radiant tomorrow actually been created, the loss of fifteen, twenty million people might have been justified?” Hobsbawm: “Yes.”

Probably there aren’t many who would express themselves as baldly as Eric Hobsbawm. But the specter of statism–what Hayek, hearkening back to Tocqueville, called “the road to serfdom”–is a continuing threat, all the more insinuating today because less obviously brutal. How easy it is to forget, to neglect, to ignore that threat. Solzhenitsyn did an immense amount to bolster our memory, but creeping socialism is like the “sweet oblivious antidote” Macbeth craves for his wife. I recall the story Kingsley Amis tells in his Memoirs about the reception of Robert Conquest’s classic indictment of Stalin’s tyranny, The Great Terror. “For many years,” Amis notes, the book was “ignored where possible or dismissed as propaganda.

Then, in 1988, favourable references to it began to appear in the Soviet media. . . . [A]n American publisher suggested a new edition of the book. “What about a new title Bob? We won’t pretend it’s a new book , but a new title would be good. . . .

Bob answered in terms that get a lot of his character into small compass. “Well, perhaps, I Told You So, You Fucking Fools. How’s that?”

Solzhenitsyn, like Conquest, did tell us. Let’s hope we have the wit to listen.

Update: Over at Armavirumque, my colleague Stefan Beck links to an interview–the first to appear in an American paper–that Solzhenitsyn gave to Hilton Kramer in 1980. Here’s the link.

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