It is impossible to overestimate the importance of the literary works of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who died Sunday at age 89.
At the same time, without diminishing their importance, as well as his courageous personal example, it is too easy to exaggerate Solzhenitsyn’s role in defeating the historically unprecedented tyranny that was the Soviet Union.
After all, the legendary author won his Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970, “for the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature.”
Solzhenitsyn’s seminal work, the three-volume Gulag Archipelago, was published near the end of 1973. Solzhenitsyn’s obituary in the New York Times describes it this way:
Gulag was a monumental account of the Soviet labor camp system, a chain of prisons that by Mr. Solzhenitsyn’s calculation some 60 million people had entered during the 20th century. The book led to his expulsion from his native land. George F. Kennan, the American diplomat, described it as ׂthe greatest and most powerful single indictment of a political regime ever to be leveled in modern times:
Solzhenitsyn’s invaluable and irreplaceable contribution to mankind was to unmask the fundamentally heinous and evil nature of Marxist-Leninist Communism for all who wished to comprehend it. His exposure of the truth about the Soviet Union’s history, its living conditions, and its fundamental tenets of oppression and repression, set the table for those who would have the courage to confront and defeat it.
Many, sadly, had no such desire to comprehend, or to confront.
In the U.S., a man who felt that “detente” was the way to deal with ruthless thugs was elected president just three years after Gulag‘s release.
Seven years later, the next president, Ronald Reagan, elicited a tidal wave of outrage when he very accurately called the Soviet regime “the focus of evil in the modern world.”
To make his case throughout his presidency, Reagan invoked Solzhenitsyn and other Soviet dissidents early, often, and to powerful effect. Ultimately, and without firing a shot, Reagan, Pope Paul II, and Lech Walesa, with considerable assistance from the American union movement and Margaret Thatcher, all stepped up and so weakened the evil empire that, by the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was forced to release its grip as its satellites demanded it.
A stumbled-upon story from the May 31, 1988, New York Times shows just how relentless Reagan was.
1988 was the last year of his administration, but there was no coasting. Reagan went to Moscow for a summit with media darling Mikhail Gorbachev. While there:
Reagan … publicly clashed over human rights issues … quoting Alexander Solzhenitsyn, appealed for increased civil and religious liberties in the Soviet Union.
… From the gilded halls of the Kremlin to the white-walled compound of the Danilov Monastery, Mr. Reagan used his first visit to the Soviet Union and his fourth meeting with Mr. Gorbachev to campaign for greater freedom.
… Mr. Reagan’s comments here are the most sustained criticism of internal Soviet policies by a foreign visitor since Mr. Gorbachev assumed power in March 1985, and raised potentially sensitive political problems for the Soviet leader as he faces an important Communist Party meeting next month.
… Mr. Gorbachev’s remarks about ”sermonizing” were apparently made in response to a meeting earlier in the day between Mr. Reagan and a group of dissidents at Spaso House, the residence of the American Ambassador.
… At the meeting, described by the White House as a gathering of ”selected Soviet citizens,” Mr. Reagan said Moscow has made progress on human rights in recent years but still falls short of acceptable international standards for freedom of religion, speech and travel.
Many of those in attendance were Soviet Jews who have been denied permission to emigrate to the West.
”I’ve come to Moscow with this human rights agenda because, as I suggested, it is our belief that this is a moment of hope,” Mr. Reagan told the gathering at Spaso House, where he and his wife, Nancy, are staying during their five-day visit.
… Addressing a group of (the Danilov Monastery’s) monks and church leaders who were dressed in the traditional black robes and cylindrical caps of the church, Mr. Reagan used the words of Mr. Solzhenitsyn as he called for a renewal of religious faith in the Soviet Union.
Reagan never let up on the pressure, even near the end of his term. Gorbachev, contrary to the fawning media portrayals, was dragged kicking and screaming every step of the way.
If we would have continued to listen to those who wished to “accommodate” this evil empire, the world would be a much different and much more dangerous place.
Evil empires don’t just “fail,” as some historical revisionists would have it. For proof of that, one only needs to look at North Korea and Cuba. The people in those two countries are arguably in a worse economic situation than the Soviet Union as a whole ever was. Their intrinsic evil is clearly visible to all who will open their eyes. Yet those dictatorships have not, and will not, collapse on their own.
Sadly, no one has had the courage mustered by Reagan et al against the Soviet Union to deal similarly with these two rogue nations.
Perhaps a president who spent five years in a North Vietnamese gulag will.
Solzhenitsyn had something to say about that war, too:
The most cruel mistake occurred with the failure to understand the Vietnam war. Some people sincerely wanted all wars to stop just as soon as possible; others believed that there should be room for national, or communist, self-determination in Vietnam, or in Cambodia, as we see today with particular clarity. But members of the U.S. anti-war movement wound up being involved in the betrayal of Far Eastern nations, in a genocide and in the suffering today imposed on 30 million people there. Do those convinced pacifists hear the moans coming from there? Do they understand their responsibility today? Or do they prefer not to hear?
Their responsibility, and their preference not to hear, continue to this day: it is telling, but not surprising that Ronald Reagan’s name is nowhere to be found in Solzhenitsyn’s New York Times obit.