At the end of May, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn left his residence in Cavendish, Vermont, to return home to a new Russia. Solzhenitsyn was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974. It was prematurely assumed by members of the media that when he entered the United States he would say comforting things about the West — of capitalism, consumerism, and the secular state. Those who had read his works knew otherwise. They cheered when he denounced the West as morally bankrupt, decadent, spiritually empty, and filled with despair.
His speech at Harvard in 1978 left liberals and many conservatives with their mouths open, staring aghast in disbelief. What they did not realize is that belief is the central point of Solzhenitsyn and his writings. What is actually transpiring in his novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is the celebration of Mass. Solzhenitsyn believes Christ is the answer to the riddle of human existence, and mankind’s only hope for progress. The Gulag happily stripped Solzhenitsyn of any illusions about life and personal ego. He came to know the reality of spiritual existence. That is why he uttered the seemingly paradoxical statement — “Thank you concentration camp” after nine years of imprisonment.
Solzhenitsyn is not appreciated in the West because he demands from us habits of sensibility and forms of understanding which on the whole have disappeared with the rise of the Reformation, science, and the so-called Enlightenment. Western Europe has been secular since the seventeenth century. Solzhenitsyn is what Western man used to be long ago. Those who share his sensibilities share his exile amidst a world Wyndham Lewis saw dominated by “time puppets, behaviorists and squeak dolls.” It is the exile of the artist!
More often than not the artist in the modern world finds himself in the role of an enemy to his society. The true artist is to be distinguished from the overuse of that high word artist by the sham culture. The sham culture “artist” is in perfect conformity to his time. He is not one dull beat out of step! T.S. Eliot wrote, “The artist is the only genuine and profound revolutionist. The artist being always alone, being heterodox when everyone else is orthodox and orthodox when everyone else is heterodox, is the perpetual upsetter of conventional values, the restorer of the real. He may appear at one time to hold one extreme opinion, at another period another, but his function is to bring back humanity to the real.”
The Russian soul has always had a special longing for God. Napoleon in Tolstoy’s War and Peace ridicules Moscow, known as “Holy Moscow” because of its profusion of churches. Napoleon says that many churches are a “sign of backwardness in a people.” Russian writers have always striven to resist invaders, and to maintain this blessed backwardness.
Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, and in our time Solzhenitsyn, have had scathing contempt for the scientific materialism of Westerners. Dostoevsky aptly named one of his novels after them — The Devils. The basis of this literary reaction was a great disgust with the self-satisfied assumption that material civilization alone constituted progress. These writers reacted against the modern West in the name of the soul.
It is with these ideas and traditions that Solzhenitsyn returns to Russia. What influence he will have in that changing society remains to be seen. Which way will Russia turn? Will she become a pale imitation of the West, a Wasteland of hamburgers and trashy films? This is the central question of our time.
The other possibility is that a spiritual rebirth of Russian culture would help stimulate a renaissance not only in Russia, but would help revive the West, and what Graham Greene characterized as a “sinless empty graceless chromium world.” For this we can only pray.