It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts.
– Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Gulag Archipelago
I don’t even know what to say. He’s one of my heroes. A true giant has walked the earth. A giant.
NY Times obit here. Here’s the obit in The Irish Times. Here is the text of the famous speech he gave at Harvard in 1978 (a choice quote: “But should someone ask me whether I would indicate the West such as it is today as a model to my country, frankly I would have to answer negatively. No, I could not recommend your society in its present state as an ideal for the transformation of ours. Through intense suffering our country has now achieved a spiritual development of such intensity that the Western system in its present state of spiritual exhaustion does not look attractive. Even those characteristics of your life which I have just mentioned are extremely saddening.”
Let’s not simplify the man, or make him less complex. He was a posterboy for no one. Infuriating, independent, beat of his own drummer, fearless. God.
Here’s a lengthy article in Time.
And I’ve been waiting for the inevitable: Christopher Hitchens’ piece, which opens with:
Every now and then it happens. The state or the system encounters an individual who, bafflingly, maddeningly, absurdly, cannot be broken. Should they manage to survive, such heroes have a good chance of outliving the state or the system that so grossly underestimated them. Examples are rather precious and relatively few, and they include Nelson Mandela refusing an offer to be released from jail (unless and until all other political detainees were also freed) and Alexander Solzhenitsyn having to be deported from his country of birth against his will, even though he had becomeâand had been beforeâa prisoner there.
But it seems that Solzhenitsyn did have a worry or a dread, not that he himself would be harmed but that none of his work would ever see print. Nonethelessâand this is the point to which I call your attentionâhe kept on writing. The Communist Party’s goons could have torn it up or confiscated or burned itâas they did sometimesâbut he continued putting it down on paper and keeping a bottom drawer filled for posterity. This is a kind of fortitude for which we do not have any facile name. The simplest way of phrasing it is to say that Solzhenitsyn lived “as if.” Barely deigning to notice the sniggering, pick-nose bullies who followed him and harassed him, he carried on “as if” he were a free citizen, “as if” he had the right to study his own country’s history, “as if” there were such a thing as human dignity.
The Vaclav Havel rule of living in a totalitarian society. Just live “as if” you were free.
I just happened to be up now – late for me – when the news came in. I have no words. A truly great man. (I’ve been adding links to this post since I heard the news at around 1 am this morning).
Here’s an excerpt from his Gulag Archipelago, one of the most important books of the 20th century.
Shaking my head. Strange. How it feels like a personal loss.
The world was a better place, a more honorable place, a place where bravery was possible, and where truth was always louder than lies … because he was in it.
He won the Nobel Prize in 1970, and did not attend the ceremony for fear that the Russians would retaliate by depriving him of his Russian citizenship. As much as he despised the totalitarian regime in Russia, he didn’t want to be cut off to that degree. He had family in Russia, a wife, a child on the way. So he did not attend the ceremony. Instead he sent a speech that was read at the banquet. Here is the full text. He closes with:
And I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to the members of the Swedish Academy for the enormous support their choice in 1970 has given my works as a writer. I venture to thank them on behalf of that vast unofficial Russia which is prohibited from expressing itself aloud, which is persecuted both for writing books and even for reading them. The Academy have heard for this decision of theirs many reproaches implying that such a prize has served political interests. But these are the shouts of raucous loudmouths who know of no other interests. We all know that an artist’s work cannot be contained within the wretched dimension of politics. For this dimension cannot hold the whole of our life and we must not restrain our social consciousness within its bounds.
Photo of Solzhenitsyn in 1946 in the gulag.
Rest in peace. No more words.