Aug 4, 2008

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a Person of Conscience Who Stood Against Tyranny, Dead at 89.

A Giant by the power of his pen

One of the books I read in my later teen years that stayed with me for a long time was One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. I had nightmares because of it. I was already interested in politics and I was forming my ideological preferences, so I was reading all sorts of stuff, but I wasn't prepared for a detailed description of a totalitarian state employing unimaginable brutish means in an attempt to dehumanize someone who it considered a dissenter! It didn't take much to believe that freedom of speech and freedom of conscience are fundamental rights and no one should even attempt to take them away.

It's hard to believe this nowadays, but before the end of the Soviet Union, such regime was an option for some! Actually I have lived in Europe--on the western side of the "iron curtain"-- and I experienced this first hand. The soviet-style system had many supporters and Stalinism was even considered preferable to the capitalist system by millions of Communists and other leftists in the West. The Communist parties of Spain, Italy, France and Greece, to name a few, were ideological fraternities of the Soviet regime! What was striking was that these parties and their sympathizers were enjoying the freedoms of liberal democracy while saying that if they got to govern they'd abolish all those bourgeois freedoms and rule like the communists in the USSR and eastern Europe!

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008) had been a patriot who did what any good patriot should do: speak up when his country does the wrong thing! He paid for his dissent, by imprisonment, exile, and eventually thrown out of the country. The Gulag Archipelago was a 3-part tome that documented the brutality of the soviets and helped bring to light their atrocities. It helped de-mystify the aura of superiority of the "workers' paradise" and brought attention to the issue.

In Europe and elsewhere outside the US, the definition of a leftist didn't necessarily mean a progressive person, who was in favor of liberal democracy and its individual freedoms! I've have many debates while in Europe and in grad school with people who were sympathetic to the Soviet regime. Most refused to believe what Solzhenitsyn and others were saying about the brutality as a method of control and political power used by the Communist Party in the Soviet Union. It was much like today's fundamentalists who don't want to even entertain any challenging view to their own absolute convictions.

It is human nature to defend something that you've been guarding as dear, no matter what the contradicting evidence shows. The greater the investment the harder for someone to change their mind. And, if this becomes part of the person's identity, then it's almost impossible to amend. I also believe that the less secure & confident the individual is, the more the need for the absolute. Dogma solves lots of problems in areas that you're weak. If you can't be a skeptic, you don't need be dialectical about an issue. Case in point, some of us are fine with the "I don't know" option, but others are not! They want an answer, any answer that feels good! It's what Steven Colbert says, thuthiness, and a gut feeling.

Solzhenitsyn was born a year after the Bolshevik revolution (actually a coup d'etat that put an end to a very young experiment of democracy in Russia), but managed to survive and outlive this brutal regime. I felt sad about his death, even though his time had passed. Nevertheless, he was a human being who did the right thing regardless of the risks involved. That's admirable. Humanity progresses when people act to make a difference because they care!


drew said...

I read every line of the New York Times (Aug. 4th) edition on A.Solzhenitsyn. Fascinating, and I admit I almost cried.

I, too, read One Day way back, but this brought me the memories back.

How brutish humans can be to each other and how intolerant we can be of others' views.

afd said...

It's not that intolerance isn't always good. I'm not very tolerant with the views of racists and all sorts of criminals who have political power by abusing other people.

But, what kind of a regime is that? They claimed superiority to the capitalists... Their workers' paradise, everyone being equal and stuff....

So many lives, so much time wasted on a foolish quest...

Anonymous said...

You're right about people not wanting to believe that Lenin, Stalin, Chrutchev, Breznief, etc [I can't spell their names] were doing or had done in the name of the ideal regime.

It's the same when people deny the Holocaust.

Erik said...

I'm glad that you and a few others are marking the passing of this great man. No one is perfect, and I didn't agree with everything A.S. had said, but in his earlier books, he spoke the truth about the abuses of the soviet system.

Anonymous said...

How could people espouse such a regime is beyond me. One extreme fed the other extreme I guess.

Andros said...

It's often true, that the first victim of a crisis is the truth. The second is the critical/thinking process.

The moderates are attacked by both extremes, so there's polarization. This has been the case in many conflicts for a long time.

And, what gets people to act rationally, accept debate, dissent, etc, ????!!! It's precisely the conditions of a liberal democracy, where people are accustomed to the marketplace of ideas, and feel secure enough not to have to resort to extremism.

anne said...

Have you read Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler?

Equally gripping about the Stalinst regime. Very well written too.

Andros said...

Yes, thank you for noting this. I was thinking about it when I wrote the post, but didn't include it.

Yes, I've read it; don't remember when, before or after A Day in the Life, but it was a book that helped me make up my mind about freedom of conscience.