Sunday, December 11, 2011

Happy Birthday, Aleksandr Isaevich

Born today in 1918, Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn, the «великий писатель Земли Русской» - "the great writer of the Russian Land". Born in the Soviet Union, an officer in the Army, then arrested and sent to the camps where he made the great discovery so many in the camps made: the essential sham nature of Stalinism, under the cult of personality and the excesses of ritual and blood. As Evgenia Ginzburg put it in her memoir "Into the Whirlwind": everyone thought that a mistake had been made in my case, but all these other people - they were guilty, they belonged here. It wasn't until later we learned that none of us - or all of us - did. [paraphrased because my copy is at my parents' place]

Solzhenitsyn became the voice of conscience - with novels like A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (which managed to be published at Khrushchev's behest, part of de-Stalinization), history like The GULag Archipelago, and blends like The Red Wheel (August 1914 and its sequels), he explored and exposed Stalin's Soviet Union and its successor states. Early on, his piercing gaze became too strong for the USSR and he was banned - first from publishing (though his manuscripts were smuggled out) and then from living in Russia, a devastating blow but one which did not stop him.

But we in the West never really understood him - our predilection for black-and-white, either/or, with-me-or-agin-me categorizations labeled him a "dissident" and assumed that meant pro-Western, but he was never, never that. After his exile, he became a voice echoing the old Slavic culture that has always been at odds with the West, and was then at odds with Soviet Communism. Once he could, he hurried back to Moscow, where he still argued that viewpoint, somewhat at odds with modern Russia, and supported Putin insofar as Putin was restoring Russia and Russianess.

A few quotes from his last year:
  • «…При Горбачеве было отброшено само понятие и сознание государственности. При Ельцине та же линия была продолжена, но еще отягощена безмерным разграблением России (…). При Путине стали предприниматься обратные усилия спасения проваленной государственности». Under Gorbachev the very understanding and consciousness of statehood was thrown away. Under Eltsin the same line was extended, but it was overwhelmed by the unstinted plundering of Russia.... Under Putin, efforts were begun to reverse course and rescue our lost country.
  • «…Сбережение народа – выс­шая из всех наших государственных задач. (…) Все меры по поднятию общенародного жизненного уровня – в бытовом, пищевом, медицинском, образовательном и моральном отношениях – и суть действия по сбережению народа». Saving the people is the highest of all our national goals. ... All measures to raise the national level of standards of living - in daily life, food, medicine, education, and morality - are the essential action to save the people.
  • «…Я считаю консерватизмом стремление сохранять и отстаивать лучшие, добрые и разумные традиции, оправдавшие себя в многовековом народном действовании. Консерватизм, дающий сейчас ростки в России (…), обнадеживает, но выглядит пока как бы «пробным», не разработанным по отношению к конкретной современности». I believe that conservatism is the struggle to preserve and maintain the best, decent, and wise traditions, those justified by centuries of people's actions. The conservatism which is now springing up in Russia... raises hopes, yet seems for the moment to be a "trial model", not yet developed with regard to the specifics of our modern here-and-now."

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