The death of Solzhenitsyn

The Ukrainian novelist Andrey Kurkov on how the author of the Gulag Archipelago, who relate

On the death of such figures as Solzhenitsyn, the phrase ‘end of an era’ is bound to come up, but Alexander Isaevich outlived his era and never truly accepted the new ‘post-soviet’ epoch.

Having sincerely dedicated his life to a desperate struggle against communism, in 1991 Solzhenitsyn suddenly found himself without a battle to fight.

From that moment his activities grew less noticeable. He was less and less asked for his commentary on developments. A note of irony appeared in the use of his nickname: the ‘Vermont Recluse’. Then in 1994 he came out of seclusion and returned to Russia.

He returned to the country he had literally torn apart in 1962 with his short story “A Day In the Life Of Ivan Denisovich”. During a meeting of the Politburo Khrushchev himself insisted on the story’s publication. It contained no direct criticism of the Soviet system. It was a simple but detailed description of one day in a camp prisoner’s life, one almost happy day.

Solzhenitsyn was immediately made a member of the writer’s Union. More of his work was published. He felt his time had come and he tried to write as much as possible, perhaps fearing that any ‘thaw’ would be temporary. However you look at it, Solzhenitsyn was of great use to Krushchev in his efforts to ‘de-Stalinize’ the Soviet Union.

Solzhenitsyn had been sent to a camp three months before the end of the Second World War for having referred to Stalin and Lenin disrespectfully in a letter to an old school friend who was serving on the front line.

Solzhenitsyn spent eleven years in camps, special prisons, secret KGB institutions and internal exile. During that time he twice overcame cancer.

It seems he was destined to be hardened through the cruellest of suffering. He admitted that having overcome cancer for the second time, he lost all fear of death and after the publication of his first stories he lost his fear of the Soviet system.

Kruschev had been overthrown, but Solzhenitsyn still believed in the possibility of democracy in the Soviet Union. Publication of his work ceased in 1965 and, two year later, in an open letter to the Fourth Congress of the Writers’ Union of the USSR he said: “I call upon the Congress to demand and insist on the abandonment of all forms of censorship…”

In May 1967 the Soviet authorities decided to ‘deal with’ Solzhenitzyn, but the writer himself saw it the other way round; he was dealing with the Soviet Authorities.

His 1968 novels “Cancer Ward” and “In the First Circle”, which were banned from publication in the USSR, were published abroad. At the same time, Solzhenitsyn smuggled out to the west a microfilmed manuscript of his most important work – the three volumes of research into the Soviet system of repression and punishment, “The Gulag Archipelago”.

A Samisdat (homepublished) copy of this work appeared in my home at the beginning of the eighties. My older brother had managed to get hold of a copy for a couple of days. I remember trying to read it as quickly as possible.

Anyone found by the KGB in possession of it would get five years in a prison camp. By that time the author was already living in Vermont, where he had bought a house with 20 hectares of land around it to guarantee his creative isolation.

He had already won the Nobel Prize for Literature. In 1974 he had been stripped of his Soviet citizenship and sent into exile as a traitor. This was the “humane face” of the Brezhnev era. After all, instead of a special flight to Germany, he could have been thrown into a train wagon bound for the camps.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn never fell in love with the USA or the west in general and, having returned to his homeland he was disappointed to discover that his compatriots no longer read his books. Disenchantment with the Yeltsin’s form of democracy encouraged pro-Putin sympathies.

Putin himself would go to ‘take tea’ with Solzhenitsyn and discuss what was to be done with Russia. But Putin’s visits were more representative than practical – a ritual attendance at a ‘living monument’ to the fight against Communism and Stalinism.

Solzhenitsyn was unable to influence contemporary Russia, although he did provoke further discussion of the “Jewish question” in one of his last works, “Two Hundred Years Together”. That book will continue to stir emotion within Russia, but on the international plane, Solzhenitsyn will forever remain the author of “Gulag Archipelago” - that terrible and truthful book about the Soviet totalitarian regime.

Getty
Show Hide image

The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times