Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn revisited: “I welcome your snowballs”


At the Hoover Institution archives in 1976: "silent, aghast, a simply endless witnessing"

Russia watcher and New Yorker editor David Remnick wrote in 2001: “In terms of the effect he has had on history, Solzhenitsyn is the dominant writer of the 20th century. Who else compares? Orwell? Koestler? And yet when his name comes up now, it is more often than not as a freak, a monarchist, an anti-Semite, a crank, a has been.”

I remember reading my silver-covered Gulag Archipelago, vol. 1, in the backrooms of the Pontiac Press where, as a brand-new intern in the hard, gritty little burg, I was supposed to be compiling the results of a reader survey.  I kept snatching a few minutes here and there to read more, and more.  It was, as author Richard Wirick wrote, “300,000 words of stupefying revelations — silent, aghast, a simply endless witnessing. Its didacticism, the repetitious parade of exclamations … we have to be reminded that quantity sometimes becomes quality, that the sheer numbers murdered — and of a country’s own people — requires a special category of inimitable evil.”

Somehow, the last few days of research in various and sundry brought me to Wirick’s excellent Bookslut piece on the author’s 2008 death, “Solzhenitsyn: The Last Giant.” Afterward I revisited Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn‘s much-criticized (“scolding,” “hectoring”) 1978 Harvard address.

On the contrary, I find it provocative, often prescient, and at the very least worth another look.

On a legalistic society…

“I have spent all my life under a communist regime and I will tell you that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed. But a society with no other scale but the legal one is not quite worthy of man either. A society which is based on the letter of the law and never reaches any higher is taking very scarce advantage of the high level of human possibilities. The letter of the law is too cold and formal to have a beneficial influence on society. Whenever the tissue of life is woven of legalistic relations, there is an atmosphere of moral mediocrity, paralyzing man’s noblest impulses.

And it will be simply impossible to stand through the trials of this threatening century with only the support of a legalistic structure.”

On human freedom…

“The defense of individual rights has reached such extremes as to make society as a whole defenseless against certain individuals. It is time, in the West, to defend not so much human rights as human obligations. …

Such a tilt of freedom in the direction of evil has come about gradually but it was evidently born primarily out of a humanistic and benevolent concept according to which there is no evil inherent to human nature; the world belongs to mankind and all the defects of life are caused by wrong social systems which must be corrected. Strangely enough, though the best social conditions have been achieved in the West, there still is criminality and there even is considerably more of it than in the pauper and lawless Soviet society.”

On the press…

“Here again, the main concern is not to infringe the letter of the law. There is no moral responsibility for deformation or disproportion. What sort of responsibility does a journalist have to his readers, or to history? If they have misled public opinion or the government by inaccurate information or wrong conclusions, do we know of any cases of public recognition and rectification of such mistakes by the same journalist or the same newspaper? No, it does not happen, because it would damage sales. A nation may be the victim of such a mistake, but the journalist always gets away with it. One may safely assume that he will start writing the opposite with renewed self-assurance.

Because instant and credible information has to be given, it becomes necessary to resort to guesswork, rumors and suppositions to fill in the voids, and none of them will ever be rectified, they will stay on in the readers’ memory. How many hasty, immature, superficial and misleading judgments are expressed every day, confusing readers, without any verification. The press can both simulate public opinion and miseducate it.”

On intellectual fashions…

“Without any censorship, in the West fashionable trends of thought and ideas are carefully separated from those which are not fashionable; nothing is forbidden, but what is not fashionable will hardly ever find its way into periodicals or books or be heard in colleges. … This gives birth to strong mass prejudices, blindness, which is most dangerous in our dynamic era. There is, for instance, a self-deluding interpretation of the contemporary world situation. It works as a sort of petrified armor around people’s minds. Human voices from 17 countries of Eastern Europe and Eastern Asia cannot pierce it. It will only be broken by the pitiless crowbar of events.”

I could go on:  “If humanism were right in declaring that man is born to be happy, he would not be born to die.”

One can’t help thinking that Solzhenitsyn’s remarks about Western cowardice, its colossal failure of nerve, were pretty much spot-on.  For example, in the 1970s, Henry Kissinger warned President Gerald Ford against a visit from the Nobel laureate, saying the visit would cause controversy, and that fellow dissidents found his positions an embarrassment.  Guess who didn’t get an invite.  One thinks more recently of the Dalai Lama leaving the White House by the back door, near the garbage.  Or the unseemly waffling of nations deciding whether to boycott the Nobels this year, in support of China against the imprisoned writer Liu Xiaobo.  Or the modern inability to understand much more beyond branding, positioning, marketing, and public relations values — Jon Stewart‘s apparent inability to discern why inviting Cat Stevens to celebrate peace and sanity might not be such a red-hot idea.  Or… or … or…

Writing after Solzhenitsyn’s 2008 death, Wirick comments that the writer seems to have outscaled the criticism:

“And yet there he was. After Borges and Beckett, Calvino and Bellow, the man pretty much stood by himself out on the landscape: a chipped, fierce, creaking monument, taunting the wind for its shuddering fall. On the night it came, and a friend called with the news, I closed my eyes and saw my favorite photograph of him, I believe by Harry Benson. It’s the one where he is deeply breathing, hands on chest, the nearly Russian air of his whitened Vermont pastures. It’s a picture that shows a lot more wisdom and self-deprecation than most people see. The superficial view takes the smile on his face and closed eyes to be saying how ‘happy’ he is to finally be in a ‘free’ country. I see him saying something at once richer and lighter, playful and more complex: ‘I’m a writer. I’m a ham. I make mistakes. I just happen to straddle the age like Abi Yoyo. But it is always only a step, as Mr. Nabokov said, from the hallelujah to the hoot. I welcome your snowballs.'”

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9 Responses to “Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn revisited: “I welcome your snowballs””

  1. Frances Madeson Says:

    This one’s all over the map. I’ll just say this…why quote that Monsanto-eating, Iraq War-supporting David Remnick as an “authority” on anything? You have an amazing intellect, Cynthia. I am boundless in my admiration for your skill, taste and judgment. But surely you see how leading this post about moral authority by quoting Remnick furthers the insane meta-static we are “living” in. Cat Stevens, for all of his repulsive demagoguery, is not an nth the enemy to societal well-being as Herr Remnick is.

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Remnick is a Pulitzer-prizewinning authority on things Russian, as well as a prominent editor. For that reason, his opinions on Solzhenitsyn carry some weight. I certainly don’t know of anyone else who has made such a strong statement about Solzhenitsyn’s position as a writer.

    My other comment addressed Jon Stewart, for his moral blankness about including Cat Stevens in his peace and sanity line-up. Stevens/Islam is welcome to his own opinions, which I expect are no more than another kind of self-protective buckling to conform to those who might ostracize and condemn him. I could just as easily cited America’s tepid support for the Iranian green movement, or our refusal to support Molly Norris or others whose free-speech has earned them a fatwa, or a host of other examples. But this post was already getting long.

    All of this, of course, was to illustrate that Solzhenitsyn may not be as far off in his judgments about America’s “decline in courage,” which he says “may be the most striking feature which an outside observer notices in the West in our days.” I suspect it’s become more pronounced since his 1976 address.

  3. Frances Madeson Says:

    All of those excellent points are very well taken, Cynthia, but I’m sure you’ll agree with me here: Pulitzer prizes ain’t what they used to be. Anyway, I’m going on my own experience. I saw that dentist’s son from Hackensack moderate a panel of Judith Remnick, Ed Rothstein, and the editor of Philip Roth’s LOA Volume (whose name escapes me just at the moment) on the occasion of its publication a few years ago. I was curious, so in the Q&A I raised my hand, was called on by DR, and I asked, “What exactly does an editor of previously-edited material actually do?”

    And you know what that yutz did? In front of a packed auditorium at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, he turned to the panel and said (with the dumbest possible expression on his face, think: My Pet Goat), “That’s a really good question! What DOES an editor of previously-edited material actually do?”

    It was like a Shecky Green routine, but he didn’t know it. Hence, yutz (in glorious spades).

  4. Jeff Sypeck Says:

    I don’t know much about David Remnick, but the example of Sozhenitsyn applies to him, too, as a reminder that we don’t have to discount everything a writer says just because we think he got a few big things wrong, even if moral judgment is his very subject. Otherwise, we’ll aspire to no higher criticism than a sophisticated version of the ad hominem fallacy, and we’ll struggle to fill library shelves with authors who were infallibly decent and right.

  5. Frances Madeson Says:

    You know, Mr. Sypeck, I don’t participate in the capital markets anymore. But if I did, and if I were a Conde Naste shareholder, for instance, I would hope that the editor-in-chief of the flagship publication of the corporate person whom I had entrusted with my equity investment, would have some legitimate claim to decency. I do agree you with you on one point: we don’t have to discount, but neither have we to mark up excessively and unjustifiably, any ole way you slice it.

  6. Elena Danielson Says:

    The black/white photo shows Solzhenitsyn reading bound Russian newspapers in an office in Hoover Tower. In 1976 he worried about his security would not work in the first floor reading room. Fearful of assassination attempts, the librarian in charge, a sweet Estonian lady named Hilja Kukk, guarded him fiercely. When a burly Russian demanded to be taken to Solzhenitsyn’s office, she refused, trembling in fear. Just then the elevator door opened and out came the great man, saw the burly guy, embraced him with Russian bear hugs and greeted a long lost school chum and confident. Hilja laughed about this many times. Solzhenitsyn found so much documentation at Hoover that he added 300 pages to his book, “August 1914,” and rendered it unreadable. The biographer D. M. Thomas noted: “In a sense, an assassination took place in the Hoover Institute [sic] that spring. An artist died. He became, instead, a kind of obsessional ‘hoarder’: nothing was to be left to the reader’s imagination.” (p. 484) A documentarian, Solzhenitsyn asked his compatriots to write up their experiences. He took those memoirs with him from Vermont to Moscow, where they form the core of a growing body of materials on the Russian experience, the stuff of history that does not show up in government archives, and does not fit neatly between two book covers. Viktor Moskvin, curator of the Solzhenitsyn library in Moscow, continues the documentary obsession with panache.

  7. Ruth Atkins Says:

    Hi, Cynthia-
    I was seeking the means to thank you for the Szymborska book, and found this wonderful blog. I read voraciously through the first page , and wanted to comment on the this intriguing correspondence about Solzhenitsyn. After assigning both his Nobel Speech and Lecture to my AP English class, I have gone through many strong opinions about his stance on Western culture. After spending that year in Russia, I was grateful upon returning to have free access to information which I’d had to pay for in RUssia – what time trains departed, etc- but the noise pollution here and the assault on one’s other senses that flies on the coattails of a market economy- gave me cause to question our Adam Smithsonian idea of freedom. It has no inherent moral values, which is why it works, for better or worse.
    ANyway, the parallel reading I assigned (all using Orwell’s 1984 as an excuse for the RUssophilia) were Brodsky’s Nobel Speech and Lecture. He addresses some of the issues as to what freedom is for an artist, one of which is autonomy of imagination. the freedom to be ironic and to criticize one’s society. Referring generously to the precedents of Mandelstam, Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva.His idea of ” spiritual” is clearly different from Solzhenitsyn’s, and more intellectual, but it does underlie what Brodsky valued and needed (one never knows what tense to use in this case) in the west: An ability to follow the voice of one’s muse- to listen and speak freely- which though an amoral value, is nonetheless a requirement for the spirit of an artist. (Mais tu sais tout cela, mieux que moi, sans doute).It is still (or again- if you hiccup for Krushchev and Gorbachev) difficult to speak freely in RUssia. MOreover, the worst of the free and black market economies have eroded any claim to spiritual pre-eminence. Solzhenitsyn’s return to Russia reminded me of Tolstoy’s renunciation of his early novels. PS This is more of a hello than a post, please.

  8. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Good to hear from you, Ruth! My email is cynthia.haven at

  9. Reid Dimperio Says:

    I love the first pic, beautiful!