Robert Conquest remembers Solzhenitsyn: “How should one judge him?”

Conquest at work (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Conquest at work in 2010 (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Next month, I’ll be giving a talk about Robert Conquest – the legendary historian of Russia’s Stalinist period, and also a very fine poet. The occasion will be the West Chester Poetry Conference outside Philadelphia. Tonight, I’m working and thinking about Bob, who died last year at 98. While checking dates on the internet, I found this article from him about his collaboration with the larger-than-life Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

You can read it in its entirety in the Wall Street Journal here. Or settle for a couple excerpts below:


He’s working too, at Hoover Institution Archives.

Those of us who had long been concerned to expose and resist Stalinism, in the West as in the USSR, learned much from Alexander Solzhenitsyn. I met him in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1974, soon after he was expelled from the Soviet Union – the result of … The Gulag Archipelago, being published in Paris. He was personally pleasant; I have a photograph of the two of us, he holding a Russian edition of my book, The Great Terror, with evident approbation. He asked if I would translate a “little” poem of his. Of course I agreed.

The little poem, Prussian Nights, turned out to be 2,000 lines! Thankfully, he and his circle helped. It was an arresting composition, increasing our knowledge of him and his times – something worth reading, and rereading, for its stunning historical background.

Solzhenitsyn was one of the most striking public figures of our time. How should one judge him? As a writer, up there with Pasternak? As a moralist, up there with Czeslaw Milosz? But he should also be judged as one who might have won two Nobel prizes – not just for Literature, but also for Peace.

In his public capacity, he felt bound to stand forward as the conscience of his people. He said, in a July 2007 interview in Der Spiegel, “My views developed in the course of time. But I have always believed in what I did and never acted against it.” Yet above all, he saw himself as a writer – a Russian writer.
For most of us, Russian literature is like a triangle around Pushkin, Dostoevsky, and ChekhovTolstoy is in his own class. Solzhenitsyn, on the strength of August 1914 alone, competes in the Tolstoy lane.



“Class of his own.”

Some giants of Russian literature appear more preachy than is common in the West, a trait that brings us to what many see as weaknesses in the Russian tradition. First is the feeling, without basis, that one is somehow being cheated – as in Gogol; second is a tendency to exaggerate or invent. Yet along with these weaknesses there is also painful honesty.

I did not sense the weaknesses when I met him. He was religious and Russian, but without exhibition – though it became clear he embodied Fyodor Tyutchev‘s famous dictum that “Russia can neither be grasped by the mind, nor measured by any common yardstick – no attitude to her other than one of blind faith is admissible.”

He remained staunchly anticommunist, noting in the July 2007 interview in Der Spiegel that the October Revolution “broke Russia’s back. The Red Terror unleashed by its leaders, their willingness to drown Russia in blood, is the first and foremost proof of it.” He also hoped that “the bitter Russian experience, which I have been studying and describing all my life, will be for us a lesson that keeps us from new disastrous breakdowns.”

Incidentally, I would never call Milosz “a moralist” – he certainly would not have considered himself as such, and was far too aware of his fallibility. Nevertheless, read the whole thing here.

Tags: , , , , , ,

5 Responses to “Robert Conquest remembers Solzhenitsyn: “How should one judge him?””

  1. b. Says:


  2. George Says:

    “his novel, The Gulag Archipelago“?

  3. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Inexplicable, George, isn’t it? I’ve solved with an ellipsis. I was so busy trying to sort out the typeface on the wordpress paragraph (I never did quite) that Bob’s error (or, more likely, his editor’s?) went right by me. Thanks for catching the blooper.

  4. Cynthia Haven Says:

    B., I’ve made a silent correction for the Wall Street Journal error. Thanks for catching it. Too bad the WSJ didn’t!

  5. Dr. Michael D. Scott Says:


    The most concise, cogent and thoughtful analysis of Solzhenitsyn was prepared by Strategic Forecasting, Inc., Friedman, George. “Solzhenitsyn and the Struggle for Russia’s Soul.” Geopolitical Intelligence Report. Strategic Forecasting, Inc., 08 Aug. 2008. Web. 08 Aug. 2008. (See, Solzhenitsyn, Alexander. “The Exhausted West.” 1978 Commencement Address. Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. June 1978. Harvard Magazine. Web. July-Aug. 1978.)

    Initially welcomed by the West because he was a Soviet dissident, conservatives and liberals invented an heroic Solzhenitsyn who opposed communism and venerated human rights. Actually, Solzhenitsyn despised communism, but no less than he loathed Western capitalism. And, as much as he abhorred the oppressive Soviet state, he detested Western liberal obsession with individual rights, particularly the right of free expression. He was not a secular individual humanist.

    Solzhenitsyn saw both capitalism and communism as inherently preoccupied with pursuit of wealth. Both are materialist. As for the liberal pursuit of individual rights, including unconstrained freedom of expression, he argued that individualism is the consequence of materialism. Solzhenitsyn believed materialist cultures lost spirituality and connection with God. He raised the question Dostoevsky struggled with: “If there is no God, is not everything – no matter how bestial – permissible.”

    Solzhenitsyn looked forward to “Vozrozhdenii vo slavu Rossii-matushki.” (“The revival of the glory of Mother Russia.” Please excuse my crude Russian.) He envisioned a nation built on two authorities: the state and the Russian Orthodox Church. The state would provide territorial defense, conditions for cultural growth, and an economic structure to assure a reasonable standard of living for its citizens. The Church – certainly the more powerful of the two authorities – would “govern” with spirituality, tradition, ritual and art.

    Mother Russia would not be egalitarian. The rights of citizens would be limited by the religious culture. Expression of heretical ideas would not lead to arrest, just social ostracism. In some ways Solzhenitsyn’s vision for Russia reminds me of the mixed secular/theocratic regime in Iran, although I don’t think Solzhenitsyn contemplated anything so rigid and radical.

    Strategic Forecasting now is subscription only, and it is not cheap. This article was free when I downloaded it (although I had a paid subscription that afforded access to other material), and Stratfor used to allow subscribers to distribute copies with an appropriate copyright notice. If you cannot obtain a copy, let me know and I’ll call Stratfor to see if I can send one. The Harvard address is readily available, but I can send that, too, if you can’t find it.


    Dr. Michael D. Scott