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Alexander Solzhenitsyn, RIP:

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the great Russian dissident and exposer of communist crimes, has passed away.

In books such as The Gulag Archipelago and A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, he did more than any other Russian writer to expose the crimes of communism. Solzhenitsyn's opposition to the communist regime was in large part a result of a term that he was forced to serve in in a Gulag slave labor camp for writing a letter critical of Joseph Stalin while serving in the Soviet Army during World War II.

Unlike fellow dissidents such as Andrei Sakharov, Solzhenitsyn was a Russian nationalist, not a liberal democrat. As such, he was suspicious of Western-style democracy and individual rights. While he was not as much of a chauvinist as some other Russian nationalists, his writings defending czarist Russia and Russian culture sometimes verged into anti-Semitism. For example in one of his last books, Two Hundred Years Together, Solzhenitsyn made the absurd claim that the czarist-era Russian government was not anti-Semitic and that Russian Jews bear as much or more blame than Russian gentiles do for the historic conflicts between the two groups. As Cathy Young has pointed out, in view of the czarist state's "systematic oppression and violence" against the Jews, this is "a bit like asking blacks to accept their share of blame for Jim Crow." Solzhenitsyn's nationalism also led him to endorse some of Vladimir Putin's authoritarian measures, and to oppose allowing Ukraine to become independent of Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union (he did, to his credit, support independence for all the non-Slavic parts of the former Soviet empire, which he did not consider to be legitimate Russian possessions).

It is not my intention here to emphasize Solzhenitsyn's negative aspects. For what it's worth, I think that while Solzhenitsyn was wrong to excuse and minimize the crimes of czarist Russia, he was right to emphasize that the oppression of the Soviet Union was rooted more in communist ideology and institutions than in Russian cultural tradition. As he pointed out, similar repression occurred in every other communist state, including those whose preexisting cultural traditions were very different from Russia's.

Overall, I believe that the good Solzhenitsyn did greatly outweighs his misguided statements on some issues. Solzhenitsyn deserves to be remembered for the fortitude he showed during his years in the Gulag and for his courage in resisting and exposing the crimes of a brutal totalitarian regime.

byomtov (mail):
Solzhenitsyn deserves to be remembered for the fortitude he showed during his years in the Gulag and for his courage in resisting and exposing the crimes of a brutal totalitarian regime.

He certainly deserves credit for fortitude.

The rest raises an interesting question. Solzhenitsyn did resist and expose "the crimes of a brutal totalitarian regime." But perhaps he was motivated by admiration for a different brutal regime, which he defended (I rely on the linked piece by Young, which is pretty harsh). How shall we measure the credit here?
8.3.2008 10:16pm
RKV (mail):
"It is not my intention here to emphasize Solzhenitsyn's negative aspects." Well you've just spent 80% of your post doing just that. I'm not fooled.
8.3.2008 10:46pm
Ilya Somin:
"It is not my intention here to emphasize Solzhenitsyn's negative aspects." Well you've just spent 80% of your post doing just that. I'm not fooled.

I spent more space on the negatives because they require more explanation and are less familiar to most readers than the positives. If I had simply said that Solzhenitsyn was an anti-Semite and an authoritarian nationalist without providing links and explanations, people would have accused me of attacking him unfairly.

The last paragraph of the post accurately expresses my view of the net balance of Solzhenitsyn's legacy: the good outweighs the bad. That doesn't mean that the bad should simply be ignored.
8.3.2008 10:51pm
Fergal (mail):
I'm puzzled as to why you seem to attach weight to Cathy Young's appraisal of an unquestionably great writer. I've beebn a recipient of Reason for years and Young is not one of their most reasonable or lucid commentators. Fergal
8.3.2008 11:00pm
M (mail):
Before he fell foul of the Soviet government Solzhenitsyn had lived for some time on the street in Ryazan where I later lived not far from the building where my room was and taught chemistry at a school I walked past regularly. This helped make me somewhat more interested in him than his rather dreary prose otherwise would have (if his subject matter had been something else he surely would not have been known outside of Russia) but it was hard to like what one saw. His objections to the Soviet Union were primarily it's "rationalism" and non-Russian nature. An authoritarianism of a traditional Russian sort, especially one that emphasized mysticism and they mysterious, irrational Russian soul suited him just fine. He was an important cataloger of Soviet crimes but was not a friend to liberty in any important sense.
8.3.2008 11:03pm
mgarbowski:
There is certainly a time and place for this, and you informed me of things I didn't know. Still, this was extraordinarily ungracious tonight.
8.3.2008 11:05pm
RKV (mail):
Damned with faint praise, Ilya. Solzhenitsyn will be known and read by millions long after Volokh Conspiracy is forgotten. I think that puts things in perspective a bit.
8.3.2008 11:06pm
VFBVFB (mail):
I was surprised to hear that he died, because I assumed that he’s been dead for a while. But the news caused me to read his famous 1978 Harvard address, which is linked to below. He doesn’t merely criticize the West; he strongly implies that its cowardly nature, secular humanism, narcissism and excessive legalisms would lead to its demise. Thirty years later, his predictions aren’t looking good. The countries that adopt the characteristics for which he criticizes the West are doing better than the countries whose values he compliments.


Text of Address by Alexander Solzhenitsyn at Harvard Class Day Afternoon Exercises
8.3.2008 11:07pm
Ilya Somin:
Damned with faint praise, Ilya. Solzhenitsyn will be known and read by millions long after Volokh Conspiracy is forgotten. I think that puts things in perspective a bit.

Lots of writers with serious shortcomings will be known and read by millions long after the VC is forgotten. That doesn't mean that their flaws should be ignored.
8.3.2008 11:08pm
RKV (mail):
"He was an important cataloger of Soviet crimes but was not a friend to liberty license in any important sense."
8.3.2008 11:09pm
Ilya Somin:
I'm puzzled as to why you seem to attach weight to Cathy Young's appraisal of an unquestionably great writer. I've beebn a recipient of Reason for years and Young is not one of their most reasonable or lucid commentators.

I have actually read the Solzhenitsyn book in question and Young's article is an accurate summary of its contents.
8.3.2008 11:10pm
Ilya Somin:
There is certainly a time and place for this, and you informed me of things I didn't know. Still, this was extraordinarily ungracious tonight.

The occasion of a person's death is as good a time as any to assess their legacy. And that assessment must include the negative as well as the positive - particularly if the negative includes serious flaws such as anti-Semitism and authoritarian nationalism.
8.3.2008 11:11pm
RKV (mail):
Apparently Ilya, I believe his shortcomings to much less serious than you do, and especially so in comparison to his contributions. That's your perspective and Solzhenitsyn isn't here to defend himself. Speaking ill of the dead within hours of their passing says more about you than you imagine.
8.3.2008 11:14pm
pgepps (www):
I agree that his shortcomings do not outweigh his contributions, and appreciate a helpful appraisal that means when I speak well of Solzhenitsyn, I will not do so with foolish overbroad gestures. He was a great man and influenced many others in a great way, a right way, at great cost.
8.3.2008 11:20pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
RKV: Ilya is right. This convention of not speaking ill of the dead within hours of their demise is silly. For many people who don't follow this stuff, this will be the only time they ever read something about Solzhenitsyn. There's no better time to bring up the good stuff and also note the bad stuff as part of a fair, holistic assessment of the man -- while noting that the good exceeds the bad in this case -- exactly as Ilya has done.
8.3.2008 11:27pm
treebeard (mail):
Solzhenitsyn was the reason that my politics changed from liberal to conservative. We read "One Day in the Life..." in high school, and it had the same impact on me as "1984." My father (extremely liberal) had a copy of the "Gulag Archipelago" which I skim-read in college. Then I read S's collection of essays and speeches, "Warning to the West." Eventually I realized, to my horror, that Ronald Reagan had been right about the "evil empire." My adolescent leftism couldn't survive that. It felt like the scales fell off, and I could see clearly.
8.3.2008 11:28pm
Bob Young (mail):
Well most everything here gets interpreted through the Jewish prism and any past or present remark critical of Jews is viewed as unhelpful at the least. It's an attitude that makes the plight of the O.T. Jeremiah easy to understand. I suppose it can't be helped.

Taking the Anti-Semitic criticisms of Solzhenitsyn with a grain of salt, I feel that in terms of forthright courage, the man was a giant. He'll be missed and we need more like him. I, for one, am not surprised that someone with the guts to stand up to brutal tyrants as a virtual slave in a totalitarian regime, would lose little sleep about offending an oversensitive minority in a free society.
8.3.2008 11:32pm
Ilya Somin:
Well most everything here gets interpreted through the Jewish prism and any past or present remark critical of Jews is viewed as unhelpful at the least. It's an attitude that makes the plight of the O.T. Jeremiah easy to understand. I suppose it can't be helped.

I can only say that the above is utter BS. Solzhenitsyn wasn't jsut "critical of Jews." He justified and minimized the the czarist regime's massive anti-Semitism, blamed Jews for the rise of communism, and said other things that are clearly anti-Semitic by any reasonable standard. The relevant "prism" here is not the "Jewish prism" but that of opposition to prejudice and oppression.
8.3.2008 11:40pm
Curt Fischer:

Speaking ill of the dead within hours of their passing says more about you than you imagine.


This criticism often comes here at the VC in response to obituary-type posts. I don't fully understand it. Why is it wrong to offer any criticism of the recently deceased?

People are complicated. Who thinks that any one's life is completely devoid of immoralities? My bet is that most everyone knows that no one is, or was, perfect. What's the problem with mentioning, or even commenting on, the imperfections?

For example, if a wife says at her husband's funeral, "Even for all his flaws, I loved this man!" is she being ungracious for admitting the her husband was flawed?

If she says, "Sometimes he drank too much and he was stubborn, but he was a great father and husband and always treated everyone well, I will miss him," is that ungracious?

Conversely, when a despotic mass murder like Pol Pot dies, should we avoid referring to the man's horrific crimes, lest it say more about us than we can imagine?
8.3.2008 11:50pm
The Cabbage (mail):
Вечная память.
8.3.2008 11:59pm
Henri Le Compte (mail):
Hmmm... anyone who doubts Solzhenitsyn's courage, or his deep commitment to humanism and freedom, need only read a few chapters of his Gulag Archipelago. I was first introduced to this three volume set when I was in college, and I have returned to them repeatedly in the decades since. I know nothing of Solzhenitsyn's anti-semitism; I guess because it didn't figure heavily in his fiction? What I do know is that when it came to putting his freedom, and his life, on the line to oppose a brutal autocracy, he was brave beyond measure.

I suppose that we are all human, and with this in mind, I am inclined to forgive his lapses. In the most important ways, however, he demonstrated a moral clarity and a tenacity that was all too rare, on both sides of the Iron Curtain. For those who would criticize him, I ask you only to imagine what would have been left of your idealism after front line duty in WW2 and 10 years in one of Stalin's gulags. Who among us would have had the guts to write A Day in the Life of Ivan D?
8.4.2008 12:14am
RKV (mail):
Sasha, it's Ilya's sense of proportion (or lack thereof) to which I object. So, no I don't agree with you. Ilya's comment leaves the substance out and focuses on the faults. Solzhenitsyn was a literary giant. You and Ilya would do well to actually read some more of his works other than Two Hundred Years Together. Personally I've read most of his published work, and as an oeuvre, you'd have to work pretty hard to find an equivalent modern author. Given what I know of the family history, etc. you would do well to read them in the original. God knows, he did get lucky with his english translations - e.g. Stories and Prose Poems is great reading even in translation and that's got to be a trick.
8.4.2008 12:16am
coriolan (mail):
Let's dispense - just for tonight! - with polemics. Can we instead admire the brilliance of Solzhenitsyn as a story teller? (I don't get the sense that many of our learned commentators have actually read anything by Solzhenitsyn). I think his greatest fictional works is The First Circle. I'm sure that American film director Robert Altman is not a name usually linked with Solzhenitsyn, buth they both used the same technique in having no single major character, but offering a multiplicity of perspectives; in any particular Solzhenitsyn chapter, a hitherto marginal character suddenly becomes the central focus. The First Circle opens with perhaps the most unsettling paranoid scenario in contemporary fiction, as Innokenty Volodin, a minor bureaucrat, tries to make a anonymous phone call to warn his old professor that he has under official observation - then the phone is abruptly cut off. "Someone had broken the connection."

It's nearly 500 pages before we meet up with Volodin again - but the reader is made aware that the "First Circle" prison camp has been given the assignment of voice identification via telephone calls - and it is the bastardized use of that technology that leads to Volodin's arrest (two other innocent men are arrested for suspicion that they might have placed the call).

Remember 1984's Room 101? Where each subject's worst fear - like Winston's rat's is foisted upon him? Very melodramatic, but not cost effective - yeah, right, like the totalitarian superstate is going to cater to your desires like a $500 an hour dominatrix! Solzhenitsyn had it more accurate - arrest and incarceration in the totalitarian state is a totally bureaucratic process conducted by unintelligent civil servants, whose main concern would be - something totally alien to Orwell's total state - paperwork! "Keep Forever" - are the words stamped a form bearing Volodin's fingerprints....

I will also mention "The Birthday Hero" chapters (18-21) written from the perspective of Joseph Stalin, perhaps literature's most caustic portrayal of tyranny, as well as Chap. 54 The Buddha's Smile - an equally scathing depiction of Eleanor Roosevelt in particular, and western liberalism in general.

"Thus he was, thus he died, thus he will live for all time!"
8.4.2008 12:22am
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Ilya has exactly the right sense of proportion. By a line count, about half the lines are about the greatness of Solzhenitsyn. "[G]reat Russian dissident and exposer of communist crimes," "did more than any other Russian writer to expose the crimes of communism," "he was right to emphasize...", "the good Solzhenitsyn did greatly outweighs...", "fortitude," "courage in resisting and exposing the crimes of a brutal totalitarian regime." This is all quoted from Ilya's post. It should be perfectly obvious from the post that Ilya agrees that this guy is a giant, a hero, yada yada yada.

The middle half is about the bad stuff, also necessary for a holistic assessment of the guy. (And not just because it's bad -- there were lots of different strains of dissidents who ended up splitting apart after the fall of communism, and it's useful to point out what sort of dissident he was, i.e., what his positive agenda was.)

Lack of proportion would be spending the whole post talking about the nationalist stuff. Hagiography would also be inappropriate, but I think all hagiography is inappropriate, so maybe that's just me. I came out of Ilya's post feeling on balance very positive about him, and I think (though I don't want to put words into Ilya's mouth) that this was Ilya's view too.
8.4.2008 12:43am
Ilya Somin:
Sasha, it's Ilya's sense of proportion (or lack thereof) to which I object. So, no I don't agree with you. Ilya's comment leaves the substance out and focuses on the faults. Solzhenitsyn was a literary giant. You and Ilya would do well to actually read some more of his works other than Two Hundred Years Together.

What makes you think that we haven't? I have read nearly all his major works in the original, as well as some of the minor ones. There is a great deal to admire there, as I pointed out in the post. That does not mean, however, that the man didn't have some important faults as well.
8.4.2008 1:12am
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
As for me, I haven't read any Solzhenitsyn. But Ilya's read enough for the both of us.
8.4.2008 1:23am
Displaced Midwesterner:
The old taboo about speaking ill of the dead is just that--old, outdated, irrational. I don't think the dead are too concerned with the criticisms of the living (regardless of what your views on the afterlife might be). It is one thing to, for instance, stand up at someone's funeral and curse their memory. But that has more to do with the sensibilities of the living family and friends who cherish the person's memory. It is another thing entirely to point out both the positives and the negatives of someone's legacy on a blog.

Solzhenitsyn was indeed an impressive, courageous figure and his work was important. But he also had a flaw common to many artists. While much of his work could be powerful, his personal political views tended to be very extreme. Although I suppose he did also have the distinction of being one of a rather rare breed, the hard right fanatic artist.
8.4.2008 1:37am
Harry Eagar (mail):
Before Solzhenitsyn there was Eugenia Ginzburg, and I am happy to say that "Within the Whirlwind" is back in print, just as insightful and a lot easier to read than "Gulag Archipelago."

Even after giving as much consideration as possible to Solzhenitsyn's personal reasons for disliking Stalinist communism, and also setting aside for the moment his views about Jews, you have to think that anybody who decided that the way forward for Russia was back to tsarism or something very like it was a lunatic.
8.4.2008 1:46am
kabud (mail) (www):
I used to think highly of him. Until i learned more about soviet genocide

Then i realized: Soljenitsyn either was absolutely misinformed or he does it on purpose and was consulted by KGB

Later i read Golitsyn, Sejna, Cibulka, Nyquist, Douglas

And i realized that the only explanation for this incredible dishonesty of Solzhenitsyn decreasing and covering the real scale of genocide and its most bloody and important to know aspects WAS A PART OF THE PLAN

Kremlin wanted to reveal some of it, pretend that the are sorry and that the changed

Soljenitsyn was a shameful disinformator and manipulator

It is another red herring we all consumed.

But not any more- today he is meeting his maker and it should be very rough for him
8.4.2008 2:09am
Thomass (mail):
Curt Fischer:

"This criticism often comes here at the VC in response to obituary-type posts. I don't fully understand it. Why is it wrong to offer any criticism of the recently deceased?"


A: It is not just here, this is a common request
B: It is usually limited to their death day (the request to not get into criticism, just say you’re sorry they're gone on that day)
C: Because it is disrespectful
D: If people felt attached to the person in question, they're nerves are raw and it seems like a gut punch

Just waiting a day or two before... it is not too much to ask...
8.4.2008 2:11am
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
As to (C), the greatest respect one can show to an intellectual is to vigorously engage his ideas, agreeing and/or disagreeing, every day, but especially on days when more people are paying attention, for instance the day of his death.

You can hold back maybe if his wife and kids are crying right there in the front row.
8.4.2008 2:48am
ed (mail) (www):
Hmmm.

I thought he was sent to the Gulag because of his actions as an artillery officer in the Great Patriotic War?
8.4.2008 3:02am
Kirk:
M,

An authoritarianism of a traditional Russian sort, especially one that emphasized mysticism and the mysterious, irrational Russian soul suited him just fine.
I'm not so sure about that. His laudatory stuff about Stolypin in August 1914 doesn't make him sound like a straight-up lover of authoritarianism of any kind. But maybe it reads different in the Russian; I wouldn't know.

Harry,

You can't possibly think that Tsarist Russia was worse than what followed, can you? I think that's the proper lens to view Solzhenytsin through. And since I've already mentioned August 1914, it's worth pointing out that the book shows a lot of nuanced thinking (OK, call it conflicted thinking if you prefer) about that subject, too.
8.4.2008 3:03am
unhyphenatedconservative (mail):
"As to (C), the greatest respect one can show to an intellectual is to vigorously engage his ideas, agreeing and/or disagreeing, every day, but especially on days when more people are paying attention, for instance the day of his death."

Please. You can at least wait for the body to cool before you start the great debate. Or is the ivory tower really that detached from normal reality that common decency is not simply common sense?
8.4.2008 3:07am
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Once the body is cool, people aren't interested anymore.
8.4.2008 3:17am
A. Zarkov (mail):
I read all three volumes of the The Gulag Archipelago, cover to cover, and they had a tremendous affect on me. I especially liked "The Blue Caps" in volume I. In Volume III we meet Georgi Tenno and see how a man of courage can stand up to a bully and succeed. This work did a lot of ideological damage to Communism. It was far more devastating than One Day ... which was actually published with government approval during one of the Khrushchev's more liberal periods.

As for Solzhenitsyn alleged anti-Semitic writings, I haven't read them, and I won't take anyone's else's interpretation on this matter. Even if true that wouldn't make me change my mind about him.

If you liked Gulag, then try Victor Herman's Coming Out of the Ice. Not as intellectual, but extremely moving. Unfortunately its out of print, but you can buy it used.

BTW I think it's small minded and petty to be so critical at this time, but that's the kind of thing we get today.
8.4.2008 3:48am
Jacobr (mail) (www):
Solzhenitsin was a giant of spirit. A great writer, a great moralist, of outstanding courage and rectitude. A really great man.
He was the ONE single person most influential toward the defeat of the evil, murderous, insane empire.
One of the greatest, most influencial 20th century personages. His flaws were minor and insignificnat compared to the enormity of his personality.
R.I.P.
8.4.2008 4:16am
Billy Beck (www):
Don't let anyone cow you, Ilya: to think about a man like A.S. and then say what you think on the event of his death is nothing but the right thing. The whiners can crawl below decks.

I have always wondered how Anne Applebaum could hold her head up in public after her book. It's not that it's bad: it's just that it shrivels painfully next to The Original Genuine Item.

In 1999, I decided that A.S. was the world's most important writer in all the twentieth century. What he did with the "Archipelago" was enormous, and he did it from inside the awful machine. There was never anything like it ever written before, and it should endure for as long as people read books. It's a lesson.

"We didn't love freedom enough."

("The Gulag Archipelago", Vol. I, Part I: "The Prison Industry", chapter 1: "Arrest", footnote 5 at p. 13)
8.4.2008 4:32am
Eli Rabett (www):
As with Jesse Helms you get the whole package so you have to judge the whole package
8.4.2008 5:32am
Modus Ponens:
So, his anti-semitism wasn't a big deal?
8.4.2008 6:10am
Public_Defender (mail):
This post helps explain why Russia is descending [further] into totalitarianism. When the basic complaint of one of its greatest heroes is that the wrong totalitarian regime was in charge, there isn't a lot of hope.
8.4.2008 6:30am
Plumb Bob (mail):

For example, if a wife says at her husband's funeral, "Even for all his flaws, I loved this man!" is she being ungracious for admitting the her husband was flawed?


If she says this once, maybe twice, during a eulogy, everything is fine. If she spends 80% of the eulogy detailing his flaws, people will be certain that their marriage was very, very unhappy, and that she is a bitter woman.

Not speaking ill of the dead is a social convention, and while social conventions are sometimes puzzling and a little arbitrary, they're an excellent means of communicating our respect and affection for one another, and civilization lives in them. Conventions should not be discarded lightly. Mr. Somin's analysis is off-balance, spending too much time on Solzhenitsyn's flaws and practically none on his achievements; even if it's the case that many of us will hear nothing else about him the rest of our lives, this is inappropriate. I'll gladly write this off to an error of composition, but I hope Mr. Somin takes the criticism to heart.
8.4.2008 6:57am
Plumb Bob (mail):

As with Jesse Helms you get the whole package so you have to judge the whole package


And as with so many reactions to Helms, it appears as though the author's assessment of the whole package is jaundiced by an emotional or ideological reaction to one particular stray mark on the outside. Yes, there was a mark there; it wasn't worth 80% of the essay. And no, that's not the whole package; that's the author venting a pet peeve. Both Helms and Solzhenitsyn deserve better than this.
8.4.2008 7:05am
Eli Rabett (www):
Plumb, care to show where I made any judgment about Helms in saying that you have to look at the whole package? You are reading your own views into a neutral statement.
8.4.2008 7:43am
spectator:

Once the body is cool, people aren't interested anymore.

Spoken like a democratic journalist, always concerned about mass opinion. Fitting, in an ironic way.
8.4.2008 8:18am
marc (mail):
The New York Times's obituary (by Michael Kaufman) seems to be properly (in my view) equivocative about the charge of anti-Semitism. Requiem aeternam ei dona....
8.4.2008 9:22am
anon252 (mail):
We don't speak ill of the dead for two basic reasons. One is respect for close friends and relatives who are grieving, but hardly applies to this blog post. The second is the superstition that God is presently judging the person, and if we only say nice things, that may tip the balance between heaven and hell. People have a right to believe this superstition, but can hardly expect others to go along with it.

S was a heroic opponent of Communism. His heroism is diminished by his underlying ideology. Right-wingers have love S have no trouble making the same distinctions when they talk about heroic opponents of fascism who were motivated by Communist ideology.
8.4.2008 9:33am
A. Zarkov (mail):

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.
From Solzhenitsyn's Harvard address
8.4.2008 9:33am
Benjamin Davis (mail):
I saw that 1978 Harvard speech and Solzhenitsyn was definitely a Russian nationalist rather than a liberal (in the European sense). I remember reading "One day in the life of Ivan Denisovitch" and found it an absolutely incredible book on the gulag. It brought it home so clearly. I do not know his work well enough to say he is an anti-semite, but given Russian history on anti-semitism pre-Soviet and during the Soviet era I would not be surprised if that formed part of what he was.
Best,
Ben
8.4.2008 9:45am
David Ross (mail) (www):
Marc, if you must use old dead languages, remember that Solzhenitsyn was Orthodox. Latin isn't appropriate. Use Slavonic or Greek.
8.4.2008 11:11am
David Ross (mail) (www):

Solzhenitsyn wasn't jsut "critical of Jews." He justified and minimized the the czarist regime's massive anti-Semitism, blamed Jews for the rise of communism, and said other things that are clearly anti-Semitic by any reasonable standard. The relevant "prism" here is not the "Jewish prism" but that of opposition to prejudice and oppression.


Far be it from me to minimise the Czar's policies against Jews.

But what's wrong with blaming vengeful Jews for the rise of communism? Jews were as complicit in early, pre-Stalin communism as Germans were in their form of murderous socialism. The Jewish community in those days should have supported the Kerensky government and stood firm against Bolshevism. They didn't do that. Obviously.

The reason they didn't, I submit, is because ordinary Jews wanted revenge on the Slavic nation. Or at best, weren't about to stand in the way of the avengers. Where was the Jewish Schindler in the Ukraine?

Do we not insist that ordinary Muslims do more to oppose the extremists amongst themselves?

If saying that Jews didn't do enough to bring their communists to heel is anti-Semitic, you're handing a powerful weapon to real anti-Semites.
8.4.2008 11:25am
MarkField (mail):
The only thing I can say about David Ross's post is that it nicely exposes the absurdity of many of the anti-Muslim posts I see here too often. Beyond that, wow. Just wow.

I first read Solzhenitsyn when I was in high school. He became one of my personal heroes; I read most of his books. Gradually it became clear that his religious and political views were -- there's no other word for it -- deranged. That saddened me, and I've felt sad about it ever since. Someone who could have been a powerful force for freedom and courage in the world instead retreated into an isolated shell of contempt for so many of his fellow men. It's a shame.
8.4.2008 11:49am
Bama 1L:
Pass.
8.4.2008 11:50am
The Cabbage (mail):
Gradually it became clear that his religious and political views were -- there's no other word for it -- deranged.

Come on now, his stated religious positions were typically Orthodox. His political views were of the type that have kept Russia a backwater for many year, but that is a different thing entirely.

Pass.

This is not the Bill James Obituary thread.
8.4.2008 11:55am
c.gray (mail):

Someone who could have been a powerful force for freedom and courage in the world instead retreated into an isolated shell of contempt for so many of his fellow men.



You're use of the word "retreated" indicates an assumption that he changed. But those who are most bullheaded about confronting deeply entrenched wrongs are often annoying cranks from the get go. Heroism can be driven by traits like egotism, outsize stubbornness and an inability to compromise as often as personality traits more positive.
8.4.2008 12:21pm
MarkField (mail):

Come on now, his stated religious positions were typically Orthodox.


I was referring to his anti-semitism.


You're use of the word "retreated" indicates an assumption that he changed. But those who are most bullheaded about confronting deeply entrenched wrongs are often annoying cranks from the get go. Heroism can be driven by traits like egotism, outsize stubbornness and an inability to compromise as often as personality traits more positive.


I meant his retreat from public affairs. He seemed to disappear into Vermont and isolate himself from the world at large. From that retreat, all we got was a series of "decline of the West"-type pronouncements.
8.4.2008 12:37pm
RKV (mail):
Well Sasha, when you admit "I haven't read any Solzhenitsyn." you don't help your case re: proportionality and focus (or lack thereof, which is my diagnosis, and you personally have no basis to say one way or another by your own admission).

And so Ilya has read large fractions of Solzhenitsyn's works in the original, which is, no less than I expected. I only wish the body of his posts spent more time on his huge achievements, and less on his all too human flaws. That would be more fair, imho.

"It has made man the measure of all things on earth—imperfect man, who is never free of pride, self-interest, envy, vanity, and dozens of other defects. We are now paying for the mistakes which were not properly appraised at the beginning of the journey. On the way from the Renaissance to our days we have enriched our experience, but we have lost the concept of a Supreme Complete Entity which used to restrain our passions and our irresponsibility." A.S.
8.4.2008 12:43pm
Thales (mail) (www):
Thanks to Ilya and Sasha for the a) assessment of Solzhenitsyn the author and the man and b) a defense of speaking truth about the recently deceased. I for one am a bit tired of the hagiography that seems to attach to every death of a public figure.

Recent example: Tim Russert--seemed like a decent human being, knew conventional politics well. But the pinnacle of American political journalism? His insights were pedestrian, tepid, and always and squarely inside the box. And his interview style studiously avoided asking hard, incisive questions and instead went for the "gotcha" move that invariably exposed some minor embarrassment or inconsistency but skipped over confrontation on the truly important points, for fear of losing his unparalleled access (and no, he wasn't part of the "liberal" media--he was part of the dull establishment press).

"Both Helms and Solzhenitsyn deserve better than this."

Jesse Helms deserved a lot *worse* than what he received in the mainstream press. He was an unrepentant racist and ridiculously extreme isolationist, and contributed greatly to persecution of gays and obtuse denial of the scientific and human realities surrounding AIDS. To give it some balance, he came around near the end of his life on fighting AIDS in Africa and relieving the crushing debt of developing nations--much of it incurred by dictators but passed on to the people with no voice or ability to control their governments--but he needed the prodding of the charismatic Bono to get that far.
8.4.2008 12:56pm
DavidBernstein (mail):
In fact, Jews overwhelmingly supported Kerensky, not the Communists. Given that Jews in the Russian Empire still generally practiced their religion, it would be extraordinary and inexplicable if this were not the case. If David Ross doesn't know this, there's no reason to pay any attention to his views on the topic.
8.4.2008 1:15pm
DavidBernstein (mail):
And the fondness people exhibited for Helms when he died was appalling.
8.4.2008 1:16pm
Thales (mail) (www):
I am always pleased on the rare occasion when I find myself in 100% agreement with David Bernstein.
8.4.2008 1:26pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
And the fondness people exhibited for Helms when he died was appalling.
True, although one must not confuse the traditional saying-nice-things-about-the-recently-deceased with actual fondness.
8.4.2008 1:30pm
Rita (mail):
"Speaking ill of the dead within hours of their passing says more about you than you imagine."

Whenever a few lone voices object to a fresh cult of personality, they are invariably accused of the despicable crime of (gasp!) criticizing the dead. Let's assume, for argument's sake, that there are times in life when form must triumph over honesty. The justification for the rule against maligning the dead is that they are no longer capable of defending themselves. But -- and this is what the proponents of this social convention invariably fail to understand -- all rules are different for people who are public figures. It is perfectly all right to speak ill of dead public figures, because though they cannot defend themselves, there are plenty of living champions who will defend them, perhaps even more vigorously than they themselves ever could in life. The merits and shortcomings of Alexander Solzhenitsyn can be debated, but his reputation is hardly defenseless by virtue of his demise.

Moreover, insofar as public figures like Solzhenitsyn purport to provide some kind of a moral leadership or guidance to the world at large, it is only natural that their beliefs are held to a higher standard than those of an ordinary person, and their statements are subjected to particular scrutiny.

Besides, the fact that it is considered bad form to speak ill of the dead does not mean that the factual basis for any negative comments simply evaporates upon death. A frank and robust debate is infinitely more interesting than one made flaccid by considerations of decorum -- but that, of course, is a matter of personal preference.
8.4.2008 1:33pm
MarkField (mail):

If David Ross doesn't know this, there's no reason to pay any attention to his views on the topic.


The factual error didn't bother me as much as the "racial guilt" aspect.
8.4.2008 1:33pm
Harry Eagar (mail):
Kirk, what Public Defender said.

Besides I didn't say, and don't care, whether the Bolshevik regime was worse than/just as bad as/a little better than tsarism.

Decent people were appalled by both.
8.4.2008 1:34pm
The Cabbage (mail):
The don't-speak-ill custom only applies to personal relationships. If your co-worker's husband dies, a decent person does not reminder her that he was unfaithful (even if that means whitewashing over the truth).

With public figures, one should speak the truth. I only object to Ilya's post to the extent that he appears to be damning with faint praise.
8.4.2008 1:40pm
CyndiF (mail):
The idea that one shouldn't speak ill of the dead is appropriate for funerals and conversations with the loved ones left behind, but is ridiculous when applied to an assessment of the words and impact of a public figure, an intellectual who devoted his life to making his words known.
8.4.2008 1:40pm
Hoosier:
Coincidentally, I have been reading his book on the Tannenberg debacle. I found it by accident at a Goodwill store. Never had heard of it.

Not his usual fare. But very good.
8.4.2008 1:43pm
Fub:
David Ross wrote at 8.4.2008 10:25am:
But what's wrong with blaming vengeful Jews for the rise of communism? Jews were as complicit in early, pre-Stalin communism as Germans were in their form of murderous socialism. The Jewish community in those days should have supported the Kerensky government and stood firm against Bolshevism. They didn't do that. Obviously.
I am absolutely not expert on Russian history, and certainly not that period in particular. But, based on what I do know of one family's experiences at the time, I think that statement makes extremely overbroad assumptions.

One of my dearest friends and mentors, now deceased, was Jewish, of Russian Jewish ancestry but first generation American born. His Jewish father served in Kerensky's government until the October Revolution. For the father's stand against Bolshevism, the Bolsheviks chased him and his wife all over Russia and later all over Europe, intending to imprison or kill them. The pursuit ended only upon their emigration to America. I heard the recounting from my friend, the son. His father recounted some of his experiences via The Hoover Institution shortly before his death.
8.4.2008 2:10pm
MarkField (mail):

But, based on what I do know of one family's experiences at the time, I think that statement makes extremely overbroad assumptions.


The extent to which Jews supported Kerensky is, perhaps, an interesting factual issue. But the flaw in the post was not that it contained a factual error, but that it operated on the assumption that "Jews generally" were somehow responsible for the actions of particular individual Jews. That's anti-semitic.
8.4.2008 2:29pm
JosephSlater (mail):
Anecdotal though it may be, my Jewish great-grandfather supported the Mensheviks, opposed the Bolsheviks, and was sent to Siberia for his troubles.

Beyond that, I'm intrigued to hear that minority religious groups can be given significant responsbility for the horrific crimes committed by majority groups, on the grounds that, at least according to some, not enough of the minority group members opposed the majority group sufficiently.
8.4.2008 2:58pm
David Ross (mail) (www):
Fub, while you posted some genuinely moving words, some names and statistics would have improved it beyond the "best friend's sister's former roommate" evidence I see here. I think I'm more closely related to Kevin Bacon.

Also, you're not giving dates. Kamenev, for instance, was born of a Jewish father and was a founder of the Communist state. He got murdered in 1936 after a show trial engineered by Yagoda's NKVD; Yagoda was also Jewish. Yagoda then was show-trialed too. There was a lot of fratricidal rivalry in the Revolution. It's hard to say that Kamenev was "good", though; he got eaten alive by the crocodile he helped raise.

MarkField: I keep hearing that "ordinary Germans" enabled the Holocaust and that "moderate Muslims" enable al-Qa`ida. They did and do this, I am told, by not standing up. I'm sure Fub is right that plenty of Jews did stand up against Bolshevism. But who, when, how many, and why?

Same argument goes for Georgians, btw. A bit of wikipedia looking turns up a "Grigoriy Ordzhonikidze" among the founders of the Cheka, and then there's Stalin of course. I also see Yakov Peters, a Latvian but I suspect of Germanic ancestry really; and there's a "Peterson" in there too. At any rate I gather that Lenin stocked the Cheka with a lot of non-Russians. Which makes sense, given the brutality of the Tsarist state; Lenin wanted to bring about the end of the world, so he chose people with resentments against the world.

Anyway, the makeup of the Bolsheviks is a genuinely interesting topic, and Solzhenitsyn had genuinely interesting things to say about it.

Solzhenitsyn seems to be saying that the Jewish community in Russia could have stopped the nightmare. All I have to go on is Somin's hostile portrayal of a book which still hasn't been translated into English.
8.4.2008 3:14pm
Jessie Helms (mail):

DavidBernstein:
And the fondness people exhibited for Helms when he died was appalling.


I did what I thought was right, and I did it openly, with pride. History will show (indeed, from my perch up here, I can see it has already) that the US Gov't policy towards the UN is suicidal, at best; and that the US Gov't policy towards AIDS is foolish; that the US Gov't policy of forced intergration has crippled society. Don't demonize me because I can see what you can't, and because I value what you don't.

Gotta go. Alex and I are having heavenly tea with the Lord at 2. We'll put in a good word for you and Ilya.
8.4.2008 3:18pm
davidbernstein (mail):
To say that the Bolsheviks had a percentage of Jews well beyond their percentage in the population (true) is different from saying that Jews were more likely to be Bolsheviks than Mensheviks (completely false), or that the Jews were somehow responsible for Communism even though there were far more Russian Communists than Jewish Communists. And of course, given that the White Russians were overtly anti-Semitic, and in fact killed tens of thousands of Jews during the Russian Revolution, one would hardly expect to find many Jews on THAT side during the Revolution.
8.4.2008 3:28pm
davidbernstein (mail):
Oh, and it bears mentioning that the Jews who WERE active Bolsheviks were almost universally not tied to the Jewish community, indeed had contempt for it, and subjected Jewish communal institutions to significantly harsher treatment than Russian Orthodox institutions after the Revolution. The idea that the Jewish community at large could have somehow influenced these individuals to not be Communists shows a rather deep misunderstanding of what was going on. It's not like threatening to excommunicate Trotsky from the synagogue would have done much good!
8.4.2008 3:31pm
David Ross (mail) (www):
I found a name! A group called "the Bund", albeit socialist, supported the Mensheviks until 1921. The poet Itsik Feffer was among their ranks.

That gives me something to go on for my research into Jewish opposition to the Bolsheviks, which I'll have to do for penance. Needless to say I won't be spouting similar ignorance in this or other fora in future. (Please believe me when I say this was ignorance, not animus.)

My sincere apologies to all those on this board I have insulted/offended. Your anger is deserved.
8.4.2008 3:33pm
RKV (mail):
I think the editors at National Review got it right.

"...Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn became the voice and conscience of the Russian people. There was no greater or more effective foe of Communism, or of totalitarianism in general. His Gulag Archipelago was a crushing blow to the Soviet Union — after its publication in the mid-1970s, the USSR had no standing, morally. The book was effective because it was true."

...

"Like everyone else, he had his critics: He was accused of being a megalomaniac, a Slavophile, a right-wing nationalist, an anti-Semite. He was too humane for any of that. And he did not spend much time on his critics, for better or worse — some of his admirers wished he had. But, as his son Ignat once put it, he could have written The Red Wheel (his multi-novel magnum opus, treating the Bolshevik Revolution) or he could have kept up with his critics. He could not do both. He was not interested in popularity or fame. He simply wanted to tell the truth, wherever it took him."
8.4.2008 3:36pm
MarkField (mail):

MarkField: I keep hearing that "ordinary Germans" enabled the Holocaust and that "moderate Muslims" enable al-Qa`ida. They did and do this, I am told, by not standing up. I'm sure Fub is right that plenty of Jews did stand up against Bolshevism. But who, when, how many, and why?


I think it's important to separate two related but distinct points:

1. Nobody is, ultimately, "responsible" for the actions of other adults. The actors themselves are, in the final analysis, responsible for themselves. Thus, in no sense is any one Jew, or the Jewish community, "responsible" for, say, Trotsky. The same is true for Muslims today vis a vis Bin Laden or for Germans vis a vis Hitler.

2. When we talk about the "failure" to stand up in opposition to something, we're concerned not because A is "responsible" for B, but because A has an independent ethical duty not to sit idly by while Rome burns, as it were. Thus, it never makes any sense to say, as you did, that "Jews didn't do enough to bring their communists to heel". The communists were not "theirs" to begin with.

There are other factors at work here as well. For one, the communists were not guilty because they were Jewish, but because they violated fundamental human rights. This means that being Jewish is irrelevant to the wrong-doing in any case.

For another, the kind of personal responsibility we're talking about here is necessarily personal. It doesn't devolve on the group. If we're going to assign responsibility to an individual, we need to take into account his/her ability to change things. The Jews of Czarist Russia were a heavily persecuted minority. They remained that way, as Prof. Bernstein pointed out, under communist rule. It's implausible in the extreme to suggest that any of them had any particular ability to influence the events of 1917 (other than the particular actors involved, of course).
8.4.2008 4:34pm
Gil Milbauer (mail) (www):
I never read much of Solzhenitsyn's work, but I wholeheartedly support Ilya and Sasha's approach to speaking of the recently dead.

There are some conventions and traditions that make sense, some that don't (for our purposes), and others that do under some circumstances. It's just wrong to assume that we should blindly obey them because they must contain greater wisdom than we can recognize.

I admire Ilya and Sasha for preferring to give what they consider a fair account of the dead, as soon as possible, rather than deferring to custom and traditions that they don't recognize as having benefits that exceed their costs.

Good for them!
8.4.2008 4:36pm
Thales (mail) (www):
RKV:

National Review minimizes racism and ultranationalism in an attempt to lionize a prominent anticommunist writer?!? I'm shocked, shocked.
8.4.2008 4:50pm
Rita (mail):
For what it's worth, I think the intellectual West has to a large extent misinterpreted AS' opposition to communism and criticism of the communist totalitarian state. The misinterpretation stems largely from certain instinctive Cold War era beliefs -- namely, that the enemy of one's enemy is one's friend, and that totalitarian communism and Western-style democracy are the only two systems of governance currently in existence.

The reality is, however, that AS was a religious nationalist, and espoused certain values widely represented in contemporary Russian society -- the unfailing and exclusive identification of race or ethnicity with culture, the tendency to assign collective worth or collective guilt on the basis of blood lineage (stemming from the general preoccupation with the purity of blood), the preference for a strong, pervasive government (albeit not a secular, communist one), and the belief in Russia's own brand of Manifest Destiny. Whether or not these values are defensible, whether they are compatible with being humane (if not with fairness) -- all of this is beside the point, which is, that these values informed much of AS' thought. The bottom line is this: just because someone opposes communism does not mean he is pro-democracy; just because someone is brutally repressioned for speaking out against a totalitarian regime does not mean he subscribes to the Western ideal of individual political liberties; just because someone is victimized for speaking out does not mean he would champion free speech; just because someone exposes the horrors of an oppressive regime does not mean he would not support similar measures in furtherance of political different goals, the ones more attractive to him; and, just because someone wants to tell the truth, does not mean that deeply ingrained fears and prejudices will not lead him to a half-truth, or an outright falsehood, instead.
8.4.2008 4:55pm
Rita (mail):
"political different goals" = "different political goals"

Sorry for the error.
8.4.2008 5:00pm
byomtov (mail):
I keep hearing that "ordinary Germans" enabled the Holocaust and that "moderate Muslims" enable al-Qa`ida. They did and do this, I am told, by not standing up. I'm sure Fub is right that plenty of Jews did stand up against Bolshevism. But who, when, how many, and why?

This comparison is miles off. Nazism was organized by Germans ostensibly for the benefit of Germans. Al-Qaeda's relation to Muslims is similar.

But the Bolshevik Revolution was not a project organized by Jews ostensibly for the benefit of Jews. Some Jews participated. Others did not. And if Jews welcomed the fall of the Czar, who can blame them?
8.4.2008 5:42pm
Fub:
David Ross wrote at 8.4.2008 2:14pm:
Fub, while you posted some genuinely moving words, some names and statistics would have improved it beyond the "best friend's sister's former roommate" evidence I see here. I think I'm more closely related to Kevin Bacon.

Also, you're not giving dates. ...
You are correct that I related a personal recollection, and a guarded one at that. Rather than assert detailed recollections of what I was told decades ago, which might be erroneous and upset surviving family members, I chose to limit my comment and not recite names. All I can say until I've tracked down some publicly available sources about this person circa 1917, is that while I may be in error, I did not make it up.

The opinion I asserted is also limited. To restate it positively rather than negatively, I think that some Jews did stand up against the Bolsheviks. JosephSlater at 8.4.2008 1:58pm above appears to believe that also, and based on similar anecdotal evidence. I also agree with his broader statement on the issue:
Beyond that, I'm intrigued to hear that minority religious groups can be given significant responsbility for the horrific crimes committed by majority groups, on the grounds that, at least according to some, not enough of the minority group members opposed the majority group sufficiently.
8.4.2008 5:43pm
TGGP (mail) (www):
It would be a lot easier for us Americans to discuss the issue if his book got translated into English.
8.4.2008 5:54pm
Kirk:
Harry,

That's just silly. The number of historical instances when people snapped their fingers and--just like that!--their ideals were realized, can be numbered on the finger of precisely zero hands. In the real world, incrementalism is all we've got, and determining whether changes are moving in the direction of "better" or "worse" really does matter.
Decent people were appalled by both.
No doubt. But decent Russians didn't have the luxury of washing their hands of it all, or of sniping from a safe distance.
8.4.2008 6:49pm
JosephSlater (mail):
I'm apparently in the minority for generally believing in holding off on criticism on the day the person dies (yes, exceptions for Pol Pot, etc.). It's not just respect for the family or belief in what God would think of you. There's also some sense of common humanity that unites people, even people who disagree strongly about politics, and the day somebody even half-decent dies is a good day to consider that.

But since we've gone down this road so far, I'll just add on the substance that the following two things are not at all necessarily inconsistent:

(1) the quite accurate, IMHO, description by Rita of the man's values/politics; and

(2) the idea that the man wrote books that were inspirational to some folks in fighting and/or understanding the horrors of a particular system the man lived under.

Frankly, in this case, it's pretty clear to me that both were true.
8.4.2008 7:10pm
RKV (mail):
I think not Thales. No on all counts.
8.4.2008 7:34pm
Harry Eagar (mail):
Based on evidence presented here, I'd put Ross in the genteel antisemite category. Where are you going to place the socialist Zionists who emigrated from tsarist Russia to Palestine, Ross?

Sheesh.

KIrk, try thinking consecutively, or, if not that, at least reading what I wrote.. Solzhenitsyn, after communism was well dead, advocated going back to tsarism. He had a choice at that time -- he could have proposed liberal democracy or something that line. Tsarism and Bolshevism weren't the only possibilities.
8.4.2008 8:16pm
Candide (mail):
The truth is, Socialist revolutionary parties in early 20th century Russia were teeming with Hebrew operatives from upper to bottom ranks. Mensheviks probably had more Hebrew members than Bolsheviks, and there were many Hebrew members among the SR. For example Fanny Kaplan, who tried to assasinate Lenin.

I use the term 'Hebrew' because I think it indicates ethnicity, while 'Jewish' indicates religion. I think almost all Hebrew revolutionaries in Russia were anti- religious and can't be called Jewish.
8.4.2008 8:20pm
ys:

RKV (quoting National Review):
He was not interested in popularity or fame. He simply wanted to tell the truth, wherever it took him.

National Review may have been misinformed, but somehow I doubt that RKV is. In an unlikely case he has not read "Moscow 2042" and "A Portrait Against the Background of a Myth" by Vladimir Voinovich, may I suggest those books. For the benefit of other VC-ers, Voinovich is another major Soviet/Russian writer, dissident and expellee, albeit less famous in the West than Solzhenitsyn. The first book is a dystopia, featuring a triumphal return of the Solzhenitsyn-based character to the post-soviet country, featuring some uncanny (and unkind) predictions made 10 years before the actual return. The second book is about personal encounters of the author with the myth (AS). Subjective as these types of writings usually are, they are a good antidote to unthinking hagiography. (I am not sure unfortunately, whether the second book has been translated).
And just to provide some context: I was among those who were struck by a thunderbolt when "Ivan Denisovich" appeared. I was also among those who were desperately clinging to the short-wave radio trying to catch brutally jammed excerpts form "Gulag" transmitted by the "hostile voices". I was even among those who made a point to find and visit a distant corner of Cavendish, VT, in May 1994 to pay respects, when The New York Times revealed the directions to the AS estate under the title "Now it can be told" (it was not as simple to find as they made us believe).
8.4.2008 8:25pm
treebeard (mail):
JosephSlater, just so that you know, you're not alone. I fully agree that "speak no evil" should be the case when someone dies, with rare exceptions. This post on Solzhenitsyn is a case in point. I found out that he died from the VC, and for whatever reason I was dumbstruck. It just seemed like a bolt of lightning hit me, even though I haven't read him in a very long time. He was extremely influential in my own political journey, as I mentioned above, and I consider him a towering figure of the 20th century, as many do. To find out that he passed away, and to read the subsequent blog post that talks about anti-Semitism, felt like a very low blow. I think you are right, it is out of common humanity that we avoid speaking ill of the dead so soon after they are gone. Even a day or so would have helped. Perhaps a post on the VC that simply says "RIP," with references to major obituaries (like the excellent one in the NY Times today). Then a couple of days later, it's entirely appropriate to say, "Despite S's accomplishments and bravery, it's worth pointing out his flaws. In his later years..." etc. But the first day or two really should be about remembering what was great and noble about a person who has died. There will be plenty of time for criticism, but not so soon, before most people have even begun to handle the bad news.
8.4.2008 8:27pm
psychdoc (mail) (www):
The Jews of Czarist Russia were a heavily persecuted minority. They remained that way, as Prof. Bernstein pointed out, under communist rule. It's implausible in the extreme to suggest that any of them had any particular ability to influence the events of 1917 (other than the particular actors involved, of course).


The point is not that like the UAW, the Jews could have steered the public debate/conflict in the larger society but within their own community they could have had influence on the leaders and members from their community. One of the markers extending beyond the USSR was Duranty's articles in the NY Times. In a sense it is like the argument about the responsibility of the Pope in the Holocaust. It was not that he drank beer in black shirt meetings (he had a delicate digestive system), but that he should not have entered the Church into the Concordat with a man of Hitler's views.

Russia is a place of strange political and logical topolgy. Reading the obituary in the Times, one finds that AS was incensed by Clinton's bombing of Serbia. What is it about Russia and Serbia? The czar could have saved us a whole lot of trouble (and himself too) if he had not mobilized his Army to keep the Germans from chasing terrorists.
8.4.2008 8:38pm
ys:

What is it about Russia and Serbia?

As an interesting aside, Vladimir Voinovich, a major Russian dissident writer and a critic of both Solzhenitsyn and the present Russian leadership, whom I mention in my previous post, is a scion of a historically and culturally prominent Serbian family.
8.4.2008 8:48pm
Curt Fischer:

It is out of common humanity that we avoid speaking ill of the dead so soon after they are gone.


Hasn't this thread suggested that the "humanity" you speak of isn't "common" at all? The way I read the comments here, Ilya, Sasha, Gil Milbauer, CyndiF, Rita, Billy Beck, anon252, and myself have all explicitly rejected your reasoning.

I'm not bringing this up to be spiteful or because I love criticizing the dead. It's just that I find an auto-default of "no criticism" to be very strange. If obituaries were to follow this rule, to relevance or their accuracy is bound to suffer: delaying publication until it is "safe" to criticize means its old news by the time it appears, and conversely, stripping them of relevant criticisms just leads to uninformative puff pieces.

Imperfection is common to all humanity. I don't believe that acknowledging a man's imperfection is necessarily disrespectful to him or his kin. Instead, it can inspire: as have many others, Solzhenitsyn showed that greatness can stem from even a life marred by imperfections. Knowing I am imperfect, I hope that the same may one day be true of me.
8.4.2008 9:03pm
RKV (mail):
Actually I've never read Vladimir Voinovich. I do note (according to Wikipedia) Gorbachev restored his Soviet citizenship. I wouldn't exactly count that as an honor.
8.4.2008 9:38pm
Ex parte McCardle:
It seems that some of you are wont to commit what Wimsatt and Beardsley might call the "heroic fallacy." Just because a writer exhibited heroic personal tendencies in his conduct does not, without more, make him a great writer.

Was Solzhenitsyn a heroic resister of and voice against Stalinist and post-Stalinist tyranny? Unquestionably.

Was he a great writer? Yes, but........

Was he the greatest writer of the 20th century? No, not even close.

Was he the greatest writer of Russian fiction of the 20th century? Again, no. By any fair estimation, that would be Vladimir Nabokov, whose Invitation to a Beheading and The Gift are both far, far superior aesthetically to any fiction by Solzhenitsyn.
8.4.2008 9:48pm
walawala (mail):
Solzhenitsyn showed that greatness can stem from even a life marred by imperfections. Knowing I am imperfect, I hope that the same may one day be true of me.

Well, good luck with that. But I somehow don't think you will ever merit a blog post or comment thread like this one.

A life marred by imperfections? Sure, just look at your comments. Greatness stemming from such a life? Let's just say that hasn't quite been manifested yet.
8.4.2008 9:54pm
MarkField (mail):

The point is not that like the UAW, the Jews could have steered the public debate/conflict in the larger society but within their own community they could have had influence on the leaders and members from their community.


Those Jews who sided with Lenin were, as others have noted, alienated from the Jewish community generally and not subject to their influence. The "Jewish community" was a victim first of the Tsar and then of the Communists. The fact that some few of them participated in the Communist triumph (or, for that matter, in the Tsar's government) is no more relevant than pointing out that some blacks were slaveholders. Attempting to push the responsibility of those flawed individuals onto the larger community is the worst sort of blaming the victim.
8.4.2008 10:27pm
Moneyrunner43 (www):
It is perhaps natural and inevitable that Americans commenting on Solzhenitsyn should evaluate him from an American perspective. Ditto for Libertarians and ditto for Jews.

I sympathize.

But he was none of these things and to judge him from these perspectives is the equivalent of judging British 16th century jurisprudence from a 21st century perspective; irrelevant.

Solzhenitsyn was a man who endured Communist slave labor camps and had the courage and talent to bring their reality to a world that was anxious to live in peace and harmony with the people who created and ran the Gulag Archipelago. There are absolutely none on this blog who have exhibited his skill or courage.

Solzhenitsyn was not a Libertarian or a Democrat; he was a Russian patriot who revered his nation’s unique cultural heritage. Who was able to compare the reign of the Czars and the reign of the Commissars and made a determination that the former was better for the Russian people. He was the furthest thing from a utopian or an idealist. He understood the fallen nature of Mankind, in line with his adherence to the Russian Orthodox faith. And since he had no faith in mankind’s ability to approach perfection (unlike the posters here, he had personal experience in the worker’s paradise), he believed that morals were more important than laws in creating a good society.

It is from him that I realized that public morality is always higher than private morality, and that the degradation of public morality always leads to degradation of private morality.

Regarding his antipathy toward the Jewish leaders of the Russian revolution, perhaps he was not as politically attuned as we are. Perhaps he was referring to many of the leaders of the revolution: Trotsky, Sverdlov, Zinoviev, Radek, Litvinov, Kamenev, Uritsky.

It seems that some commentators here are able and willing to make broad brush indictments of southerners as racists but vehemently deny that there was something about Jewish culture or thought in 20th century Russia that made them disproportionate participants in the dark night that descended on Russia. It had nothing to do with race, it had everything to do with a ruthless reach for a utopian ideal.

I realize that I will get slaughtered for this. So be it. Solzhenitsyn endured worse.
8.4.2008 10:33pm
ys:

RKV (mail):
Actually I've never read Vladimir Voinovich. I do note (according to Wikipedia) Gorbachev restored his Soviet citizenship. I wouldn't exactly count that as an honor.

Leaving alone counting honors, I sincerely recommend Voinovich. His masterpiece is his earlier "Soldier Ivan Chonkin" and his "Anti-Soviet Soviet Union" is one of my particular favorites, with its hilarious parody of an interrogation by a party committee: "So, tell us, who is the secretary general of the Capitalist Party of the United States of America?"


Was he the greatest writer of Russian fiction of the 20th century? Again, no. By any fair estimation, that would be Vladimir Nabokov, whose Invitation to a Beheading and The Gift are both far, far superior aesthetically to any fiction by Solzhenitsyn.

Solzhenitsyn's work in the 60's and early 70's is very good artistically. Nevertheless, I would also definitely put at least Bulgakov, in addition to Nabokov, ahead of him in the Russian prose of the 20th century. (It makes sense to disregard the fact that Tolstoy and some other classics were still around to greet it).


Moneyrunner43 (www):
I realize that I will get slaughtered for this. So be it. Solzhenitsyn endured worse.

I'll leave you alone to enjoy your martyrdom fantasies.
8.4.2008 11:02pm
byomtov (mail):
It seems that some commentators here are able and willing to make broad brush indictments of southerners as racists but vehemently deny that there was something about Jewish culture or thought in 20th century Russia that made them disproportionate participants in the dark night that descended on Russia.

The "something" you refer to was the experience of persecution by the Czars. This was no small matter. Czarist Russia was intensely and officially anti-Semitic. There was no reason at all why Jews should have felt anything but antipathy toward the Czar and sympathy for revolution.

The Bolshevik revolution was a not a "dark night that descended on Russia." It was a continuation of a dark night that had been in place a long time.
8.4.2008 11:23pm
MarkField (mail):

Who was able to compare the reign of the Czars and the reign of the Commissars and made a determination that the former was better for the Russian people.


Solzhenitsyn was born in 1918; he never lived under the Tsars. He had exactly the same opportunity to judge them that the rest of us have.
8.5.2008 12:20am
Free thinker (mail):

The Bolshevik revolution was a not a "dark night that descended on Russia." It was a continuation of a dark night that had been in place a long time.

This is a ridiculous moral equivalence claim: Tsarist Russia = dark night; Communism = continuation of a dark night. To see how silly this is, just compare how many people were killed or imprisoned by the government during 36 years of the rule of the last two Tsars (1881-1917) vs. how many people were killed or imprisoned by the government during 36 years of the first two Communist Tsars (1917-1953).
8.5.2008 12:44am
DG:
" It had nothing to do with race, it had everything to do with a ruthless reach for a utopian ideal. "

I suppose a particularly naive individual could think that. In fact, things were so bad for Jews under the czars that anything might look better. Communism didn't sound bad, at least at first, and in comparison to what had been endured for hundreds of years - the worst sorts of oppression - it sounded like paradise. No more pogroms! Equality!

Of course, communism was a gigantic pogrom and there wasn't any sort of equality. But, if you look at russian communism as a jewish phenomenon, you are making a mistake. There were many jews, all out of proportion to the population, participating in every faction, just as you see in politics today. Jews are over-represented amongst the leaders of both the neo-conservative movement and the anti-war movement, for example - grossly over-represented in both. And yet, people publish lists of Jews in the factions they don't like, and ignore the Jews in the factions they do.

You are naive or a bigot. I have no idea which. But blaming the Jews for communism suggests the later.
8.5.2008 12:47am
Brian G (mail) (www):
Why would I read this guy when I can read top-notch Pulitzer Proze winning work from Walter Duranty?
8.5.2008 2:17am
Moneyrunner43 (www):
Byomtov:

You seem to be conceding the point that Solzhenitsyn made: Jews were a disproportionate part of the revolutionary leadership that imposed the Communist dictatorship on Russia. It seems that some others on this thread have a problem with that, accusing Solzhenitsyn of anti-Semitism for pointing this out.

Regarding the “Long night” quibble, I defer to Free Thinker on that.

Click here:

“While it is true that the power of the Tsar was absolute, that only a small minority had any significant political voice, and that the mass of the empire's citizens were peasants, it is worth noting that Russians during the reign of Nicholas II had freedom of press, religion, assembly and association, protection of private property, and free labor unions. Sworn enemies of the regime, such as Lenin, were treated with remarkable leniency.”

Markfield:

“Solzhenitsyn was born in 1918; he never lived under the Tsars. He had exactly the same opportunity to judge them that the rest of us have.”

I never lived under Roosevelt either but I have a pretty good idea of what it was like. I think it’s bizarre for you to claim that a Russian born in 1918 does not have a better grasp of living under the Tsar than you do.

DG:
It is, of course, one of the risks of delving into ethnicity, race or religion that you will inevitably be called a bigot. So be it.

Your defense of the over-representation of Jews as part of the communist revolutionary movement is based on the assertion that Jews are over-represented in all leadership positions of all movements. OK. Were Jews over-represented in the South during the Civil War? Or as leaders of the Abolitionist movement? Or as leaders among the White Russians fighting the Bolsheviks during the Russian civil war? You have to be careful of these generalities.

The fact is that Jews were persecuted under the Tsars, and despised his regime. That was an objective fact. However understandable, and perhaps even defensible, Jewish hostility toward the imperial regime may have been, the remarkable Jewish role in the vastly more despotic Soviet regime is less easy to justify once it became obvious that objectively the commissars were much more murderous and despotic than the Tsar.

I don’t wish to sidetrack this post into a long discussion of Russian and Jewish history. What I wish to point out that Solzhenitsyn’s opinion of the Jewish leadership of the Communist movement in Russia is at least as understandable as the Jewish hatred of the Tsarist regime.
8.5.2008 8:51am
Moneyrunner43 (www):
DG:

Of course, communism was a gigantic pogrom and there wasn't any sort of equality. But, if you look at russian communism as a jewish phenomenon, you are making a mistake.


I think you are over-stating the case. Can you point me to the passage in Solzhenitsyn where he claims that Russian Communism is a Jewish phenomenon?
8.5.2008 8:58am
DG:
"I think you are over-stating the case. Can you point me to the passage in Solzhenitsyn where he claims that Russian Communism is a Jewish phenomenon?"

I was referring to you, not Solzhenitsyn. And I did not assert that Jews are over-represented in every political movement that has ever existed on the planet, which is a bizarre assertion (the Khmer Rouge? the Shogunate?). But if you bring up the US civil war - yes, Jews were over-represented in the confederate government and amongst abolitionists, as a percentage of their population. Look at Judah P. Benjamin! There were also several prominent jews who fought with John Brown before the war, and many (including at least one of my ancestors) who fought for the Union.

The idea of Jews being leaders of the white russians - you never know, if the white russians hadn't hated jews so much, so that they would never have been allowed. But you seem knowledgeable, so you know the only thing white russians wanted to do to jews was kill them.

Why are you so interested in taking the actions of a handful of Jews and mapping them onto all jews, when jews, as a group, suffered immensely due to soviet communism? Of course, I don't blame soviet communism in particular - russian society is so anti-Semitic, culturally, that any successful political movement would be forced to incorporate it.

The fact is, Jews are disproportionately involved in just about every political movement where they have a population and are allowed to participate. If you can't accept that, you are deluded - there are dozens of examples in both modern and near-modern history.
8.5.2008 10:32am
Robert Hume (mail):
Jewish writer and UC Berkeley historian Yuri Slezkine's 2004 book "The Jewish Century" agrees with Solzhenitsyn on the central role of Jews in the Bolshevik revolution. And of course Solzhenitsyn viewed the Bolshevik revolution as a disaster for the Russian people.
8.5.2008 11:09am
MarkField (mail):

I never lived under Roosevelt either but I have a pretty good idea of what it was like. I think it’s bizarre for you to claim that a Russian born in 1918 does not have a better grasp of living under the Tsar than you do.


Given your posts here, I suspect you have no clue what it was like to live in America during the 30s. You do, however, have the opportunity to learn about that experience, the same as others do. And we here have just the same opportunity to learn about life under the Tsars as Solzhenitsyn had.
8.5.2008 11:42am
byomtov (mail):
OK MoneyRunner,

I followed your link. For the benefit of those who didn't, it goes to the Institute for Historical Review, the center of Holocaust denialism.

It is an anti-Semitic site. Nothing it says has any credibility, and those who rely on it, including you, are quite literally Nazi sympathizers, plain and simple.

I suggest that commenters cease responding to this pond scum.
8.5.2008 12:05pm
DavidBernstein (mail):
I don’t wish to sidetrack this post into a long discussion of Russian and Jewish history. What I wish to point out that Solzhenitsyn’s opinion of the Jewish leadership of the Communist movement in Russia is at least as understandable as the Jewish hatred of the Tsarist regime.

I'll give him the benefit of the doubt on the link, and assume he just googled and came up with that. But the latter quotation makes no sense. It's undisputed that MOST of the Communist leadership, and the overwhelming number of lower-ranked Communists, were non-Jewish Russians. So, logically, if was was to assign ethnic guilt, Solzhenitsyn should have become contemptuous of his fellow Russians. Of course, he was a doctrinaire Communist in his own youth; so maybe he is projecting.
8.5.2008 12:33pm
Per Son:
That is pretty damning to quote anything from the Institute for Historical Review. Maybe we can get some quotes from The National Vanguard or recordings from William Pierce.
8.5.2008 1:19pm
Harry Eagar (mail):
One of the reasons I cited Ginzburg's book in preference to Solzhenitsyn's is that she had nearly completed her first 10-year term in the Gulag before Solzhenitsyn was arrested.

They both objected to being imprisoned in a slave labor camp. Who wouldn't?

But, and this is the point, Solzhenitsyn didn't until he was inside. So far as any evidence I am aware of shows, he was cool with the Gulag as long as he was outside it.

He was a voice for despotism, not a voice against it. Only people who think that bolshevism is some uniquely bad despotism, outside history, can canonize him as a saint of liberty. He was not for liberty.
8.5.2008 1:46pm
byomtov (mail):
I'll give him the benefit of the doubt on the link, and assume he just googled and came up with that.

You're too generous. IHR is not exactly unknown, and if he wasn't familiar with it why cite it as an authoritative source?
8.5.2008 1:48pm
Moneyrunner43 (www):
It appears that I own the proprietors of this blog an apology. In going to Google for information on Jewish history during the Russian revolution I have referred to a website that appears to be radically revisionist with regard to the Holocaust as well as World War 2. I was totally unaware of the nature of the Institute for Historical Review and after reviewing their website I have to consider them to be kooks and cranks.

The article I linked to appeared to be well written and well researched. It appears that some members who post here spend more time and are more familiar with revisionist and holocaust denier sites than I am. I won’t comment on why they spend their time there, it’s not important. Suffice it to say that I was totally oblivious to its existance.

But in scanning the main site, I find it fascinating that the opinions expressed there reflect the views of many on the Left who believe that the Bush administration’s “war on terror” is a hoax, that the US should not support Israel, that the Bush administration in cahoots with Zionists who want to bomb Iran to for the sake of oil and gas companies.

From the site:

Israel’s policy to obliterate Iran, in much the same war that the US has devastated Iraq, has followed a carefully planned multi-prong strategy. Israel has relied on direct military attacks, all out wars, economic blockades and the use of overseas Zionist front organizations to destroy Iran’s allies and strangle its economy.

Give this comment a blind taste test and you would swear it came from either Daily Kos or some of the more liberal commenter on this site. Some of you may want to go there and see the strange bed fellows that historical revisionists share. Absolutely fascinating.

However, that does not absolve me from taking information from a site that harbors these kinds of kooks. In the future I will look beyond the link to determine the provenance of my research.
8.5.2008 10:07pm
Moneyrunner43 (www):

I'll give him the benefit of the doubt on the link, and assume he just googled and came up with that. But the latter quotation makes no sense. It's undisputed that MOST of the Communist leadership, and the overwhelming number of lower-ranked Communists, were non-Jewish Russians. So, logically, if was was to assign ethnic guilt, Solzhenitsyn should have become contemptuous of his fellow Russians. Of course, he was a doctrinaire Communist in his own youth; so maybe he is projecting.



David Bernstein,

Thanks for giving me the benefit of the doubt. You are exactly right regarding my use of Google (see my previous comment). That said, let me defend my statement.

Of course most of the Communist leadership was non-Jewish. It would be shocking if they were not since Jews represented such a small percentage of the Russian population in 1918. And, by the way Solzhenitsyn was anything but unsparing of his fellow Russians for creating and acceding to the Communist regime.

Look, the Bolshevik slogans during the revolution was “Peace, Bread and Land.” It wasn’t “go along with us or we’ll kill you.” At a time when the Tsar’s armies were being slaughtered on the Eastern Front (worse than the French and British on the Western Front) that was a slogan designed to get popular approval. Add to this a history of radicalism and revolutionary terror going back for a century and you have the ingredients of a revolution. And that’s what Russia got when the Tsar abdicated in 1917 and Kerensky finally became Prime Minister.

Keep in mind please that the Bolsheviks led a revolt not against the Tsar, but against the Kerensky government that had already toppled the Tsar. THAT is what I find the biggest historical lost opportunity of the 20th century.

The Bolshevik revolution was a revolution led by vicious radicals who perpetrated terror on a scale that made the French revolution look like a Sunday school picnic. It was led and peopled by ideologues that had no regard to either human life or the concept of individual freedom. If you read Solzhenitsyn you will note that he refers to quite a number of ethnic groups and nationalities as having taken part on establishing the Bolshevik tyranny.

Whether Solzhenitsyn was a doctrinaire Communist in his youth I’ll leave for you and others to debate. If so, I need not remind you that many of William F. Buckley’s cadre of Conservatives came out of the Communist camp where they spent their younger years. Whittaker Chambers is but one example. As he matured and went through the Gulag he became a committed Orthodox Christian and remained one for the rest of his life; a faith incompatible with Communism.

I will be interested to read what Solzhenitsyn has to say on this subject in his own words rather than having his words filtered through others before I am willing to dismiss his views. Simply put, his critics are lesser men than he is.
8.5.2008 11:14pm
bovine (mail):
Shame on the Stars

I have read the writings of the night
Those who howl at the moon (instinctively)
Whose bellies are fuller than their minds
And feign to feed the latter
YOU POSTED THEREFORE YOU ARE
Society has lost a LEGEND
And YOU, is what, will reproduce,
RUNNERS

"THANK YOU ALEX FOR IMPROVING MY LIFE"
8.6.2008 4:31am
Michael B (mail):
"Overall, I believe that the good Solzhenitsyn did greatly outweighs his misguided statements on some issues. Solzhenitsyn deserves to be remembered for the fortitude he showed during his years in the Gulag and for his courage in resisting and exposing the crimes of a brutal totalitarian regime."

That is very probably an understatement of notable proportions. Solzhenitsyn wasn't a formidable political thinker, in a positive sense, but he was a titan nonetheless. (And commentators like Cathy Young were doing what, exactly, during the period when S. was writing and revealing the Soviet system for what it was? One need only recall how various and sundry members of the commentariat acerbically pooh-poohed Reagan's anti-Soviet initiatives, and that was as late as the final decade of the existence of the Soviet regime. Hindsight, however, seems to provide 20/20 vision.)

For a philosophical and political thinker of enormous proportions, one who did come out of that system, by way of Czechoslovakia, Jan Patocka may one day register as a titan in that vein. He's very much deserving of it.
8.6.2008 10:15pm