End of an Era

During his long life, Alexander Solzhenitsyn experienced everything imaginable for his generation (which was born immediately after the October 1917 Revolution): war, labour camps, Khrushchev's "thaw," Brezhnev's "stagnation" and personal exile. His survival of all these trials and tribulations made him become a moral beacon.

Following his return to Russia after 20 years in exile, Solzhenitsyn, who had shaken the communist system with just two works, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago, did not like the new Russia. He considered Boris Yeltsin's liberal reforms to be "destructive" and described the country that emerged from the rubble of the Soviet empire as a "pirate state under a democratic flag". Not that one could have expected anything else from Solzhenitsyn, a consistent critic of Western civilization, a thinker who preached an anti-capitalist and anti-liberal philosophy. It is not surprising, therefore, that in later years the author spoke approvingly of Vladimir Putin and his "efforts to save the lost state".

The drama of the writer's return to his homeland was that Solzhenitsyn tried to be a prophet in his land at a time when demand for prophets had plummeted. His real historic mission had been fulfilled by his prose. Its scale, power and even literary style had done much to bring about the collapse of Communism. In the Soviet Union, ideas and words reigned. Words eventually brought about its downfall, especially the words of Solzhenitsyn.

Solzhenitsyn was a conservative thinker, but one who predicted some trends in the development of Western civilization (his 1978 Harvard speech predicted many of the challenges facing the West today). The world is paying its last tribute, above all, to Solzhenitsyn the anti-Communist, Solzhenitsyn the truth-seeker and Solzhenitsyn the writer. People read Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and the Soviet system came tumbling down: the author showed that it had no moral or humanistic base. And yet, today, many people have not read Solzhenitsyn, because a new generation has grown up for which he is just another writer on a school reading list, along with Tolstoy, Chekhov and Dostoyevsky. Distinguished company, to be sure, but it makes one think of study by rote. It is an amazing, contradictory and probably lamentable feature of the generation that was young enough not to experience Communism and has therefore nothing to forget. It does not discern a danger in any form of totalitarianism against which Solzhenitsyn's works provide a sharp contrast.

"Cool," said my oldest son after I had made him read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich at 16. "I find Marques closer to my heart," says a languid 20-year-old journalist who was an intern at the editorial office where I work. By contrast, for many of my older colleagues, Solzhenitsyn's death was a personal loss. "His death took me unawares," says a friend and scientific editor at Expert magazine, Alexander Privalov. He also urged us not to pay attention to the almost indecent chorus of politicians and showmen, most of whom probably never read a single of the writer's works to the end, who now bemoan his death.

The life of Solzhenitsyn, to borrow a phrase from another Nobel Prize Winner, Iosif Brodsky, "turned out to be long" partly because the author regarded his work as a mission and sitting at his writing desk as his duty before his country. He could not afford to depart early without fulfilling this duty, whatever the result.

Solzhenitsyn, for all the controversial character of his political writings and highly uncontroversial character of his fiction, for all the people who read him superficially or not at all, is now moving into a different sphere, the sphere of historical assessments. From the point of view of eternity, he is a historic figure, as witnessed by the way the world and world leaders reacted to his death.

Solzhenitsyn's death is perceived as the end of an era. Hope remains that his legacy, which contains both calls to action and words of warning, do not become part of the history of literature, cold and remote from our times. -

Andrei Kolesnikov is deputy chief editor of the New Times magazine

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