The great Alexander Solzhenitsyn died while I was vacationing. Of all the extraordinary personalities that brought down the Soviet Union — Ronald Reagan, John Paul II, Margaret Thatcher — his was undoubtedly the thorniest and least compromising. It helped him survive Stalin’s prison camps, Khruschev’s ambivalent friendship, and Brezhnev’s thuggery. It also alienated many of his Western supporters after his forced exile: he seemed as critical of our way of life as he was of Soviet tyranny.
Solzhenitsyn’s character was that of a biblical prophet. He saw great moral failures and spoke out against them without fear in circumstances which put his life in peril, and without hope of favor when he was among us. One wouldn’t invite an Isaiah or a Jeremiah to dinner in the expectation of small talk and compliments: Solzhenitsyn belonged to this type.
He wholly lacked the contemporary wish to be famous, imitated, and hero-worshipped. He was a writer, in my opinion of the first magnitude, but that wasn’t his calling. His words meant to change the moral system against which they were aimed, and in this they succeeded.
Morally and intellectually, Solzhenitsyn was a man of the nineteenth rather than the twentieth century: the disruptions and excesses of modernity left him deeply toubled. Yet his compass for good and evil had a timeless quality, which he used to discredit a brutal and debased empire.
Before Solzhenitsyn, a disgracefully high proportion of Western intellectuals felt it their duty to apologize for the crimes of the Soviet tyrants. After him, that kind of moral blindness became impossible. He recorded the regime’s atrocities with a novelist’s eye for human detail, and he gave a memorable name to the places where Russians were sent by the millions to suffer and die: the Gulag archipelago.
He insisted on condemning the Marxist-Leninist system, not merely the failure to implement utopia or the flaws of a particular ruler. From Lenin onward, he believed, a great evil was perpetrated on the Russian people, and exported far and wide to the world.
Solzhenitsyn preached against that evil, and helped bring it down forever. His was an angry and restless soul, but he rid the world of a political plague and left it a morally healthier place. To many of us, he seemed to personify the moral demand uttered by that other great destroyer of Marxism, John Paul II: “Be not afraid.”
All prophets know that there is no peace, but there is an end: Alexander Solzhenitsyn, having outlived his persecutors by nearly two decades, now lies silent and at rest.