Yes, he was a reactionary in the classic sense of the word. Yes, he disdained the modern world and many of its personal freedoms. Yes, in his final years he became fond of the authoritarian Vladimir Putin.
But aside from George Orwell, probably no one did more lasting damage to the worldwide image of the Soviet Union than Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who died last week.
Others before Solzhenitsyn had told about the huge network of slave labor camps in which millions of Soviet citizens suffered and died. But who else did it with such a sardonic, burning sense of outrage? Can anyone who read The Gulag Archipelago forget this passage?
A district Party conference was under way in Moscow Province. It was presided over by a new secretary of the District Party Committee, replacing one recently arrested. At the conclusion of the conference, a tribute to Comrade Stalin was called for. Of course, everyone stood up (just as everyone had leaped to his feet during the conference at every mention of his name). The small hall echoed with “stormy applause, rising to an ovation.” For three minutes, four minutes, five minutes, the “stormy applause, rising to an ovation,” continued. But palms were getting sore and raised arms were already aching. And the older people were panting from exhaustion. It was becoming insufferably silly even to those who really adored Stalin. However, who would dare be the first to stop? The secretary of the District Party Committee could have done it. He was standing on the platform, and it was he who had just called for the ovation. But he was a newcomer. He had taken the place of a man who’d been arrested. He was afraid! After all, NKVD men were standing in the hall applauding and watching to see who quit first! And in that obscure, small hall, unknown to the Leader, the applause went on–six, seven, eight minutes! They were done for! Their goose was cooked! They couldn’t stop now till they collapsed with heart attacks! At the rear of the hall, which was crowded, they could of course cheat a bit; clap less frequently, less vigorously, not so eagerly–but up there with the presidium where everyone could see them? The director of the local paper factory, an independent and strong-minded man, stood with the presidium. Aware of all the falsity and all the impossibility of the situation, he still kept on applauding! Nine minutes! Ten! In anguish he watched the secretary of the District Party Committee, but the latter dared not stop. Insanity! To the last man! With make-believe enthusiasm on their faces, looking at each other with faint hope, the district leaders were just going to go on and on applauding till they fell where they stood, till they were carried out of the hall on stretchers! And even then those who were left would not falter. . . . Then, after eleven minutes, the director of the paper factory assumed a businesslike expression and sat down in his seat. And, oh, a miracle took place! Where had the universal, uninhibited, indescribable enthusiasm gone? To a man, everyone else stopped dead and sat down. They had been saved! The squirrel had been smart enough to jump off his revolving wheel.
That, however, was how they discovered who the independent people were. And that was how they went about eliminating them. That same night the factory director was arrested. They easily pasted ten years on him on the pretext of something quite different. But after he had signed Form 206, the final document of the interrogation, his interrogator reminded him: “Don’t ever be the first to stop applauding!”
All those who have not read at least large parts of The Gulag Archipeago, and yet think they have more than a basic grasp of the history of the 20th century, let alone the history of the Soviet Union, are fooling themselves.
Predictably, Trotskyist Richard Seymour skims over Solzhenitsyn’s actual writing and concentrates on his popularity among the political right. And he writes that “formerly left-wing intellectuals who were apprised of the horrors of the camps decided that Solzhenitsyn’s text was a revelation that, not only were Stalinist politics corrupted (they had already made that decision years before) but that the whole arcanum of Maoisms and Trotskyisms that stood as alternatives to those politics were also corrupted at source. Marx was the evil seed of a diabolical utopianism that could not but result in total slavery.”
No, Seymour– Marx (who gets only three brief mentions in the first volume of Gulag) was not the evil seed in Solzhenitsyn’s history of Soviet repression. Lenin was. Before I read Gulag, I was among those who (like Seymour and his comrades now) was prepared to draw a distinction between Lenin and Trotsky (basically good and right) and Stalin (bad and wrong). After reading Gulag, I couldn’t do that anymore, even if I wanted to. Solzhenitsyn, with his overwhelming accumulation of evidence, had made it impossible. I had to face it: the whole Bolshevik enterprise was rotten at the core, even if it took the reactionary Solzhenitsyn to make me finally understand that.