It is easy to think that Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the author of “The Gulag Archipelago,” the book that helped to bring the Soviet Union to its knees, was a contemporary of yet another great Russian writer, Fyodor Dostoevsky. They both lived in cursed “interesting times,” Dostoevsky at the end time of the Czars, and Solzhenitsyn at a time when Soviet communism began to stink in men’s nostrils.
Dostoevsky, the author of “Poor Folk”, imprisoned by the Czar for subversive activity, was sent packing to Siberia, where he spent several years in the harsh Russian winters concocting “The House of the Dead,” his fictional novel that drew on his prison years. Solzhenitsyn was imprisoned for subversive activity by modernity’s version of the Czars, the Politburo, and he spent his time concocting “A Day in the Life of Ivan Desenovich,” which drew on his prison years.
A faithful biographer of Dostoevsky, tells us that the Czar had arranged a tormenting send off for those early socialists, writers and pamphleteers, who were swept up in what has been called the Decembrist plot. The Czar passed down, on his own orders, a sentence of execution by firing squad on the lot of them. They were all bound to stakes facing a firing squad; a priest was brought in to administer last rites; all but the head of the group, a committed atheist, kissed the cross; with hood over their heads they heard the rifles raised and cocked. Dostoevsky later said that his last vision of the world he so loved was that of the sun shining on a cross atop a church glowing in a brilliant blue sky near the yard where the prisoners were bound. Then the hood; then darkness; then the rustle of rifles.
And at that moment, seared forever in Dostoevsky’s memory, a carriage swept into the yard. A pardon from the Czar, all pre-arranged, had arrived. Dostoevsky was pardoned to Siberia where, a century later, Solzhenitsyn was struck by the piety of some Lithuanian Catholics who made rosary beads by chewing bread, molding it into small beads and stringing them together.
He asked to have a longer rosary made for him. He was writing “A Day in the Life of Ivan Desenovich” on small scraps of paper, committing the scraps to memory and destroying them. And he was using the beads as a mnemonic devise, literally praying the book on the beads. When he was release from prison, he was able to real off the 12,000 lines he had memorized.
Both in the case of Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn, their tormenters had not taken the measure of the man.
Released from prison, Solzhenitsyn showed his new novel to a few artists, among them Lev Kopelev the editor of Novy Mir, the most prestigious literary and cultural journal in the Soviet Union, who warned Solzhenitsyn that he must not show the novel to the communist soddened clerks at the magazine, who would instantly kill it. Instead, Kopelev took the novel to Aleksandr Tvardovsky, who showed it to Premier Nikita Khrushchev.
“Do you realize what you have written?” Tvardovsky asked Solzhenitsyn. Early in his career, the great Russian critic, Vissarion Grigoryevich Belinsky, after reading Dostoevsky’s “Poor Folk,” had asked the writer the same question.
Dostoyevsky didn’t, and Solzhenitsyn did.
Khrushchev, determined to bring to an end what he called “the cult of Stalin,” had the book published. And from that point on, the fate of Soviet communism was sealed; the genie was out of the bottle. Solzhenitsyn never backed away from the struggle, though at every moment of his life in Russia, the shadow of the gulag, the vast prison system that had under the Czar held Dostoyevsky, hung above his head like a Damoclean sword.
On a personal note, I brushed into Solzhenitsyn’s vanished presence in Clermont, when I went to interview a Russian Orthodox priest who is an accomplished icon maker. His was the church Solzhenitsyn and his family worshiped in when he was for sixteen years in exile in New Hampshire.
There my wife and I said a prayer for Solzhenitsyn, as I will this Sunday when I go to mass at my own church in Coventry.