Chronicles has asked me “to participate in a roundtable on the contributions and legacy of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.” His contributions were of enormous importance. His legacy, perhaps less so. Here was a solitary man whose mind was illuminated by a sense of compelling duty: to write a truth, to cut a single clearing in a monstrous forest darkened by untruths. His first great book, about a single man and a single day in a Soviet prison camp, accomplished this. His second book, about the so-called Gulag, was encyclopedic, a description of the vast prison system. These books had a tremendous impact, even larger beyond Russia than within her. They came at the right time when intellectuals in the West, many of them belatedly, started to recognize the magnitude of evils within the Soviet Union—whose rulers were frightened enough to force Solzhenitsyn to leave Russia.
A remarkable element—both motive and purpose of his books—was their sense of history, a need to reveal past events in the history of his nation, ignored by its people. The primacy of this element was something new in the history of Russian literature, something different from the works of the great Russian writers of the 19th century (though such an impulse and inspiration were there, too, in Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago). Such a preoccupation with history marked many of Solzhenitsyn’s later books about Russia, 1914-1917, which were less well written and less valuable than his early works; yet this preoccupation may be the main and lasting element of the legacy he left for Russian writers.
A very great writer he was not; his forced exile from Russia sapped not his energies but the roots of his talents. His speech to the students of Harvard, excoriating the materialism and the weakness of “the West,” consisted of much more than half-truths; and yet its music, though here and there convincing, sounds somehow not true enough. After his 20 years of exile in the West the cruel phrase about the French Bourbons returning to France might be applied to him, that he had learned nothing and had forgotten nothing; but that, too, is not true enough. Not unlike Dostoyevsky, he sought succor and inspiration from his nationalist religion, extolling faith but suspicious of reason. After the collapse of communism, that was not what Russian minds wanted or needed. But there was nothing false, wrong, or lamentable in the circumstance that the present Russian regime extolled and buried him with high honors. He was a great Russian patriot, after all.