Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn did not share the fate of some 2,000 writers, established or aspiring, who perished during Stalin’s reign of terror.  Solzhenitsyn lived, against all odds, because he was chosen by God to share his people’s Calvary, to stand as its witness, and to provide a rare source of light in the cultural and moral darkness of the past half-century.

The political consequences of Solzhenitsyn’s work have been immense.  His contribution to the collapse of Soviet communism was greater than that of any other individual, including Ronald Reagan and John Paul II.  His unmasking of the Marxist experiment as evil and irredeemable was at odds with the collective striving of his Western contemporaries, among whom Orwell and Koest­ler were exceptions to the rule set on La Rive Gauche and in Greenwich Village.  His Gulag is a metaphor not just of Russia but of mankind left to its own devices.  It reveals the evil in us and the end of all earthly utopias, but it also sets the stage for spiritual rebirth.  It was granted to him, he says in Part II of the Archipelago, to carry away from his prison years this essential experience:

how a human being becomes evil and how good.  In the intoxication of my youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel.  In the surfeit of power I was a murderer, and an oppressor.  In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments.  And it was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first strivings of good.  Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and then all human hearts.

This is a timeless, universal insight.  What makes Sol­zhenitsyn our contemporary, however, what makes him vitally “relevant” in the 21st century, is his diagnosis of the Western malaise famously summarized in his 1978 Harvard University commencement address.  He reminded us that, “in early democracies, as in American democracy at the time of its birth, all individual human rights were granted because man is God’s creature”:

Freedom was given to the individual conditionally, in the assumption of his constant religious responsibility.  Such was the heritage of the preceding thousand years.  Two hundred or even fifty years ago, it would have seemed quite impossible, in America, that an individual could be granted boundless freedom simply for the satisfaction of his instincts or whims.  Subsequently, however, all such limitations were discarded everywhere in the West; a total liberation occurred from the moral heritage of Christian centuries with their great reserves of mercy and sacrifice.

The West ended up “enforcing human rights,” Solzhe­nitsyn said, but “man’s sense of responsibility to God and society grew dimmer and dimmer.”  Three decades later we know just how right he was, and “constant religious responsibility” must be revived if Western civilization is to bounce back from its current state of decrepitude.

Solzhenitsyn’s opus revives a theocentric worldview that generations of preceding Western writers and thinkers had rejected in favor of man as the measure of all things.  He knew that, without God, man no longer has any measure.  This is a dangerously subversive notion to the Western elite class.

The ideologues confront Solzhenitsyn head on.  Thirty years ago Susan Sontag shared a good laugh with Joseph Brodsky over “Solzhenitsyn’s views on the United States, his criticism of the press, and all the rest.”  The New York Times obituary asserted that “his condemnations of American politics, press freedoms and social mores struck many as insensitive, haughty and snobbish.”  Legions of bien-pensants were horrified when Solzhenitsyn called the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia “a grave disillusion, a crushing of ideals.”  Christopher Hitchens trumped them all by detecting in the “ayatollah-like tones of his notorious Harvard lecture” the germ of his eventual metamorphosis “into a classic Russian Orthodox chauvinist, whose work became more wordy and propagandistic and—shall we be polite?—idiosyncratic with every passing year.”

More polite but also more pernicious is the mainstream-media tendency to neuter Solzhenitsyn by ignoring his Christianity altogether, pretending that his political legacy was built independently of his (unstated) inconvenient convictions.  The Associated Press thus came up with a 38-paragraph obituary of Solzhenitsyn that hinted at his faith only once, in a passing reference to his appearance: “with his beard and dour demeanor [he] resembled a figure from an Orthodox icon.”  This is on par with the Soviet literary establishment’s attempt to de-Christianize Tolstoy, or to discover a precursor of socialist realism in Dostoyevsky.

Attempts to separate the “good,” pre-Harvard Sol­zhenitsyn from the “bad,” post-Cold War one reflect the schism of heart and mind that has been the bane of Western man since at least the Renaissance.  The solution, as Solzhenitsyn knew, is not to argue but to witness the truth:

How easy it is to live with You, O Lord.  How easy to believe in You.  When my spirit is overwhelmed within me, when even the keenest see no further than the night, and know not what to do tomorrow, You bestow on me the certitude that You exist and are mindful of me, that all the paths of righteousness are not barred.  As I ascend into the hill of earthly glory, I turn back and gaze, astonished, on the road that led me here beyond despair, where I too may reflect Your radiance upon mankind.  All that I may yet reflect, You shall accord me, and appoint others where I shall fail.