Do great men make history?  Or does history make great men?  One thing’s for sure: History sometimes smothers great men, as Thomas Gray suggests in his famous elegy written in a country churchyard, and as the rows of endless graves from Arlington to the Somme demonstrate with brutal candor.

“Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,” mused Gray, or “some Cromwell guiltless of his country’s blood.”  How many great poets and writers, the equal of Milton in the gifts the Muse might have bestowed on them, were doomed to remain mute and inglorious in some “neglected spot” in Flanders?  Conversely, would Adolf Hitler have been “guiltless of his country’s blood” had he not been merely wounded at the battle of the Somme but died of his wounds?  These are moot points perhaps, but one wonders nonetheless how history might have changed if the fate of great men had been different.  How different, for instance, would the world have been had history, in the form of the Soviet monster, snuffed out the life of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn like a newly lit cigarette, as it snuffed out the lives of so many millions of others?  How different would it have been if Solzhenitsyn had poured out his blood when fighting for the Red Army on the Eastern Front, or been killed in the Soviet labor camps, worked to death like countless others, or had died of the cancer which was thought to be terminal, or had succumbed to the failed KGB assassination attempt on his life?

In truth, the world is a different place because Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn lived when he might so easily have died.  It’s a different place and, more to the point, a better place.  We might even say, returning to our initial rhetorical questions, that he was a great man who made history, because history had done him the courtesy of not unmaking him before he could do so!  For this we might thank the God in whom Solzhenitsyn came to believe.

The reason that Solzhenitsyn’s survival, against frankly incredible odds, should be a source of joy and gratitude for all who value the conservation of civilization is that Solzhenitsyn was not merely a great man but a good man.  (Great men are rarely good, and more often bad and ugly.)  He shows us in his life, in his work, and in his political philosophy not merely the goodness of the truth in which all civilized men believe, but the courage to fight for that goodness and truth to which all civilized men are called.  He is, therefore, a light to illumine the darkness of the meretricious age in which we live.

Solzhenitsyn pointed to three defining moments in his life, each of which were connected to suffering and the lessons that suffering teaches.  The first was his service on the Eastern Front with the Soviet Army in World War II; the second was his arrest and imprisonment; and the third was his being diagnosed with what was thought to be terminal cancer.

His experiences on the Eastern Front, told so evocatively and graphically in the long narrative poem Prussian Nights, taught him of the suffering that war brings to the innocent.  As Stalin’s hordes sought revenge on Germany, Solzhenitsyn witnessed or heard eyewitness accounts of the mass rape of women and children and saw a prisoner of war throw himself under a tank rather than face the terrors of Soviet interrogation.  Amid the conflagration, the semiautobiographical narrator of Prussian Nights begins to perceive something metaphysically infernal in the physical inferno all about him.  “Portentous, evil, temptingly, work of a devil”—it shakes to its very foundations the narrator’s naive and jingoistic Soviet patriotism.

In its graphic depiction of the abysmal horrors of war, Prussian Nights surpasses in grotesque gruesomeness anything depicted in the most explicit poetic accounts by Owen or Sassoon of the horror of the trenches in World War I.  The narrator comes across a house that has “not been burned, just looted, rifled,” where he hears “a moaning, by the walls half-muffled.”  Inside, he finds a mother and her little daughter.  The mother is wounded but still alive.  The daughter is dead, having suffered beforehand a fate worse than death.  She lies lifeless on a mattress, the victim of a mass rape, and the narrator wonders how many Russian soldiers had lain on the girl’s battered body before she died.  “A platoon, a company, perhaps? / A girl’s been turned into a woman, / A woman turned into a corpse.”  The mother, her eyes “hazy and bloodshot,” has been blinded in the vain struggle to save herself and her daughter.  She has nothing to live for and begs the narrator, a soldier she can hear but not see, to kill her.

Having learned the lessons that the harsh horrors of war had taught him, Solzhenitsyn would discover the horrific nature of the Soviet regime following his arrest for the “crime” of criticizing Stalin in private correspondence with a friend.  This second defining moment would be something for which he would later be grateful, even though it resulted in seven years of purgatorial suffering in what he would call the Gulag Archipelago.  The arrest and imprisonment were necessary so that he could see through the lies of the communist propaganda that he’d been fed since childhood.  It was necessary as part of a healthy process of disillusionment with utopian secularism.

The third and most significant defining moment, the life-threatening cancer, led to his conversion to Christianity.  Through the lens of his new faith, he could finally see why suffering was necessary and ultimately beneficial:

[T]he meaning of earthly existence lies not, as we have grown used to thinking, in prospering, but . . . in the development of the soul. . . . From that point of view punishment is inflicted on those whose development . . . holds out hope.

He expressed his newfound faith in verse, in a poem that was also a hymn of thanksgiving:

But picking my way between life and extinction,

Now falling, now scrambling back,

I gaze through new eyes at the life I once followed

And gazing, I shudder with thanks.

It was not my own intellect, not my desiring

That illumined each twist in my path

But the still, even light of a Higher design,

That only with time I could grasp.

And now, as I sip with new-found moderation

From the lifegiving waters—I see

That my faith is restored, O Lord of Creation!

I renounced You, but You stood by me.

Solzhenitsyn possessed a degree of fortitude that was almost superhuman.  Even when he was rotting in a Soviet prison, one seemingly insignificant speck of dirt in a system destined to crush him under its jackboot as it had crushed millions of others, Solzhenitsyn set himself to the task of not only surviving the camps but exposing the whole system that the Soviet tyranny had put in place.  He, a diminutive Jack, would bring the Giant to its knees.

Compare this fortitude with the so-called realism of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, which was published in 1948 when Solzhenitsyn was serving his sentence as a political prisoner of the Soviet regime.  By Orwell’s lights, Solzhenitsyn, one of countless Winston Smiths, would not only be crushed by Big Brother but would betray every ideal, and everything he loved, in abject surrender to the Almighty State.  The triumph of Big Brother was inevitable; it was predestined.  It was Fate, and to deny or defy fate is fatal and futile.  Here and elsewhere, Orwell failed to shake off the Hegelian determinism of his own Marxist past.  He had long been disillusioned with Marxism but still believed that the forces of history were immutable, and the triumph of tyranny inevitable.  He only differed from his former colleagues to the extent that he hated the almighty god of Marxism, whereas they admired it.

Solzhenitsyn, on the other hand, saw the Marxist god for what it was: a demon, a dragon.  He did not believe in fate but in freedom—the freedom of the will and its responsibility to serve the truth.  Fate was a figment of the imagination, but the dragon was real.  Furthermore, it was the duty of the good man to fight the dragon, even unto death.  Solzhenitsyn fought the dragon, even though it was thousands of times bigger than he was, and even though it breathed fire and had killed millions of people.  He fought it because, in good conscience, he could do nothing else.  Thus he proved that God, not fate, is the final victor.  Faith can move mountains; it can move Marxist machines that were thought to be gods; it can move and remove Big Brother.

In essence, Solzhenitsyn rewrote Orwell’s famous novel, superseding the “realism” of the pessimist with the reality of heroism.  Solzhenitsyn represents the victory of Winston Smith, fortified by faith, over Big Brother.  Through his life and with his pen, he is a Saint George who slays the dragon, a David who slays Goliath, and a Jack who slays the Giant.  For this alone, he is a beacon of light and hope illuminating the darkness of our world.

Throughout the 60’s and 70’s, Solzhenitsyn’s pen lashed Big Brother with stroke after stroke of shocking revelation.  In his novels, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Cancer Ward, and First Circle, and in his masterly three-volume Gulag Archipelago, he exposed what Ronald Reagan would call the Evil Empire of communism.  Yet Solzheni tsyn was no mere puppet of capitalism, as the Soviet propagandists claimed, nor was he an apologist for the libertine decadence that was sweeping through the West.  In 1978, he turned the light of truth on the darkness of the West in his controversial Harvard Address.  “It is time, in the West,” he said, “to defend not so much human rights as human obligations.”  Going to the very root of the West’s moral bankruptcy, he stated that the triumph of rights over responsibilities had led to “the abyss of human decadence.”  He cited the “misuse of liberty for moral violence against young people, such as motion pictures full of pornography, crime, and horror,” as illustrative of the West’s inability to defend itself against the corrosive effects of evil.  How prophetic all of this sounds after a further 40 years of corrosion!

Turning his attention to the media, he excoriated those who corrupted people by stuffing “their divine souls . . . with gossip, nonsense, vain talk”:

Hastiness and superficiality—these are the psychic diseases of the twentieth century and more than anywhere else this is manifested in the press.  In-depth analysis of a problem is anathema to the press; it is contrary to its nature.  The press merely picks out sensational formulas.

The media establishment is “the greatest power within the Western countries, exceeding that of the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary.”  Yet its power is deeply undemocratic and unrepresentative: “According to what law has it been elected and to whom is it responsible?”

The “Western system in its present state of spiritual exhaustion” was not an attractive alternative to communism.  Indeed, at root, both systems sprang from the anti-Christian philosophies of the Enlightenment, what Solzhenitsyn called “rationalistic humanism or humanistic autonomy,” which had “proclaimed and practiced [the] autonomy of man from any higher force above him.”  The dominance of secular humanism in both cultures meant that the East and the West had more in common than either side realized—a shared materialism, a de facto atheism.

In 1991, in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union, Solzhenitsyn published a slim volume, Rebuilding Russia, which enumerated principles that are equally applicable to the rebuilding of the West.  This included the necessity of the principle of “self-limitation” in both individuals and governments, in which narcissistic individualism and the emphasis on “rights” is replaced by a virtue-driven culture emphasizing responsibilities.  He also called for a spiritual understanding of politics and economics—an understanding not limited to materialistic presumptions and prescriptions.  At the heart of Solzhenitsyn’s vision for a just and sustainable economics and politics was the devolution of power from large central authorities toward local or regional governments, a democracy of small areas, as well as the fostering and proliferation of many small businesses to supplant supersized corporate businesses.  Such ideas are in harmony with the concepts of subsidiarity and solidarity at the heart of Catholic social teaching, as well as the vision of the Southern Agrarians.

In an age careening senselessly and ultimately disastrously toward globalist tyranny—whose end can be nothing short of global meltdown—the life and work of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn shines forth as a light of wisdom in a darkening world.  As his heroism made history in the 20th century, may his wisdom continue to guide us in the 21st.