Solzhenitsyn: the face of 20th-century Russia
by Stefano Caprio
The author of the Gulag Archipelago was a scholar of the 20th century who foresaw the contradictions of the third millennium. His return after exile, in 1994, marked the end of Soviet Russia even more than Gorbachev's glasnost did. A man of faith, but hardly sectarian, he left room for everyone to participate in his own journey of conversion, beginning from the rediscovery of the dignity of man and culminating in consent to Christian revelation in its historical expression.
Moscow (AsiaNews) - Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was born shortly after the October Revolution, in December of 1918. The ninety years of his life embodied, more than any other personality, the face of the Russian-Soviet nation of the 20th century: more than Lenin, the icon of the revolution who has remained embalmed until today in a stereotype that has never been truly addressed. More than Stalin, the man Solzhenitsyn presented in his extraordinary autobiographical novels, the Absolute Evil that influenced his moral choice ("to live without lies", his great appeal), and who in reality constructed the Soviet state thanks in part to the Great Patriotic War, as it was known in Russia, victory in which permitted the reinforcement for another fifty years of a communism that is still little understood. More than Sakharov, the great secularist "dissident" to whom Solzhenitsyn was the "mystical" counterpart. The greatest Russian writer of the 20th century, greater than his countrymen Bunin, Pasternak, Sholokov, and Brodskij, Nobel laureates like himself.

His spectacular return to his country after exile, in 1994, marked the end of Soviet Russia more than Gorbachev's glasnost did, just as his expulsion twenty years before had marked the fate of the Cold War, denouncing in an unmistakable way the evil empire of the Gulag Archipelago. The material that he gathered all over the country, thanks to the incredible favor that the satrap Khruschev had granted him because of his great emotion at reading One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, allowed him to build the bomb that began the disintegration of the Soviet colossus, showing it as comparable to the horror of the Nazi Holocaust. Communism then died, in that portion of humanity that was resistant even to extreme degradation: if even the concentration camps were unable to eliminate the human person, the individual with his whole complex world of disappointed hopes and disregarded affections, then no ideology, not even the most perfect and collective, can ever conquer the world. Thatcher and Reagan, but also Solidarnosc and Pope Wojtyla, followed after him. Solzhenitsyn was not only the champion of anti-communism, a term that he detested (as a young man, he had been a fervent communist), but also of anti-ideology, of the primacy of the person over every form of power.

Solzhenitsyn was a master both ancient and modern, a scholar of the 19th century who foresaw the contradictions of the third millennium. In this, he truly embodies Great Russia, that boundless space uniting East and West, incapable of expressing its own identity without constantly pitting itself against everything around it. A middle ground, in time and in space, Russia is the youngest of the ancient nations, and the most conservative of the modern nations.

In the historical breadth of his novels, Solzhenitsyn was able to recapture the genius of Lev Tolstoj, the greatest novelist of all time, who in War and Peace presented the world that had emerged from the Napoleonic upheaval: from The Red Wheel, the cycle of novels on the revolution, to the Gulag Archipelago and his last work on Russian and Jewish coexistence (Two Hundred Years Together), Solzhenitsyn was the soul of the 20th century, with its tragedies and contradictions. Even his prose was modernist and traditionalist at the same time, in a quest for the true roots of the Russian language; his simple, striking intuitions evoke the spiritual flights of Dostoevskij, whose "impossible" Christianity is approached by the concentration camp conversion of Solzhenitsyn himself.

Religion is a primary element in the message of Solzhenitsyn, a man of faith but hardly sectarian, and a great admirer of the simplicity of the people and of moral rigor, just like Tolstoj, and deeply involved in the turbulent experience of everyone's life, like Dostoevskij. His prophetic, solitary figure allowed him to avoid both excommunication and marriage, leaving room for everyone to participate in his own journey of conversion, beginning from the rediscovery of the dignity of man and culminating in consent to Christian revelation in its historical expression. For him, a follower of the 19th century Slavophiles, this religion was nonetheless Orthodox and national, without any concession to ecumenical rhetoric and the Western banalization of Christianity, of which he was an implacable and uncompromising critic.

In fact, Solzhenitsyn's fame is essentially connected to politics, to the denunciation of the evils of the communist East and the capitalist West, both of which ultimately marginalized him, which is the destiny of any inconvenient prophet. He tried to point out new ways to rediscover the ancient: the reconstruction of Russia on the basis of zemstvo, the participatory system of local government, seemed to him an unlikely and romantic theory, like the sabornost of the Russian armchair theologians of the 19th century. At the same time, he emphasized the great need to face the era of globalization without losing sight of man and his concrete destiny, connected to the earth, to family and culture, in the face of pitiless oligarchs and KGB officials, his long-standing enemies and now the masters of the country. In the face of the illusions of multiculturalism, his last desperate groan was an effort to evoke the tumultuous Jewish immigration into Russia, the last stage of an age-old exile before the reconstitution of the state of Israel, a parable of the "clash of civilizations" of the times in which we live. Like John the Baptist in the desert beyond the Jordan, he lived his entire life in the cold of the forests, first in the Siberia of Stalin, then in his exile in Vermont (Usa), and finally in the near oblivion of his beloved Russia.

No one loved his country as he did, and through it the entire world, in that fast-moving century of great tragedies and destructive ideologies. It will be difficult to forget him, it will always be painful to rediscover him, to realize that one has again fallen into the deception of power and lies, capable of enveloping even those who thought they opposed them. In order to live without lies, one must be able to renounce everything, like the man of the concentration camp, who discovers the face of God in humiliated man and in mortal sickness, finding in this, once again, the love of life.