Mapping Solzhenitsyn's Decline

— Alan Wald

The Great Reversal:
Politics and Art in Solzhenitsyn
by Paul N. Siegel
San Francisco, CA: Walnut Publishing Co. 198 pages,
$9.95 paperback.

NO WRITER HAS been more intimately associated with the complex fate of the Russian Revolution than Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who returned in late May 1994 to the former Soviet Union after nearly two decades of exile in Vermont.

The eminent poet and translator Boris Pasternak (1890-1960), author of the important but overrated novel Dr. Zhivago (1957), is indelibly associated with stoic, near-passive resistance to the efforts of Stalin’s regime to destroy the liberatory artistic impulses unleashed by the October 1917 Revolution.1 But Solzhenitsyn, born later (1918) and living through not only the worst of the Stalinist terror but also the dismantling of the USSR in 1989, has a more contradictory and troubling relationship.

According to the documentary evidence of Solzhenitsyn’s own early novels, and certain public statements made around the time of their publication, the Nobel Prize-winning author began as a kind of “Tolstoyan-Leninist” during the era of his most influential works, The First Circle (1964) and Cancer Ward (1966), as well as the novella One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch (1962).

To some observers he seemed to symbolize a principled opposition to the bureaucratic tyranny of Stalinism, one that stood for the restoration of democratic control of production by the producers, and the extirpation of all forms of elitism, prejudice, chauvinism and ideological justifications for the exploitation of one part of humanity by another.

Yet a reactionary transformation was apparent by the time of August 1914 (1972) that grew with intensity in The Gulag Archipelago (1974) and reached a culmination in Lenin in Zurich (1976) and a revised and expanded 1989 edition of August 1914.

During this phase Solzhenitsyn was expelled from the Soviet Union and relocated himself in the United States, where he began to claim that his earlier works had been misrepresented by literary critics; these novels were, he now insisted, actually antisocialist and quite consistent with his later, conservative and even anti-Semitic views.

During 1993-94, as the former Soviet Union deepened its crisis, torn among ex-Stalinist managers, greedy free-marketeers, and outright proto-fascist forces, Solzhenitsyn announced his plan to return as a moral and political guide.

A Trajectory of Decline

Paul Siegel’s short but rigorous study has the virtue of offering a cogent perspective on the changes that have occurred in Solzhenitsyn the man, as well as in his art.

In truth, the unreliability of authors as retrospective interpreters of the “real” meaning of their earlier writings is so notorious that Siegel has no difficulty in locating as his theme a famous dictum by novelist D.H. Lawrence, “Trust the tale, not the teller.”

Siegel presents Solzhenitsyn’s trajectory as one of steady artistic decline, with the worst personality traits of the novelist – arrogance, egomania, overconfidence and paranoia – coming to the fore, partly due to the difficult circumstances under which he worked and wrote.

The political as well as artistic concerns of Siegel’s book are ones of considerable importance to a wide range of socialist activists and cultural workers in the 1990s. The primary political problem confronting Solzhenitsyn, the one over which he eventually stumbled and fell, involves his understanding of the origins and evolution of the tyranny of Soviet totalitarianism.

Whatever one’s own view of the precise development of that process, it is hard not to be full of admiration for the systematic way that Siegel documents a growing disjuncture between Solzhenitsyn’s treatment of the subject and a large part of the historical record, including the record of his own earlier opinions.2

At the same time, Siegel is unambiguous in affirming that artistic decline is not a mere consequence of embracing reactionary politics; in contrast, he cites favorably Rosa Luxemburg’s defense of the equally reactionary Dostoyevski. A counter-example to Solzhenitsyn, Dostoyevski is a writer whose art improved as he grew more conservative.

Thus Siegel attributes the deterioration of Solzhenitsyn’s aesthetic quality mainly to failures in the areas of literary characterization and in his selection of various narrative techniques. These aspects are further compromised by Solzhenitsyn’s growing tendency to distort history, in supposedly historical works, to such a degree that artistic integrity is necessarily affected.

The Great Reversal is a refreshing antidote to that trend in contemporary Marxist literary scholarship substituting rhetorical ambiguity and continual deferral of meaning for clarity and communication, thus rendering much criticism inaccessible to an audience beyond other specialists.

Siegel combines meticulous close readings of Solzhenitsyn’s major novels with straight-forward political exegesis, followed by an appendix containing a useful glossary of fictional characters.

Moreover, Siegel’s treatment of the complex relation between Leninism and Stalinism is also valuable as a timely educational tool in the face of the onslaught of the latest wave of banal “discoveries” by one-time radicals that the former simply produced the latter.

On the other hand, Siegel, in this sixth book of his own scholarly writing,3 continues to work with a very traditional notion of aesthetic value, more or less associated with that adulation of Shakespeare (shared, of course, by Marx) so characteristic of all Marxist literary critics prior to the 1960s, Communist and Socialist as well as Trotskyist.

This book’s research, too, is based entirely on the intelligent reading and selection quotation of secondary sources and translations, but not on the investigation of primary sources.

Still, for the general reader, Paul N. Siegel has produced a superb map of the rise and decline of Solzhenitsyn as a writer and as an icon of heroic resistance to authoritarianism. For anyone who wishes to be informed about the pivotal artistic and political problems in the novelist and his work, The Great Reversal is a kind of vindication of the continuing relevance of the classical Marxist and Trotskyist outlook.

ATC 56, May-June 1995