In a 1975 lecture, writer and Soviet Union critic Alexander Solzhenitsyn cited an old Russian proverb: “The yes-man is your enemy, but your friend will argue with you.” By that definition Mr. Solzhenitsyn, who died Sunday at 89, was a friend to his native land and a friend to the world.
To opponents of the Soviet Union’ s totalitarian take on communism, Mr. Solzhenitsyn was a hero, a courageous speaker of truth, even though it meant imprisonment and incredibly harsh treatment. Yet his views could not be corralled by the West when taking sides in the Cold War. Mr. Sozhenitsyn was critical of capitalism and what he saw as the decadence of the United States and other countries with market-based economies. The above quoted proverb came during a lecture in which he criticized the U.S. Mr. Solzhenitsyn and his family lived for 18 years in Cavendish, Vt.
Mr. Solzhenitsyn’ s non-fiction “Gulag Archipelago” trilogy described in shocking terms the brutality of the Soviet Union under leader Josef Stalin, when millions were arrested and sentenced to slave labor camps. The Nobel Prize winning writer is credited with turning many leftist intellectuals in Europe and the U.S. against the Soviet Union.
As is the case with other independent thinkers and artists, Mr. Solzhenitsyn’ s views did not fit the simple narrative of the fall of the Soviet Union tied to its communist system. According to an Associated Press account of his life, during the 1990s Mr. Solzhenitsyn’ s “stalwart nationalist view, his devout Orthodoxy, his disdain for capitalism and disgust with the tycoons who bought Russian industries and resources cheaply after the Soviet collapse were unfashionable.”
Rather than advocate a U.S.-style democracy and capitalist economic system for his homeland, Mr. Solzhenitsyn argued that Russia would have a destiny that moved away from communism, yet would be different from the West, adapted to its own history and traditions, according to AP.
“Any ancient deeply rooted autonomous culture, especially if it is spread on a wide part of the earth’s surface, constitutes an autonomous world, full of riddles and surprises to Western thinking,” Solzhenitsyn said at Harvard in 1978.
An artillery captain in World War II, he was arrested near the end of the war for writing letters that were critical of Stalin’ s regime. His imprisonment in labor camps informed his books, which at times sharply criticized the millions of Russian people for accepting the party line.
His books “inspired millions,” according to AP, “perhaps, with the knowledge that one person’ s courage and integrity could, in the end, defeat the totalitarian machinery of an empire.”