Solzhenitsyn and the struggle for Russia’s soul; and Solzhenitsyn and the Jews

(Note: Be sure to see, below, Felicie C.’s criticisms of Solzhenitsyn’s book on Russian-Jewish relations, Two Hundred Years Together.)

I’m astonished and impressed. George Friedman, the principal author at (strategic forecasting), a man who seems to produce lengthy complex articles as frequently as other men eat, and whose general approach is a purely non-judgmental, morality-free analysis of world strategic situations, has written an article on the significancc of Alexander Solzhenitsyn that shows an understanding of Solzhenitsyn as a traditionalist, anti-modern thinker. Friedman is the last person from whom I would have expected such a piece. Since I’m not sure if Stratfor articles are available online to everyone or will stay online, I copy it below in its entirety.

Solzhenitsyn and the Struggle for Russia’s Soul
August 5, 2008
By George Friedman

There are many people who write history. There are very few who make history through their writings. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who died this week at the age of 89, was one of them. In many ways, Solzhenitsyn laid the intellectual foundations for the fall of Soviet communism. That is well known. But Solzhenitsyn also laid the intellectual foundation for the Russia that is now emerging. That is less well known, and in some ways more important.

Solzhenitsyn’s role in the Soviet Union was simple. His writings, and in particular his book “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” laid bare the nature of the Soviet regime. The book described a day in the life of a prisoner in a Soviet concentration camp, where the guilty and innocent alike were sent to have their lives squeezed out of them in endless and hopeless labor. It was a topic Solzhenitsyn knew well, having been a prisoner in such a camp following service in World War II.

The book was published in the Soviet Union during the reign of Nikita Khrushchev. Khrushchev had turned on his patron, Joseph Stalin, after taking control of the Communist Party apparatus following Stalin’s death. In a famous secret speech delivered to the leadership of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Khrushchev denounced Stalin for his murderous ways. Allowing Solzhenitsyn’s book to be published suited Khrushchev. Khrushchev wanted to detail Stalin’s crimes graphically, and Solzhenitsyn’s portrayal of life in a labor camp served his purposes.

It also served a dramatic purpose in the West when it was translated and distributed there. Ever since its founding, the Soviet Union had been mythologized. This was particularly true among Western intellectuals, who had been taken by not only the romance of socialism, but also by the image of intellectuals staging a revolution. Vladimir Lenin, after all, had been the author of works such as “Materialism and Empirio-Criticism.” The vision of intellectuals as revolutionaries gripped many European and American intellectuals.

These intellectuals had missed not only that the Soviet Union was a social catastrophe, but that, far from being ruled by intellectuals, it was being ruled by thugs. For an extraordinarily long time, in spite of ample testimony by emigres from the Soviet regime, Western intellectuals simply denied this reality. When Western intellectuals wrote that they had “seen the future and it worked,” they were writing at a time when the Soviet terror was already well under way. They simply couldn’t see it.

One of the most important things about “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” was not only that it was so powerful, but that it had been released under the aegis of the Soviet state, meaning it could not simply be ignored. Solzhenitsyn was critical in breaking the intellectual and moral logjam among intellectuals in the West. You had to be extraordinarily dense or dishonest to continue denying the obvious, which was that the state that Lenin and Stalin had created was a moral monstrosity.

Khrushchev’s intentions were not Solzhenitsyn’s. Khrushchev wanted to demonstrate the evils of Stalinism while demonstrating that the regime could reform itself and, more important, that communism was not invalidated by Stalin’s crimes. Solzhenitsyn, on the other hand, held the view that the labor camps were not incidental to communism, but at its heart. He argued in his “Gulag Archipelago” that the systemic exploitation of labor was essential to the regime not only because it provided a pool of free labor, but because it imposed a systematic terror on those not in the gulag that stabilized the regime. His most telling point was that while Khrushchev had condemned Stalin, he did not dismantle the gulag; the gulag remained in operation until the end.

Though Solzhenitsyn served the regime’s purposes in the 1960s, his usefulness had waned by the 1970s. By then, Solzhenitsyn was properly perceived by the Soviet regime as a threat. In the West, he was seen as a hero by all parties. Conservatives saw him as an enemy of communism. Liberals saw him as a champion of human rights. Each invented Solzhenitsyn in their own image. He was given the Noble Prize for Literature, which immunized him against arrest and certified him as a great writer. Instead of arresting him, the Soviets expelled him, sending him into exile in the United States.

When he reached Vermont, the reality of who Solzhenitsyn was slowly sank in. Conservatives realized that while he certainly was an enemy of communism and despised Western liberals who made apologies for the Soviets, he also despised Western capitalism just as much. Liberals realized that Solzhenitsyn hated Soviet oppression, but that he also despised their obsession with individual rights, such as the right to unlimited free expression. Solzhenitsyn was nothing like anyone had thought, and he went from being the heroic intellectual to a tiresome crank in no time. Solzhenitsyn attacked the idea that the alternative to communism had to be secular, individualist humanism. He had a much different alternative in mind.

Solzhenitsyn saw the basic problem that humanity faced as being rooted in the French Enlightenment and modern science. Both identify the world with nature, and nature with matter. If humans are part of nature, they themselves are material. If humans are material, then what is the realm of God and of spirit? And if there is no room for God and spirituality, then what keeps humans from sinking into bestiality? For Solzhenitsyn, Stalin was impossible without Lenin’s praise of materialism, and Lenin was impossible without the Enlightenment.

From Solzhenitsyn’s point of view, Western capitalism and liberalism are in their own way as horrible as Stalinism. Adam Smith saw man as primarily pursuing economic ends. Economic man seeks to maximize his wealth. Solzhenitsyn tried to make the case that this is the most pointless life conceivable. He was not objecting to either property or wealth, but to the idea that the pursuit of wealth is the primary purpose of a human being, and that the purpose of society is to free humans to this end.

Solzhenitsyn made the case—hardly unique to him—that the pursuit of wealth as an end in itself left humans empty shells. He once noted Blaise Pascal’s aphorism that humans are so endlessly busy so that they can forget that they are going to die—the point being that we all die, and that how we die is determined by how we live. For Solzhenitsyn, the American pursuit of economic well being was a disease destroying the Western soul.

He viewed freedom of expression in the same way. For Americans, the right to express oneself transcends the content of the expression. That you speak matters more than what you say. To Solzhenitsyn, the same principle that turned humans into obsessive pursuers of wealth turned them into vapid purveyors of shallow ideas. Materialism led to individualism, and individualism led to a culture devoid of spirit. The freedom of the West, according to Solzhenitsyn, produced a horrifying culture of intellectual self-indulgence, licentiousness and spiritual poverty. In a contemporary context, the hedge fund coupled with The Daily Show constituted the bankruptcy of the West.

To have been present when he once addressed a Harvard commencement! On the one side, Harvard Law and Business School graduates—the embodiment of economic man. On the other side, the School of Arts and Sciences, the embodiment of free expression. Both greeted their heroic resister, only to have him reveal himself to be religious, patriotic and totally contemptuous of the Vatican of self-esteem, Harvard.

Solzhenitsyn had no real home in the United States, and with the fall of the Soviets, he could return to Russia—where he witnessed what was undoubtedly the ultimate nightmare for him: thugs not only running the country, but running it as if they were Americans. Now, Russians were pursuing wealth as an end in itself and pleasure as a natural right. In all of this, Solzhenitsyn had not changed at all.

Solzhenitsyn believed there was an authentic Russia that would emerge from this disaster. It would be a Russia that first and foremost celebrated the motherland, a Russia that accepted and enjoyed its uniqueness. This Russia would take its bearings from no one else. At the heart of this Russia would be the Russian Orthodox Church, with not only its spirituality, but its traditions, rituals and art.

The state’s mission would be to defend the motherland, create the conditions for cultural renaissance, and—not unimportantly—assure a decent economic life for its citizens. Russia would be built on two pillars: the state and the church. It was within this context that Russians would make a living. The goal would not be to create the wealthiest state in the world, nor radical equality. Nor would it be a place where anyone could say whatever they wanted, not because they would be arrested necessarily, but because they would be socially ostracized for saying certain things.

Most important, it would be a state not ruled by the market, but a market ruled by a state. Economic strength was not trivial to Solzhenitsyn, either for individuals or for societies, but it was never to be an end in itself and must always be tempered by other considerations. As for foreigners, Russia must always guard itself, as any nation must, against foreigners seeking its wealth or wanting to invade. Solzhenitsyn wrote a book called “August 1914,” in which he argues that the czarist regime had failed the nation by not being prepared for war.

Think now of the Russia that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitri Medvedev are shaping. The Russian Orthodox Church is undergoing a massive resurgence, the market is submitting to the state, free expression is being tempered and so on. We doubt Putin was reading Solzhenitsyn when reshaping Russia. But we do believe that Solzhenitsyn had an understanding of Russia that towered over most of his contemporaries. And we believe that the traditional Russia that Solzhenitsyn celebrated is emerging, more from its own force than by political decisions.

Solzhenitsyn served Western purposes when he undermined the Soviet state. But that was not his purpose. His purpose was to destroy the Soviet state so that his vision of Russia could re-emerge. When his interests and the West’s coincided, he won the Noble Prize. When they diverged, he became a joke. But Solzhenitsyn never really cared what Americans or the French thought of him and his ideas. He wasn’t speaking to them and had no interest or hope of remaking them. Solzhenitsyn was totally alien to American culture. He was speaking to Russia and the vision he had was a resurrection of Mother Russia, if not with the czar, then certainly with the church and state. That did not mean liberalism; Mother Russia was dramatically oppressive. But it was neither a country of mass murder nor of vulgar materialism.

It must also be remembered that when Solzhenitsyn spoke of Russia, he meant imperial Russia at its height, and imperial Russia’s borders at its height looked more like the Soviet Union than they looked like Russia today. “August 1914” is a book that addresses geopolitics. Russian greatness did not have to express itself via empire, but logically it should—something to which Solzhenitsyn would not have objected.

Solzhenitsyn could not teach Americans, whose intellectual genes were incompatible with his. But it is hard to think of anyone who spoke to the Russian soul as deeply as he did. He first ripped Russia apart with his indictment. He was later ignored by a Russia out of control under former President Boris Yeltsin. But today’s Russia is very slowly moving in the direction that Solzhenitsyn wanted. And that could make Russia extraordinarily powerful. Imagine a Soviet Union not ruled by thugs and incompetents. Imagine Russia ruled by people resembling Solzhenitsyn’s vision of a decent man.

Solzhenitsyn was far more prophetic about the future of the Soviet Union than almost all of the Ph.D.s in Russian studies. Entertain the possibility that the rest of Solzhenitsyn’s vision will come to pass. It is an idea that ought to cause the world to be very thoughtful.

Tell Stratfor What You Think

- end of initial entry -

Felicie C. writes:

As much as I respect Solzhenitsyn and am saddened by his death (and I’m glad you brought up his courageous Harvard address), his image for me will be forever marred by his last book, Two Hundred Years Together, about the history of Jews in Russia. It is a deeply disturbing book. I read it from cover to cover, not just skimmed it. Several reviewers have pointed to many historical inaccuracies of the book, which make it a highly tendentious history. But what bothered me the most was its general tenor. I can’t quote it verbatim now, but one of his points was that Jews should apologize to Russian people for oppressing and alcoholizing them and then starting the revolution. The writing style was very uneven. He tried to adopt a neutral, objective style of a researcher, but could never stay with it for more than a couple of pages at a time. Eventually, he would get carried away and switch to a passionate and partisan language of a polemicist.

Thucydides writes:

I am a bit puzzled regarding the comment by Felicie C regarding “Two Hundred Years Together.” She talks about “reading it cover to cover,” and “reviewers” finding inaccuracies.

However, this book has never been published in English. Did she read it in Russian? Is she privy to Russian language reviews?

Perhaps Felicie is disturbed by Solzhenitsyn’s apparent confirmation of the important role played by Jews in the Russian revolution. Some quotes from Solzhenitsyn’s book have appeared which seem to be consistent in this regard with Yuri Slezkine’s “The Jewish Century.”

That said, I agree: Friedman’s essay is a superb appreciation of Solzhenitsyn.

LA replies:

I’ve asked Felicie if she read the book in Russion.

August 7

Felicie C. writes:

Yes, I read Two Hundred Years Together in Russian when it came out. I just want to add that it’s hard to give the flavor of the book by giving some selective quotes. There aren’t any particularly striking incriminating quotes, as far as I remember, that you can cite in isolation. It’s more about the way the argument develops and the inevitable implications of what has been said. One thing he does, I remember, is deny the fact that Jews could not own land (and this is why they were forced to occupy the hated service, trade, and banking niche). He claims that on one or several occasions the Tsarist government offered the Jews some land, but they didn’t condescend to take it. There is a passage there that made me really uneasy about Jewesses that were too lazy and spoiled and thought themselves “too fine” to work the land.

The point of the Jews being responsible for the Russian Revolution was made by him already in The Red Wheel, if I’m not mistaken. It was then repeated in Two Hundred Years Together. His point or unavoidable conclusion (I don’t remember whether it was stated explicitly, but the implication was inescapable for anyone who doesn’t have a problem with reading comprehension) was that Jews bear moral responsibility for the Revolution and owe Russians an apology. I have a big problem with this argument: it insidiously suggests that Jews constitute some kind of a political entity that can act in an organized way and can therefore be assigned collective responsibility. It is basically a version of the Jewish conspiracy argument. Solzhenitsyn’s overarching purpose with this book seemed to be to explain and/or justify Russian anti-Semitism by Jewish behavior. He gave many examples of Russian anti-Semitism both on the grass root and government level (and this is why his apologists vehemently deny that this book is anti-Semitic and claim that it is fair-minded and objective research of Russian-Jewish relations), but he always managed to twist his historical narrative in such a way as to show that Jews somehow provoked these violent excesses. And this is why the book left a bad taste in my mouth.

Nonetheless, this does not cross out great admiration I feel for his political courage and creative achievement. I am in sympathy more or less with his traditional views (minus the anti-Semitism). He was a big hero for my parents in the 1970s. (I also heard, strangely, that his wife is Jewish).

LA replies:

Thank you. Very interesting.

Here’s the core of your criticism of Solzhenitsyn:

I have a big problem with this argument: it insidiously suggests that Jews constitute some kind of a political entity that can act in an organized way and can therefore be assigned collective responsibility.

But is it not the case that the Jews are an entity? Do not the Jews regard themselves as an entity, a people, a religion, of which they are very proud? Yes, I understand Paul Johnson’s argument that the Jewish Communists had nothing to do with the Jewish religion and denied their own Jewish ethnicity. But at the same time, they came out of the Jewish people and shared the understandable obsession of many 19th century European Jews with solving the Jewish problem, which the Jewish Communists (or, as Johnson calls them, the non-Jewish Jewish Communists) thought they could do by creating, via Communism, a Single Mankind in which all nations and ethnicities, including the Jewish ethnicity, would disappear, and Jews would no longer be seen as different, and the persecution of them would cease.

So my point is, is it completely off-base to attribute the Russian Revolution, in some degree, to the Jews?

Felicie C. replies:

This is how I see it. Yes, Jews are an entity, of sorts. They are a religious and cultural entity. They are an entity in terms of self-identity, which also includes common history and, for some, a destiny. But they are not a political entity. Nor are they a social or economic entity—a class, a guild, an organization. They do not have a special political or social status or position that enables them to effect change in a directed and organized way. They do not belong to one synagogue or one centralized Jewish community that tells them what to do or has the power of censuring them. In fact, a lot of Jews are not religious and do not participate in any kind of Jewish life. So when they act, they act not as a group but as a disparate collection of individuals, each pursuing his own agenda and guided by his own set of reasons. If overall patterns emerge, they are statistical, created largely by common historical conditions.

One could ask—would the Russian Revolution have occurred without the Jews? Would banking have originated without the Jews? My answer is yes and yes. These events were too big and historically warranted to ascribe them solely to the Jews. But Jews were prominent in the Russian Revolution, yes. Just as they were/are prominent in many other areas of human endeavor, both for good and for bad. For whatever reason, they are an active group of people and are often highly visible when something new takes place. But just as there were many Jews who participated in the Revolution, there were a lot more Jews who were completely apolitical of against it. There were no Rabbis, no Jewish community leaders holding forth on the necessity of the Communist overthrow. There is nothing about it in the Jewish Bible. There was no social pressure to join the Revolution. Those who did it, did so as individuals. Jews, as an oppressed minority, stood to gain from the Revolution. But so did other minorities. And they too joined the Revolution in great numbers. To lay the blame for the Revolution on the Jews as a group does not make sense.

It makes more sense, for example, to blame Jews for Zionism (not that I personally would do that, being pro-Zionist myself). Zionist eschatology is very prominent in the Bible and central to the Jewish faith, culture, and oral history. Rabbis in synagogues do read passages about the restoration of Israel. Some actively called for it and call today for the restoration of the Temple. Israel was created by Jews as Jews and specifically as a land for Jews. Jewish political leaders put pressure and made demands on other countries as Jews and in the name of all Jews. So it could be argued that an individual Jew may bear some responsibility for the creation of Israel simply by virtue of self-identifying as a Jew.

LA replies:

Fair enough, and well argued.

But, to turn to an issue that is more immediately pressing to me, let me ask you this. What about when Jews say, “As Jews, we believe in a generous immigration policy,” or, “As Jews, we believe in open borders,” or, “My mother came here as an immigrant, therefore we must have open borders” (columnist Paul Greenberg essentially said that during the debate on the 2007 Comprehensive Immigration Bill, see this), or, “Why shouldn’t Somalis, Africans, Hmong, Mexicans, and Muslims be able to assimilate into America, since my grandparents did?”

Given that Jewish writers and Jewish organizations constantly speak in this way, can we fairly criticize Jews, as Jews, as passionate supporters of open immigration? Can we fairly criticize Jews, as Jews, as people who want to transform America and all historically white countries into nonwhite countries? And can we fairly say to the Jews, as Jews, that they should stop doing this objectionable thing?

LA continues:

This is going a bit further off-topic but this may be the Paul Greenberg article I was thinking of. He says he supports the Comprehensive Immigration Bill, though he detests it, and the reason he detests it is that it’s not open enough and, under its rules, his mother might not have been allowed to immigrate. And what does he believe in?

Far from allowing too much immigration, this bill wouldn’t allow enough. Around the world, the most determined, ambitious, hard-working and congenitally hopeful people in the world are dying to get into this country, sometimes literally. We are turning our backs on the most valuable form of wealth ever offered a nation: human capital.

Nor did this bill sufficiently emphasize education for immigrants - education in English, in civics, and generally in what we were once allowed to call Americanism. I’m all for the wonderful mosaic of cultures in this country - social, religious, linguistic, culinary and every other kind in this country of countries. Each contributes something to the way we all see things, think about things. We learn from each other. But here there is room for only one, indivisible, unhyphenated civic culture. A civic and civil culture that gives us a common tongue to argue in, and common ground to stand on. E pluribus unum, it used to be said: From out of many, one. Not from one, many.

So what Greenberg wants is literally open borders for everyone in the world who wants to come her, plus civic education for the immigrants to make sure they assimilate.

Thucydides writes:

I believe the subject has been well covered and stands as an exemplar of the fine work you do. Those of us who do not read Russian cannot of course form any opinion of our own about Solzhenitsyn’s book. However, I highly recommend Slezkine’s “The Jewish Century.” Slezkine himself is of Russian Jewish background and is now a professor of history at UC Berkeley. Among the striking revelations in his largely ignored book is the fact that Lenin himself had Jewish background—a Jewish grandfather who lived in Palestine.

According to Slezkine, Jews never formed a majority of Bolsheviks, though they were sometimes dominant in certain key areas, for example, among those who oversaw the gulag and the secret police. So too, there never was a majority of Jews supporting the Revolution, though many Jews did. Also, many of the leftist Jews were those who were fleeing their religious identity. All in all, it is a fascinating subject.

Felicie C. replies to LA:
I can’t defend liberal Jews that support open borders. These are stupid people. Many Jews are, what I call, stupid smart people. But again, this is about a bunch of individuals. Why should all Jews be responsible for them? It seems unfair. What does it mean to be responsible? It is a legalistic concept that has probably something to do with the notions of agency and social contract (if I break your vase, I, being an agent, would have violated the implied contract of mutually harmless coexistence). I don’t believe that a group of people can be ascribed a collective agency solely on the basis of their ethnicity or something inadvertent, like hair color or weight. You would need more than that—some common ideology plus power wielded in an organized and purposive way.

On the other hand, I do think that it would be rationally justifiable for someone to make an argument that Jews, as a group, are not good for the society, because there are too many liberals among them, and therefore they should leave. But that’s not the same as saying that they should be collectively responsible. But should such an argument be made? I read somewhere quite recently that according to some recent polls more than half of young Jews are conservative. Young Jews are more conservative than their parents. Traditionally, 2/3 Jews vote liberal, but I believe that this trend is reversing. Plus there are not so many Jews. There are, at most, 2% in the U.S.

It may be true that Jews, as a group, cause problems by being high achievers and, therefore, overrepresented in many desirable professions. This may be not so good for the society as a whole, because it causes resentment and weakens its morale and cohesiveness (for as long as Jews are identifiable as Jews and are not fully assimilated). But keeping a high performing minority down artificially through policies like affirmative action does not sound like a good solution either, because it’s both unfair and counterproductive. Perhaps it would not be such a bad idea if most Jews went to Israel. And the Messiah would come earlier. :)

Howard Sutherland writes:

From those of us too cheap to subscribe to Stratfor, thank you for posting George Friedman’s excellent reflection on Alexander Solzhenitsyn. I think Friedman sees Solzhenitsyn as what he was: a Christian man and patriotic Russian, who wanted to see a restoration of Christian civilization, but—as a patriotic Russian—saw his duty as doing what he could to help restore Russia. Solzhenitsyn believed, and surely he was right, that Russia will only revive through restoring its Russian essence. Not everything about traditional Russia may please liberal Westerners, but Russia doesn’t have to be pleasing to liberal Westerners. If one had to pick a single greatest man of the 20th century, Solzhenitsyn would be on my list of candidates. Even if Friedman’s appreciation weren’t so perceptive, it would be worth the read for Friedman’s characterization of Harvard: “the Vatican of self-esteem.” True enough in 1978, and probably even more true today.

Thucydides notes that 200 Years Together has not been translated into English. There are probably more VFR readers who read French than read Russian. Those who read French may be interested to know that there is a readily available French translation of both volumes. I bought them when the translation first came out. I confess, though, I have not read them yet. Here is the page for Volume I, and here is the page for Volume II. Interestingly, Solzhenitsyn ends Volume II (covering the Soviet years) in 1972, not 1989, even though the cover of Volume I identifies the 200 years of togetherness as 1795-1995. I don’t know why.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at August 06, 2008 06:15 AM | Send

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