Solzhenitsyn’s Advice: Get Back to the Basics

As I was researching and writing the four-part series in December on “The Collapse of the USSR,” a thought occurred to me. If many of these young Russians who are now protesting against the corrupted election results of the December 4th parliamentary election are like their American counterparts, they probably have little knowledge of their recent history. I doubt that many of them – or many Americans — know much about the underground movements of the 1970s and 1980s that monitored human rights and religious freedom violations or about the key role played by some leading dissidents, including religious leaders. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was one — his writings were of strategic importance in undermining the Soviet regime. I decided to remind both my American and Russian readers of his historic contributions. Here’s the second in this series.

“From Under the Rubble”

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was one of the key forces in Russia that helped to undermine the Communist regime, but his writings are no longer read by most Russian young people. His seminal role in challenging the authority of the ruling Communist Party elites is often ignored now because he is considered out-of-step with current developments in Russia. This failure to consider the counsel of Solzhenitsyn is a serious blind spot, in my judgment.

For example, the volume he edited and later had published in Paris in 1974, entitled From Under the Rubble, offers remarkable insights into Russian life which still holds true today. In it he recommends that Russians “get back to the basics.” The story behind the writing and publication of this book is a fascinating one.

On February 12, 1974, the night Solzhenitsyn was arrested and subsequently sent into involuntary exile, he was working with one of his colleagues on a book of eleven essays written by seven Russians – a volume of immense importance to these intellectuals. The book was modeled after a famous set of essays published in 1909, with the title Landmarks (Vekhi). This remarkable book by radical Russian intellectuals of that time argued against adopting post-Enlightenment ideologies from the West and in favor of restoring Russia’s traditional spiritual values.

The authors of Landmarks warned Russians not to embrace a socialist revolution, which they saw coming. In a similar fashion, Solzhenitsyn and his colleagues were convinced that the Soviet regime would not survive in Russia for long and they pointed to a future for Russia that embraced its rich spiritual heritage.

The manuscript of this book was sent to the West through secret channels by Solzhenitsyn and his colleagues and was published in Paris in 1974 (appearing in English in 1975), while he was in exile. In other words, seventeen years before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the authors of these essays were predicting this demise and offering advice about how Russia could rebuild itself, could come out from “under the rubble.”

Sound Advice

One of the principal themes of the book is this: For Russians to move forward and rebuild their country, a moral revolution is required, not primarily political action. These leading Russian intellectuals were convinced that “to create a good and just society, we must first become good people.” Solzhenitsyn argued fervently that the essential task facing Russians was not political liberation, “but the liberation of our souls from participation in the lie [Marxism-Leninism] forced upon us.”

I think one of the most remarkable essays in this book is Solzhenitsyn’s “Repentance and Self-Limitation in the Life of Nations.” In words that have been quoted many times over, Solzhenitsyn argued that “we are even now . . . . reluctant to recognize that the universal dividing line between good and evil runs not between countries, not between nations, not between parties, not between classes, not even between good and bad men: the dividing line cuts across nations and parties, shifting constantly, yielding now to the pressure of light, now to the pressure of darkness. It divides the heart of every man, . . .”

It was Solzhenitsyn’s judgment that Russians need to repent of the evil they have done primarily to their own people. He wrote: “We have done evil on a massive scale and mainly in our own country, not abroad to others, but at home to our own people, to ourselves.” The only way to deal with this truth was repentance, which is “a clearing of the ground, the establishment of a clean basis in preparation for further moral action – what in the life of the individual is called ‘reform.’” What he pleaded for was “the healing of our souls! Nothing now is more important to us after all we have lived through, after our long complicity in lies and even crimes.”

This is very strong medicine and many Russians, especially in elite ruling circles, reject his counsel and refuse to apologize for anything. While repentance is a central theological doctrine in Russian Orthodoxy, it has rarely been seen in government leaders. Pointing out the necessity to rebuild the moral foundations of Russia, to rediscover Russia’s rich spiritual traditions – this “getting back to the basics” is one of Solzhenitsyn’s most profound contributions.

NOTE: For an excellent introduction to the life, writings and Christian beliefs of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, see The Soul and Barbed Wire: An Introduction to Solzhenitsyn by Edward E. Ericson, Jr., and Alexis Klimoff (ISI Books, 2008). Some of the reflections I shared came from this helpful source.