Trying to trim Solzhenitsyn down to size

SolzhenitsynTIMEMagazineAleksandr Solzhenitsyn did not live the kind of life that fits easily into a 700-word wire service story.

So we should all pause and contemplate the challenge faced by the professionals who had to report, write, edit and lay out those Associated Press obituaries that ran in tiny Monday newspaper editions all across America. What a thankless job.

The basic AP story by Douglas Birch does end with this reflection on the role of faith in the great writer’s life:

During the 1990s, his stalwart nationalist views, his devout Orthodoxy, his disdain for capitalism and disgust with the tycoons who bought Russian industries and resources for kopeks on the ruble following the Soviet collapse, were unfashionable. He faded from public view.

But during Putin’s presidency, Solzhenitsyn’s vision of Russia as a bastion of Orthodox Christianity, as a place with a unique culture and destiny, gained renewed prominence.

As you would expect, the New York Times had a giant story ready to run about the life of this elderly giant. And, as you would expect, it is the story of a man who was admired by Western elites until it became apparent that he was — deep down — a man driven by a deep distrust of modernity. On one level, Solzhenitsyn’s reputation in America and Western Europe never recovered from his famous 1978 address at Harvard University, entitled “A World Split Apart.”

You see, all of that moral outrage had to have had an ultimate source and the Times just couldn’t nail that down.

The story unfolds, act by act, like a magazine feature, about a modern-day Old Testament prophet — that’s an image from reporter Michael T. Kaufman — who always felt out of place in this world.

The background summary of his work is stunning and must be read, especially the parts about how he managed to work while in the deadly work camps that he exposed to the world. Try to forget this telling detail:

… Mr. Solzhenitsyn was banished to a desolate penal camp in Kazakhstan called Ekibastuz. It would become the inspiration for “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.”

At Ekibastuz, any writing would be seized as contraband. So he devised a method that enabled him to retain even long sections of prose. After seeing Lithuanian Catholic prisoners fashion rosaries out of beads made from chewed bread, he asked them to make a similar chain for him, but with more beads. In his hands, each bead came to represent a passage that he would repeat to himself until he could say it without hesitation. Only then would he move on to the next bead. He later wrote that by the end of his prison term, he had committed to memory 12,000 lines in this way.

Of course, Russian Orthodox believers carry rosaries as well, called “Chotki,” that are usually used while reciting the “Jesus Prayer” (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner). They can be made from twine, yarn or thread and it’s safe to assume that these simple rituals may have already been part of his life — from his childhood. In general, this kind of faith imagery and language is woven throughout the piece, but never tied together. This simple paragraph says a lot in very few words:

He was religious. When he was a child, older boys once ripped a cross from his neck. Nonetheless, at 12, though the Communists repudiated religion, he joined the Young Pioneers and later became a member of Komsomol, the Communist youth organization.

In the Washington Post obit by J.Y. Smith, that reference to childhood faith is missing, strangely enough. Instead, we get this:

A member of the first generation to be raised entirely under communism, Solzhenitsyn had experienced in his life much of what he related in his books. As a young man he was a communist in heart and soul, although he never joined the party.

800px Eastern Orthodox prayer rope 2006 06 02As it turns out, that paragraph was simply out of place — an accurate statement when read in the context of later material. Perhaps this was a copy-editing mistake, while combining copy that was on file with new material on deadline. After all, the background paragraphs a few lines later tell us:

Alexander Isayevitch Solzhenitsyn was born in Kislovodsk, a mountain resort in the north Caucasus, on Dec. 11, 1918. His father, Isaaki, was an artillery officer in the Imperial Russian Army in World War I. He survived the war but was killed in a hunting accident six months before his son was born. His mother, Taissia Scherbak, the daughter of a wealthy landowner, a member of a despised class, struggled to provide for herself and her son.

In 1944, she died of tuberculosis. Growing up, Sanya, as he was called, had learned the prayers and observances of the Russian Orthodox Church from his mother and an aunt. A family friend encouraged him in science. At 9, the boy decided on a career as a writer, and at 10 he read “War and Peace.”

Later, readers learn that Solzhenitsyn actually regained his Orthodox faith in the crucible of pain — the labor camp. Of course, the writer also struggled with his own sins and faults, perhaps best symbolized by the affair that ended his first marriage, which he justified as a consequence of his fierce pursuit of his art. This leads to a question that none of the obituaries answer (at least none of the stories that I have seen): What was his relationship to Orthodox Christianity in his adult years? While he lived in the United States? Upon his return to the deeply flawed Mother Russia that he loved so deeply?

Like I said, there is just too much life here to put into a conventional news account.

Nevertheless, Smith provides the single best image that I have seen to capture the triumphs and tragedies of this sprawling life. In fact, Smith uses the image twice, in a crucial transition paragraph early on and then in a pitch-perfect ending:

Like Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the 19th century masters of Russian letters, his subject was considered to be the struggle between good and evil in the Russian soul. The line separating the two, he said, ran through every heart.

And at the very end:

In the opening scene of “August, 1914,” a character based on his father goes to join the Army, although he might have avoided service. He gives this explanation: “I feel sorry for Russia.”

And, through his own experiences, the author said, “gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart.”

Of course, Solzhenitsyn knew that because he knew his own heart. Did he learn that in Confession? Falling on his face in a Forgiveness Vespers? After three or four hours of a Divine Liturgy at Pascha? Ultimately, these stories do not tell us how his own heart was or was not healed.

Second photo: An Eastern Orthodox “Chotki,” or prayer rope.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com mattk

    I listened to NPRs obit this morning. Not even a mention of his Christian faith.

  • http://david-jaime-jason.blogspot.com Jason

    My first thought when I landed on this page: “Why is TMatt on the cover of Time? :-)

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    An NPR link.

    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=93250748

    One faith reference near the end of the printed version.

  • Pingback: Trying to trim Solzhenitsyn down to size (GetReligion) « A Blogspotting Anglican Episcopalian

  • Roberto Rivera

    My first thought when I landed on this page: “Why is TMatt on the cover of Time? :-)

    Make that two of us!

  • Dan

    Christianity was not an incidental aspect of Solzhenitsyn’s life and work; it was central to both and niether can be understood apart from it. Not surprisingly, the obits fail to convey this.

    The Gulag Archipelago is a masterpiece. It is the most powerful piece of modern non-fiction that I have ever read.

  • BJohnD

    The introduction to a recent collection of his writing, The Solzhenitsyn Reader, goes into some detail about how his suffering in the camps led to his rebirth as a Christian, and how Orthodoxy informed all his major works. It also mentions that his family attended an Orthodox parish throughout their Vermont exile, one located just across the border in New Hampshire.

  • Nels Larson

    I read a very good article in the Manchester Guardian (URL =”www.guardian.co.uk/books/2008/aug/04/nobelprize.russia2″)that makes the points very clearly of Solzhenitsyn’ struggle and his Christianity. Look there. It is a very long article about the man.

  • Robert

    He fell out of favor because the inherent weaknesses of his critique of the west. He became evermore shrill and prejudiced in his commentaries. A brilliant writer and a courageous man, yet so inept his understanding of western democracy.


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