Monday, August 04, 2008

The Passing of a Voice for Freedom

As a teenager in the 1970s it was clear to me that the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union was a little too warm for comfort. From 1977 until 1980, 13 countries fell under Soviet influence while the United States suffered from embarrassing decline. We knew things were bad in those countries behind the Iron Curtain, but very few provided insights into the extent of the horror like Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Solzhenitsyn died over the weekend.

The Economist Magazine pointed out in its obituary that "PROPHETS are without honor in their own country—at least until they die. For most of his adult life in the Soviet Union, Alexander Solzhenitsyn was persecuted. In exile in the West from 1974, his gloomy philippics and increasingly turgid prose aroused more bafflement than appreciation. After he returned to Russia in 1994, he was welcomed but then ignored."

Solzhenitsyn was twice decorated as a soldier because of his efforts in the great war against the Germans, but that did nothing to prevent him from facing eight years of prison with hard labor because of a casual criticism of Joseph Stalin in a letter he wrote to a friend. He wrote powerful critiques of the Soviet system of cruelty in both fiction (“One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”) and nonfiction (“The Gulag Archipelago”). I got to spend some time with the latter book while in college which methodically examined the Soviet system, its sadistic torture, its rules, and psychology of fear pervasive through out the prisons.

In 1970, he won the Nobel Prize for literature, but couldn't leave Russia to accept it because of fear that he wouldn't be allowed back into the country. In spite of his best efforts to stay in a country he loved, by 1974, he was forced to leave by being stuck in a plane to West Germany and two decade exile. He eventually found himself in New England and often as critical of Western capitalism as he was of the poverty and oppression of Communism.

Still, no man provided better insights and explicit detail about the Soviet system than Solzhenitsyn. However, his warning isn't limited to Communism, but totalitarianism in general. He was finally able to return to his Russia in the early 1990s after the fall of Communism, but was soon largely ignored by the population as they faced a new form of autocratic rule from Vladimir Putin. With that, his message against tyranny and oppression remains quite useful today.
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