Like many things, the term “great” is terribly overused these days. We speak of great pitchers and quarterbacks, great movie and rock stars, great columnists and journalists, etc. By the classic definition of “great” as something or someone of major significance or importance, though, almost none of those we casually refer to as great really are.
But there is no doubt that when Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn died this week, we lost a great man.
For those not living during the 1960s and 1970s, it is impossible to understand what Solzhenitsyn, winner of the 1970 Nobel Prize, meant to the world. Because no writer of his talent, stature or importance is working today, those born after this time cannot comprehend the vital importance his books played in shaping world history and — at least in my case — shaping personal ones as well. For it was Solzhenitsyn, an Orthodox Christian, who led me down my long path to Catholicism, a gift which I never can repay.
In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1970, Solzhenitsyn said, “One word of truth outweighs the whole world,” a phrase that was met by academics with snickers. But here was a man who understood the power of the word, who knew what it meant to be a writer, and who courageously stood up in the face of incredible danger and told the truth about the evil that gripped his country, no matter the cost to himself.
When historians write of the mighty Soviet Union’s fall, most cite the role played by Pope John Paul II, Ronald Reagan and the unwitting Mikhail Gorbachev. Few, though, give Solzhenitsyn his due, although he opened the crack that became a fissure that led eventually to the collapse of the Iron Curtain.
The Soviet Union, which at one time bullied and threatened the entire world, was the most threatening, deadly, and evil regime that ever existed. It was responsible for the death of more than 100 million of its own citizens. Because of its longer duration, it was ten times more deadly than the despicable Nazi regime. But, in the face of a single man armed with nothing but courage and the truth, the Evil Empire was powerless. As someone said, “the showdown between Solzhenitsyn and the Soviet empire was an unfair fight. The Communists never had a chance.” For the late, unlamented Soviet Union, then, one word of truth did outweigh the whole world.
In every book, Solzhenitsyn unflinchingly took on the totalitarian Big Lie, and demolished it with biting wit and brilliance. Sadly, the Big Lie continues in our time, although in different form and technique. This is why Solzhenitsyn’s books are still required reading for those wishing to free themselves from the cant and superficiality of today’s Lilliputian wordsmiths that fancy themselves writers.
Two books in particular, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago, are epics. One Day is not only a literary classic, but brought the existence of the Gulag, the chain of Soviet labor camps that chewed up millions of people, to the world’s attention. Many European and American intellectuals, including leagues of prominent journalists who should have done this work themselves, never forgave him for shattering their rose-colored view of Communism. Later, his criticism of the obvious corruption and decadence of the West left him a persona non grata among Western elites.
The Gulag Archipelago is, in my view, the greatest book of the 20th century. It stands astride its terrible century the way The Divine Comedy does the 14th,, Canterbury Tales the 15th, and Hamlet the 16th. Part history, part philosophy, part religious witness, Gulag documents the entire 45-year history of the Soviet labor camps and serves as a metaphor for what Solzhenitsyn rightly calls “the caveman century.” It is a breathtaking work of pure genius that powerfully refutes not only socialism, but also the wretched ideas underlying the foundation of the modern world.
On a personal level, Solzhenitsyn literally helped save my soul. During my teenage and young adult years, which were typical for the 1960s and ‘70s, I fully imbibed the atheistic, materialistic worldview that so permeates American society. But in my mid-twenties, my life hit a crossroads with a confluence of events that made me wonder what life was all about.
At the same time, I returned to reading Solzhenitsyn. I had loved him for years but now his books took on new importance and urgency. His memoir, The Oak and the Calf, hit me like a heavyweight’s roundhouse. Here was a real man: honest, truthful, courageous, living as if his existence mattered. This was a serious person who, at great personal risk, was doing something significant. And what important work occupied my days? Partying with the boys, playing basketball and watching Sunday football on TV with a hangover.
Clearly, it was time to give up these childish things and follow Solzhenitsyn in the search for the eternal things. This quest led me to the door of the Catholic Church, and I entered. Having fallen overboard and bobbing in a sea of relativism, Solzhenitsyn provided me a lifeline to the truth.
On the several occasions that I have had the honor of addressing Catholic journalists and authors, I always conclude by quoting Solzhenitsyn on what it means to be a writer:
Once having taken up the word, it is never again possible to turn away. The writer is no sideline judge of his compatriots and contemporaries. He is guilty along with them of all the evil committed in his native land or by his nation. And if the tanks of his fatherland have shed blood on the asphalt of a foreign capital, the brown stains have for all eternity spattered the writer’s face. And if on a fateful night a sleeping, trusting friend has been choked to death, there are black and blue marks from the ropes on the writer’s palms. And if the young fellow citizens of his country impudently proclaim the superiority of debauchery to modest labor, or go in for narcotics or seize hostages — then all of this evil stink mingles in the breath of the writer.
Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn’s life was a profound Christian witness, a martyrdom to the Truth that should serve as an example to us all. Requiescat in pace, my friend, my mentor, my hero. May flights of angels speed you to your rest.