• Keith Mathison

Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile


I'm not 100% sure, but Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn may have been the first Christian author I ever read. I had just started my first semester of college in the Fall of 1985, and while browsing through the library, I ran across a three-volume work titled The Gulag Archipelago. The book is about the Soviet prison camps, and since the Cold War was still hot in 1985, I was intrigued. I took the first volume to the circulation desk where the librarian proceeded to tell me in a very condescending way that I would never finish all three volumes. As much out of spite as enjoyment of the books, I did complete all three volumes. I then began to look for and read other works by the author.


Something struck me about this man who had begun his adult life as an atheist and ardent supporter of Marxism but had converted to Christianity during his time of imprisonment in the Soviet prison camps. He spoke out vociferously against the communists and the disastrous effects of their ideology on his beloved homeland. But he also warned the West of its own spiritual deadness and the effects that would have if it continued. He made everyone uncomfortable because he didn't fit neatly into any of the ready-made categories.


I recently had the opportunity to read Joseph Pearce's updated biography of Solzhenitsyn. The first edition was published in 1999 when Solzhenitsyn was eighty years old. The revised edition was published in 2011 to take into account the last decade of Solzhenitsyn's life. Pearce is best know to Tolkien fans like myself for his biography of Tolkien and his books Bilbo's Journey and Frodo's Journey, in which he explores the deeper Christian themes in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but he has written numerous other works including biographies of G.K. Chesterton and Oscar Wilde.


Pearce himself is staunchly Roman Catholic, but he shows great sympathy towards the Russian Orthodox Solzhenitsyn. His emphasis on Solzhenitsyn's gradual spiritual awakening through decades of suffering is what sets this biography apart from others on the Russian author. He traces Solzhenitsyn's life through all of its ups and downs, from his youthful enthusiasm for Marxism to his time on the front lines in World War II, from his arrest and imprisonment to his release and exile in the United States. Throughout it all, what stands out is Solzhenitsyn's tireless and courageous determination to tell the world the truth about what had happened to his country and its people. It is that determination that drove him to write his poems, plays, and novels. It is that courage that enabled him to say things few, if any, at that time were willing to say.


It is quite amazing to look back today and realize how instrumental Solzhenitsyn was in the downfall of the Soviet Union. One man with the truth and the courage to speak it helped start an avalanche that knocked down a seemingly immovable giant that had crushed millions of people under its feet. Solzhenitsyn himself only barely escaped being crushed under the same feet. He wrote his books to honor those who had been crushed and could never speak out on their own.


I think Solzhenitsyn's works are as timely today as they were when he first wrote them. Every generation seems bound and determined to make all of the same mistakes of the past over and over again. Russia's revolution alone cost the lives of millions (Stalin was responsible for anywhere between 6 and 9 million deaths by himself). We live, however, in a generation that cares little for the past, which is why it is almost certainly doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. One can only imagine what the tens of millions who died horrific deaths as a result of Marxist ideology would say if they could see another generation of young people sticking their finger into the same electrical socket.


If you have never read anything by Solzhenitsyn, I would recommend starting with his short novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. If this is too much, start with his 1978 Harvard address, or the 1983 Templeton Address. These will give you a taste of what he was about and why he made so many uncomfortable. For those who want to see how he made the Soviet authorities uncomfortable, read his The Gulag Archipelago. And if you want a good biography to put his written works in context, the biography by Pearce is an excellent place to begin.


Near the conclusion of the biography, Pearce informs the reader that "In October 2010, it was announced that The Gulag Archipelago would become required reading for all Russian high school students" (p. 378). As I recall working through those three massive volumes 35 years ago, I wonder what these young students are thinking as they read them. Regardless, I'm happy to hear that they are not being allowed to forget. Would that this work would become required reading for all high school students everywhere.

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