Solzhenitsyn’s American millstone
Outsiders see things that cannot see inside. Alexis de Tocqueville penetrated American democracy like no other. Similarly, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Between Two Millstones: Exile in America, 1978-1994 presents a view of America that few Americans have been able to grasp.
Millstones grind grain into flour, and Solzhenitsyn focuses on how the two great political systems of the mid-twentieth century ground the human soul to dust. A millstone was the Soviet tyranny that Solzhenitsyn dissected in the Gulag archipelago. The other millstone is Western democracy, which, Solzhenitsyn warns, simulates Soviet tyranny. Two Millstones focuses on the western millstone.
The Gulag Solzhenitsyn is benevolent and magnanimous, and outraged on his part. He tried to identify the mechanisms in human nature that enabled the gulag to exist. Survival in the Soviet system corrupts the soul – and who can be blamed for wanting to survive? “The reader who expects this book to be a political revelation,” he writes in one of the most moving parts of the gulag, “will immediately close the covers.” Solzhenitsyn recognizes himself as the “blue hats” that prisoners bring into the gulag because they had a lot to live and wanted to survive. It was easier for him to be brave because he had nothing to lose.
But the greatness of the soul that draws us to Solzhenitsyn in the gulag is subdued in millstones. The western millstone grinders seem more petty than the Soviets. Solzhenitsyn dives into the gutter about unfounded allegations, insults, treasonable friends or expats, insults and biased journalistic reporting. Solzhenitysn is less benevolent to New York Times reporters, gold diggers, or hostile academics than to the gulag prison guards and blue hats. Does the line between good and bad run through the hearts of the New York Times columnists? Are the Westerners any less human than the gulag apparatchiks?
This newly published second volume of Millstones begins after Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard speech, in which he criticized the decadent West for its lack of moral courage. The volume does not cover the major geopolitical events of that time, apart from the collapse of the Soviet Union. Instead, it treats how Solzhenitsyn and his work were treated in the West during this time. The forgetful lowlifes created a narrative that Solzhenitsyn tore to pieces. He was alternately a monarchist, a reactionary full of messianic morals, an anti-Semite, neo-fascist, ardent nationalist, ayatollah of Russian orthodoxy, fanatical Lenin of the right and warmonger.
When Solzhenitsyn tried to see Russia better as a victim of Soviet communism, he was branded an unqualified nationalist. When he mentioned that all political communities needed God to fight materialism, he was a theocrat. Logic didn’t matter, since he couldn’t easily be an unqualified nationalist and an unqualified theocrat at the same time – since each commitment would in some way qualify the other. Western politics operate in the shadow of the narrative, where people were more interested in the narrative than the truth. No truth lover could find that sympathetic.
Western apparatchiks sold their souls to an ideology like the communists – but without the cynicism and with the confident assurance that every word on their lips was blessed by history.
In contrast to the censored Soviet Union, Solzhenitsyn’s literature was published in the West. That is different. But his “literary life” fell into the “realm of hearings and investigations”, first by private media, which directed opinion, and then by public media, which called for “advanced censorship”. His books have been filtered through the narrative and deliberately misread, with unkind, intolerant, unreasonable and (ultimately) embarrassing reviews in the West. “If slander gives them an advantage, are these two world powers so different,” asks Solzhenitsyn? With their attacks on me, the Americans are catching up with the Soviet authorities … Even at the height of the battle for the Secretariat of the Writers’ Union, I was not insulted with as much bile, personal, passionate hatred as America’s pseudo-educated elite The press was no less powerful than Pravda when it dictated the narrative. There was one difference, however: the suppliers of the lies of the West were full of hypocrisy, while the liars of Pravda were only cynical.
The usual suspects followed Solzhenitsyn when he went on Radio Liberty, America’s broadcast to the Soviet Union, with allegations of phantom anti-Semitism. As a result of “Senate Alert” (Chapter 13), bureaucrats stopped having “his name even featured on Radio Liberty, as thoroughly as only the USSR had previously done.” The elites called for increased censorship of all future Solzhenitsyn broadcasts on Radio Liberty to protect themselves from his alleged anti-Semitism – and the government under the Reagan administration was no less committed. Would it be long before corporations followed suit under pressure to keep the narrative going?
Solzhenitsyn wrote about the story in “Our Pluralists” (an essay from 1983). The elites of Western pluralism, he argued, were all from the same group. “All of them lived in the capitals for decades, and some of them served as. . . Marxist philosophers, feature film authors, lecturers, cinema directors or radio producers ”, who cannot be distinguished from“ the men of the Central Committee and the Cheka men, from the communist regime ”. When Solzhenitsyn spoke, his words were conveyed through her narration; if he was silent, the narrative filled the gaps. “What kind of democracy,” asks Solzhenitsyn, “what kind of conscience is that that scolds someone, not for what he has said but for what he has not said?” Not a kind of deliberative democracy, for sure .
Courts were also affected. Solzhenitsyn has been tried for defamation against Olga Carlisle, a former friend and co-worker. To fight the charges, he had to hire a lawyer, overcome the temptation to come to an agreement, and persevere. Another charge was made in England. Solzhenitsyn won, but was “drowned”[ed]. . .in trifles and filth. ”Nobody broke into his house and stole his papers in the west; the courts could still defy elite opinion. These are differences. The trial was still a punishment. “I cannot imagine the English legal system without disgust,” he writes. But he envisioned that one day the judicial system could become more arbitrary and Soviet if the elites gained more leverage.
Telephones, Solzhenitsyn fears, integrate everything into the borg of public opinion – and he finds it “absurd that people do not want to see any space between them, no separation, no seclusion”. Such media simultaneously rob people of independence and leisure and at the same time strengthen the power of public opinion. The internet would exacerbate this problem.
In the Gulag, Solzhenitsyn introduces himself to those who cross the threshold to evil without remorse. You have “left humanity behind and perhaps without the possibility of a return”. Such an ideological stance justifies lying, ruining and killing innocent people. Anyone who crosses this line leaves the drama of good and bad in political life behind and advocates a new, superior morality. Under this new ideology, nations are passe and religion is false and tyrannical; our tolerance, as defined by the changing demands of history, is our virtue. Western apparatchiks sold their souls to an ideology like the communists – but without the cynicism and with the confident assurance that every word on their lips was blessed by history. Conscience is burned more in the West than in the East – this may explain Solzhenitsyn’s less benevolent treatment of Western pseudo-intellectuals.
Solzhenitsyn, of course, recognizes the limits of this moral equivalence. America is not thoroughly evil like the Soviet dragon. He had allies and admirers in the west (although he also had them in the east). There was a Malcolm Muggeridge for every dozen Mike Wallaces; for every 50 conventional politicians there was one Margaret Thatcher; for every bank of superficial pastors or priests there was a John Paul II greatness was possible in the system because, to paraphrase George Orwell, hope lay with the proles. Occasionally the decent common sense that Solzhenitsyn recognized in his fellow citizens of Cavendish, Vermont, could still find political expression at the national level. Renewal was possible as many still knew how to govern themselves locally and the people of the country could still band together to act in the face of threats to survival.
It is great evidence of Solzhenitsyn’s foresight that he saw the dangers of sovietization for the West of his time as he infected fewer institutions and fewer lives. The western millstone became a red wheel of its own in our late republic. Our freedom is still being ground by our distinctive millstone. But maybe there is still hope.