Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr

Home » Entry » Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr

Other relevant keywords: Faith, Marxism, Russian Orthodoxy, Slavophiles, the West


Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918–2008)

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is among the few Russian intellectuals whose names are known equally well in the West as in Russia. In July 1945, after serving on the front with the Red Army and receiving two military decorations, Solzhenitsyn was sentenced to eight years in a labor camp for criticizing Stalin in a private letter to a friend. He spent the next decade imprisoned in the Soviet Gulag system, then exiled to southern Kazakhstan after his sentence was up, and finally in treatment for cancer—all experiences that would later become narrative themes for his novels, and which fostered in him a deep interest in patriotism, the Russian people, and ethical questions of guilt and moral responsibility. Solzhenitsyn was freed and exonerated after Khrushchev’s Secret Speech in 1956, but in the late 1960s he again found himself the object of state-sponsored repression: his manuscripts were seized, he was expelled from the Union of Writers, he was poisoned as part of an alleged assassination attempt, and then in 1974 he was arrested and deported from the Soviet Union. Solzhenitsyn eventually settled in the United States, where he spent nearly two decades living and writing in relative isolation in rural Vermont. In 1990 he citizenship was restored and in 1994 he returned to Russia, where he remained until his death in 2008.

Soviet-era Russian nationalism remained largely a marginal movement, known only on the domestic scene, until Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn took up its mantle in the early 1970s. His ethical and social views permeate all of his well-known creative works and have been analyzed by hundreds of commentators. Solzhenitsyn’s receipt of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970—and the opportunity this afforded him to influence world opinion—marked the beginning of his intensive period of nonfictional writing. This entry will thus restrict itself to discussion of his most general philosophical ideas, as expounded in his articles and essays. This work reveals a unique stability of basic themes and ideas—nation, nationalism, morality, tradition, faith, and the people (narod)—throughout the subsequent years of his forced emigration to the West and eventually return to postcommunist Russia.


The Concept of Nation

The decisive idea of Solzhenitsyn’s thought is the concept of nation, identified as the unique personality of a people among peoples, just as individuals are differentiated among themselves. “Nations are the treasury of humankind, its generalized personalities; even the smallest of nations carries its own colors, harbors a special facet of God’s design” (Sobranie sochinenii 9:15). According to Solzhenitsyn, nation is the most organic and concrete form of social existence: a natural mediation between separate human beings and humanity as a whole, a “generalized personality” that overcomes the polarity of the individual and the generic. Therefore, any kind of humanism that ignores the nation and directly addresses an atomic individual or the entirety of humankind tends to be abstract and speculative.

Contrary to the predictions of many sages of humanism and internationalism, the twentieth century has passed with a sharp increase of national feelings everywhere in the world, and this process is still gaining momentum; nations resist attempts at a global leveling (vsemirnaia nivelirovka) of their cultures. … But when we say “nationality,” we do not have in mind blood, but always spirit, consciousness, the vector of preferences of a human being. (“‘Russkii vopros’”)

Solzhenitsyn’s fundamental philosophical concern is the moral criteria of the social sciences. Since nations are personalities, they should be subject to ethical evaluations, such as “noble,” “mean,” “courageous,” “cowardly,” and so forth. With regard to large communities, he observes, such assessments are typically dismissed as “irrelevant” and “unscientific” in the humanities of the twentieth century, wherein, by contrast, economic, social, political, and technological criteria are persistently imposed on the life of individuals. Certain individuals are deemed to be “progressive” or “reactionary,” “oppressors,” or “oppressed,” depending on their belonging to a given class or social institution. Solzhenitsyn finds this tendency of the humanities to “dehumanize” individuals one-sided and hypocritical, and suggests as an alternative the relevance of moral criteria to evaluate entire societies. If the determinants of individual behavior are so readily—especially in Marxism—attributed to the given socioeconomic system, why, vice versa, should the actions of nations, societies, and states not be appraised on a scale commensurate with the criteria of individual behavior?

[W]hy are the standards and demands so necessarily and readily applied to individuals, families, small groups and personal relations, rejected out of hand and utterly prohibited when we go on to deal with thousands and millions of people in association?… Human society cannot be exempted from the laws and demands which constitute the aim and meaning of individual human lives. (“Repentance and Self-Limitation” 106)

Solzhenitsyn’s position, however, seems controversial precisely from his own moral standpoint: by judging nations as individuals, one risks judging individuals as no more than members of their nations. If the Russian nation acts in a courageous or cowardly way, does this apply to all Russians? How does one distinguish between courageous and cowardly individuals if moral judgment refers to the nation as a whole? By treating nations as singular individuals, one paradoxically reduces individuals to the status of representatives of their nation—exactly the type of generalization against which Solzhenitsyn protests. For Solzhenitsyn, however, nations, as distinct from political parties, states, trade unions, corporations, international organizations, and other pragmatic and mechanical collectives, are, like personalities, living entities, “very vital formations, susceptible to all moral feelings. … The profoundest similarity between the individual and the nation lies in the mystical nature of their ‘givenness’” (109-110).


The Problem of National Guilt and Repentance

Therefore, Solzhenitsyn advances a specific moral attitude: nations, like individuals, should first of all address themselves. It is repentance that sets the standard of moral consciousness. “Repentance is the only starting point for spiritual growth” (108). Solzhenitsyn’s “suffering” and “repentant” patriotism revives the spirit of Russian literature of the nineteenth century and distinguishes him from the overwhelming majority of Russian nationalist thinkers of the 1960s–80s, who vied with one another in extolling the virtues of the Russian character in its superiority to other nations. From this latter standpoint, Russianness is determined by blood and origin, and so tsarism and Bolshevism, Orthodoxy and atheism are equally justified, inasmuch as they all serve to increase Russian power and influence in the world. Solzhenitsyn balks at such all-accepting and self-flattering patriotism. “Their general name for all this is ‘the Russian idea.’ (A more precise name for this trend would be ‘National Bolshevism’)” (120).

Instead, Solzhenitsyn calls for national repentance, insisting that the Russian renaissance can only begin with an apology to other peoples for decades and even centuries of imperial self-assertion. Following the early Slavophiles, Solzhenitsyn condemns not only the Soviet but the “Petersburg” period of Russian imperial history, which was characterized by political arrogance and a superficial imitation of Western culture. Furthermore, along with an admission of guilt before other nations, Russians must repent of internal sins: the not-so-distant serfdom and concomitant enduring poverty of the majority of their own people, which is unprecedented among civilized nations. Above all is the call for introspection:

For half a century now we have acted on the conviction that the guilty ones were the tsarist establishment, the bourgeois patriots, social democrats, White Guards, priests, émigrés, subversives, kulaks … wreckers, oppositionists, enemies of the people, nationalists, Zionists, imperialists, militarists, even modernists—anyone and everyone except you and I! Obviously it was they, not we, who had to reform. (117)

Solzhenitsyn warns that by externalizing rather than internalizing the source of guilt, a nation only proliferates its own misfortunes through endeavors to overcome them at the expense of other nations. There is nobody to blame but ourselves. Thus it is only by the act of a willing self-condemnation that Russia—and by extension all of humanity—can survive the mounting evils of the twentieth century, including the exploitation of nature and the oppression of weaker peoples. “We have so bedeviled the world, brought it so close to self-destruction, that repentance is now a matter of life and death” (107).

If a nation’s duty in relation to the past is repentance, its future may be secured only by the imperative of self-limitation—the other of Solzhenitsyn’s two key concepts employed in his ethical manifesto “Repentance and Self-Limitation in the Life of Nations” (1973). Repentance and self-limitation are interconnected modes of spiritual ascension through humility and are rooted in religious ethics; nevertheless, Solzhenitsyn emphasizes their importance for both believers and nonbelievers as a means for the physical and historical survival of humanity, which is otherwise liable to fall victim to its own greed, its destructive claims to full satisfaction of all needs and desires. For Solzhenitsyn, the ethical imperative of self-limitation should be applied to decision-making on every scale, from the individual to the corporation and the state. The ascetic discipline of self-restraint as practiced by separate individuals still remains to be adopted by nations and societies, since, from the beginning of history, they have practiced a policy of limiting other nations rather than themselves.


Nationalism vs. Communism

This will for expansion across all boundaries, from the geographical to the psychological and the transcendental (the atheistic usurpation of God’s place in the universe), is ominously expressed in communism, which, for Solzhenitsyn, is the most dangerous disease afflicting humanity—one that may prove fatal. Like a cancer, communism multiplies by invading the neighboring cells of other nations and by leveling individuals, reducing their differentiation and incorporating them into collectivist totalities: a purely quantitative progress that eventually kills the organism of humanity. The disaster of communism is that it exterminates qualitative distinctions comprising the organic being of individuals and nations. Everywhere that communism spreads, it bleaches culture of its national character, replacing it with an impersonal and mediocre internationalism. This is why Solzhenitsyn sees the last chance for salvation in a regeneration of national consciousness and its reorientation toward inner refinement instead of extension in the outer world.

Again, in his personalistic approach to nations, Solzhenitsyn valorizes introspection as a means of restoring the inner balance of spiritual life, recommending in particular that Russia cease the expenditure of its resources for the sake of global domination, turning them instead to the task of national “self-arrangement” (samoobustroistvo). In contrast to the Russian expansionist policy that long targeted the West and South almost exclusively, Solzhenitsyn proposes reorienting it toward the North and East, where vast expanses of land remain undeveloped—virgin land that symbolizes the self-contained integrity and original purity of the Russian spirit. In his famous letter to the Soviet leaders in 1973, for instance, Solzhenitsyn called upon them to reject the claims of world hegemony implicit in Marxist ideology and reclaim their Russian identity in order to prepare the nation for a possible war with communist China. This is typical for Solzhenitsyn’s argumentation: to attempt to demonstrate the value of a truth via the practical necessity of its implementation.

Though Solzhenitsyn is very close to Slavophile teachings and holds them in high regard, he distances himself from them when considering the historical experience of the last centuries: now that Russia has suffered so painfully from its self-destructive expansionism, it has neither the time nor the strength to take care of its Slavic brothers or preside over a federation of Eastern European nations. Solzhenitsyn attempts to dispel “the specter of pan-Slavism, which has so many times already ruined Russia, and is all the more so now beyond our strength” (“‘Russkii vopros’”). At the same time, Solzhenitsyn is careful to distinguish his nationalism from isolationism, claiming that the deliberate self-isolation of Russia from the surrounding world would be a temporary period of recovery from the evils of expansionism, during which Russia would prepare itself for a renewed dialogue with the world on terms of equality and mutual respect.

Solzhenitsyn is sensitive to the critique of Russian nationalism offered by domestic and Western liberals who warn of the potential of a new totalitarianism emerging from a nationalist revision of communism. In Solzhenitsyn’s view, the idea of nation is incommensurate with a communist system, as evidenced by the history of the suppression of national spirit under Soviet rule. With the same argument, Solzhenitsyn answers those critics who claim that Soviet communism was a Bolshevik perversion of the Marxist model, or that the success of the October Revolution could be attributed to traditions of Russian history that were essentially “communist” long before Bolshevism itself, since they downplayed the importance of private property and exaggerated the role of centralized government. Solzhenitsyn wonders ironically why communism’s rise could not just as well be attributed to Egyptian or Chinese history, given the evident socialist tendencies in their economies and bureaucratic regimes. For Solzhenitsyn, Russia was not the initiator of communism but rather its first victim, as witness the revolution’s facilitation by internationalist forces where the leading role was played by Jews, Balts, Georgians, and other national minorities. The ensuing regime was not a “distorted” Bolshevik interpretation of Marx, but the direct expression of original Marxist doctrine, which prescribes the application of “revolutionary violence” and a “dictatorship of the proletariat” as the only means to break the national resistance to internationalist utopia.

Solzhenitsyn fully recognizes that Russians are also guilty of adopting communism and oppressing other nations with its program of worldwide revolution, but he argues that, historically, Russia’s crimes have been directed mostly against Russians themselves. Communism in Russia was tantamount to a protracted national suicide, whereby one part of society enslaved and destroyed another. Thus, to restore national identity means bringing the nation to peace with itself by eliminating the class, party, and ideological conflicts tearing the country apart.


Intelligentsia and the People

The decisive factor in this envisioned national reconciliation is the relationship between the intelligentsia and the people. Here Solzhenitsyn enters a heated dispute with such liberals and “pluralists” as Grigory Pomerants, Andrei Sinyavsky, Mihajlo Mihajlov, and Boris Shragin, who question the very existence of “the people” in Russia, in the sense meant by its venerators: as an organic unity molded by religious beliefs and moral traditions. These thinkers pin all their hopes, to the contrary, on the individual who challenges traditional values—a typical member of the intelligentsia, whose alienation from the people is viewed positively as a feature of historical dynamics. The implication is that the Russian people gave in to communist promises and became an easily manipulated herd, devoid of any spiritual substance. Solzhenitsyn’s counterargument goes so far as to propose that, quite the opposite, it was the intelligentsia that betrayed the national tradition and functioned as the ruling class in totalitarian society. This is why it lost the spiritual identity of the prerevolutionary intelligentsia, which was emphatically self-sacrificial and repented its guilt of alienation from the simple people. Solzhenitsyn coins an expressive word for this new social stratum that gradually came to substitute, under the Soviet regime, for the genuine intelligentsia: obrazovanshchina, which has been approximated in English as “smatterers,” and might also be rendered as “educated mob.”

Solzhenitsyn’s dissatisfaction with the West proved to be a direct continuation of his polemics with Russian Westernizers that began when he was still in the USSR. After Solzhenitsyn’s forced emigration in 1974, his Western audience eagerly anticipated an unfettered condemnation of his native state and a corresponding glorification of liberalism, but they were quickly disappointed. Not only did Solzhenitsyn undertake a radical and merciless critique of liberalism, but he made clear that his critique of Soviet Marxism was founded on a nationalist rather than liberal platform. On Solzhenitsyn’s own part, there was an even greater disappointment: he had expected to find in the West a strong spiritual commitment to the struggle against totalitarianism, but was alarmed to discover instead a political will slackening with the pursuit of private prosperity and hedonism. As he saw it, the danger of Western consumerism, liberalism, legalism, and individualism lay in their sapping the moral courage necessary to resist communist expansion fed by a spring of ideological commitments that people were willing to die for.

Solzhenitsyn’s ethical approaches evince certain ambiguities, for instance his condemnation of Western intellectual and political leaders for their “cowardly” allowing of Vietnam to be lost to communism. Apparently, the concept of self-limitation does not apply to the US’s ultimate withdrawal from that country, which might well be read as an abandonment of outmoded expansionist policies. Thus, Solzhenitsyn identifies some cases of self-limitation with virtue, others with cowardice. He also underestimates the potential of “hedonism”: while it easily surrenders on the battlefield, it may win the war in the arena of consciousness, as was demonstrated by the ultimately peaceful collapse of communism.


Morality and Law

Solzhenitsyn’s critique of Western ideology centers on the concept of “freedom.” In the West, freedom is an extension of individualism that is limited only by the external restraints imposed by law. Thus, individualism and legalism complement one another, since the law guarantees individual freedom so far as the individual agrees to recognize the authority of the law. Solzhenitsyn calls this a model of “mutual pressure,” as limitation is imposed from without by a judicial system; to it, he counterposes his ethics of self-limitation, whereby individual behavior is restrained from within by moral law. Solzhenitsyn finds the Western concern for human rights laudable but argues that rights here are overstressed at the expense of responsibilities. Rights are a purely humanistic concept, whereas responsibility restores a religious dimension to humanity—as subordinated to the higher criterion of truth.

The relationship between legal and moral norms is one of the crucial questions considered by contemporary Russian thought. From a liberal perspective, lack of juridical awareness was the major negative factor of Russian history, such that Russia’s much-needed turn to democracy should first of all be based on the establishment of legal institutions and procedures as the governing laws of social life: the creation of a legal state (pravovoe gosudarstvo). This is the only way to abandon the excesses of the administrative-command system, where the only law was the will of a central or regional party leader. From the standpoint of the enlightened conservatism championed by Solzhenitsyn, a system of jurisdiction indeed should be introduced in Russia, but still subjected to the governance of moral law. The most important decisions, on the state level, should be made not by the quantitative majority of voices, but by unanimous consent of the people or their legal representatives. In the concluding notes to his treatise Rebuilding Russia. Reflections and Tentative Proposals (the English title of what was originally called Kak nam obustroit’ Rossiiu [How We Should Arrange Russia], 1990), Solzhenitsyn formulates this position quite clearly: “Moral principles must take priority over legal ones. And justice means conformity to moral law before any purely legal compliance” (Rebuilding Russia 105).

These two judgments, crowning the whole work of Solzhenitsyn and so insistently placed in a supposed complementarity, actually contradict one another. If morality is actually higher than legality, then justice should be determined first by the simpler legal law, and then by the moral one. Proceeding in the order proposed by Solzhenitsyn to solve all social issues first and foremost, we will never reach the legal law. And in principle, why bother with the “lower,” once the “higher” has been achieved? Isn’t this neglect of the law in favor of higher moral motivations a typical feature of authoritarian regimes and a longstanding, neglected misfortune of Russian statehood?

This position of moral fundamentalism was stated in a more thoroughly philosophical manner by the philosopher Yury Borodai, who criticized Western judicialism for its insistence on purely formal (specifically, adversarial) relationships between people, as if they were potential enemies: “Suffice it to note that the fathers of European jurisprudence (Hobbes, Montesquieu) founded their legal conceptions on very remarkable axioms: 1) homo homini lupus est (men are like wolves to one another), and 2) the war of all people against all people” (“Krest’ianskii trud” 135). Borodai connects the emergence of Western juridical norms with the destructive wars of the Reformation, which led to the devastation of two-thirds of Europe’s population. In order to survive, society had to transform the armed war of all against all into a juridical war through courts and judges. This is why legal norms reflect the lowest stage of moral consciousness, which, in its highest development, would make legal procedures unnecessary, since every individual would be directed from within by his or her own morality: “From the standpoint of natural community, the most developed juridical consciousness is to conscience as the horse’s hoof is to human fingers” (136). Both Solzhenitsyn and Borodai would be correct in terms of universal moral values, but in the reality of Russian history, the neglect of legal norms led not to the ascension of moral virtues, but to their complete degradation, to a despotic voluntarism that easily justified itself by the highest ethical considerations, such as “the welfare of the common people,” “the self-sacrifice of the individual for the sake of society,” and so on.

The idea that morality can be a single and all-encompassing norm of behavior for an entire society proceeds from the romantic assumption that a nation is one organic whole, one soul and one body, which, therefore, is subject to the rules of individual morality. For this reason, Solzhenitsyn is inclined to idealize agricultural communities, which preserve the spirit of collective identity and thus do not require juridical regulations. Solzhenitsyn seems to ignore that moral fundamentalism may ultimately be self-defeating: by raising moral norms to the level of legal authority and state regulation, it undermines morality itself as a factor of individual self-determination. Morality, functioning in the place of legal norms, is nothing but immorality institutionalized by a totalitarian state. This substitution of an individual moral sense for nationally legitimized moral norms permeates all of Solzhenitsyn’s thought, both on the level of social science—where nation is subject to moral evaluation as a single person; and on the level of social practice—where moral norms function as, and instead of, legal institutions. But this triumph of collectivized and institutionalized morality proves, despite Solzhenitsyn’s intent, the most severe restraint on the freedom of personal conscience, which is now completely regulated by the criterion of “the nation’s conscience” or “the people’s wisdom.” In fact, few historical figures spoke of morality more than the Soviet leaders, who required from their citizens self-sacrifice and heroism in order to substantiate the power of the state. One morality for everyone means no morality for anyone, because an individual subjected to the moral prescriptions of the governing body, of a political and/or religious leader, cedes his or her power of decision to this authority, thereby becoming a mere instrument for state manipulations.


Morality and Religion

Solzhenitsyn claims to defend Christian values, but one often feels his deep attraction instead to what could be called an Old Testament mentality, common to the majority of Russian nationalist thinkers, who believe the nation (narod) rather than the individual is the “God-bearer” (bogonosets) destined to fulfill some higher religious and moral mission. Christian civilization is based on the division of moral and legal powers (“God” and “Caesar”), on the duality of individual and society, the former called to spiritual fulfillment and salvation, and the latter subject to its own “earthly” regulations, borrowed from Roman legislation. Any attempt to elide this duality, to subordinate society entirely to the governance of moral laws and spiritual goals can be seen, on the one hand, as a shift toward the theocratic aspirations of the Old Testament era, or, on the other, as a gesture of rising authoritarianism, which establishes a “substitution for God” in the person of a national, charismatic leader—the mundane messiah. To be sure, Solzhenitsyn is far from the conscious pursuit of theocratic goals: even the nation for him is not the highest value in and of itself, but owes its unique character to God, and only for this reason is endowed with self-consciousness.

Overall, Solzhenitsyn’s position can be characterized as enlightened conservatism. By focusing on Christian values, he strives to avoid the extremes of militant nationalism and liberal democracy, both of which he vehemently decries. His conservatism is based on implicitly religious and explicitly moral criteria. Solzhenitsyn rarely exposes his religious views directly and does not confuse his political conservatism with clericalism. He avoids bringing religion too close to church, and church too close to state. In fact, Solzhenitsyn’s persistent hope for the spiritual revival of Russia hardly seems to rely on the Orthodox Church itself. “Will the Orthodox Church help us? During the years of communism, it has been smashed the most. Moreover, it was internally undermined by its three centuries of submission to state power and has lost its drive for strong public action” (“‘Russkii vopros’”).

Nevertheless, religious faith lies at the foundation of all his political and moral views. To a certain degree, he inherits didactic patterns of Russian medieval culture and attempts to translate the basic concepts of Orthodox spirituality, such as “conciliatoriness” or “communality” (sobornost’), “repentance” and “abstinence” (vozderzhanie, self-limitation), into the contemporary cultural and social language. Solzhenitsyn believes that the twentieth-century ethics of self-realization has its distant roots in the Renaissance affirmation of humanism and anthropocentrism. Solzhenitsyn recognizes that medieval religiosity placed too narrow a limitation on human physical nature, but he argues that the Renaissance represents a headlong rush to the other, far more perilous extreme. In its deification of individuality, the Renaissance began the trend of the celebration of human pride and “will to power,” a mode that gave rise to the modern ethos of the exploitation of nature. Thus, Solzhenitsyn not only blames the humanistic mentality for the sociopolitical crises of the twentieth century, both in Russia and the West, but prophesies that world history is now on the eve of a new radical transition tantamount to the transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance—but in the opposite direction.

Is it true that man is above everything? Is there no Superior Spirit above him?….  If the world has not come to its end, it has approached a major turn in history, equal in importance to the turn from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. It will exact from us a spiritual upsurge: We shall have to rise to a new height of vision, to a new level of life where our physical nature will not be cursed as in the Middle Ages, but, even more importantly, our spiritual being will not be trampled upon as in the Modern era. This ascension will be similar to climbing onto the next anthropologic stage (“A World Split Apart”).


Monism Against Pluralism

On the whole, Solzhenitsyn’s system of views can be defined as ethical monism, which becomes clear from his polemics with the so-called pluralists (1982). In the late-Soviet context, the term “pluralism,” which would become one of the key slogans of perestroika (first as “socialist pluralism”), owes its popularity to Solzhenitsyn, though he used it in a derogatory sense. “Pluralism” in Russian is consonant with “spitting” (pluiut), and Solzhenitsyn associates it with an indifferent, “devil-may-care” attitude toward the highest moral values. He recognizes that a plurality of views may have its own merit as a multiplicity of manifestations of one single truth, but rejects the idea that there could be multiple truths themselves, and that such multiplicity may be a goal in itself. “It is strange that a simple plural number should be granted such status…. If there is no universal foundation, there can be no morality. ‘Pluralism’ as a principle degrades to indifference, to the loss of any depth, flowing into relativism, into absurdity, into a pluralism of delusions and lies” (“Nashi pliuralisty”).

Solzhenitsyn calls pluralists those representatives of liberal and dissident movements who consider ideological diversity and tolerance to be the greatest achievement of contemporary civilization, especially as exemplified in Western institutionalized democracy. It is noteworthy that Solzhenitsyn argues his preference for “one truth” from the perspective of “rigorous sciences, based on mathematics.” It would seem more coherent to connect morality with the humanities and social sciences, but Solzhenitsyn asserts that pluralism in these disciplines is symptomatic of their inferiority to the natural sciences: “The plurality of truths in the social sciences is a sign of our imperfection, not of our excessive richness, and why should we make a cult of pluralism from this imperfection?” (“Nashi pliuralisty”). Solzhenitsyn’s aspiration to a single truth draws, on the one hand, from religion, on the other, from mathematics, which was his professional field both before and after the war and his imprisonment in the Gulag. He appeals, that is, to both superhuman and nonhuman domains, thus dispensing with the sphere of the properly humanistic, in which pluralism has been doomed to reside due to its immanent imperfection. “The truth in the whole course of the world is one—God’s truth, and all of us, sometimes unconsciously, are striving to approach and touch it” (“Nashi pliuralisty”). For Solzhenitsyn, difference is meaningful and valuable only as a means to the progressive elimination of difference, as a mode of comparison between oneself and others that allows a person to recognize his or her mistakes, overcome them, and approach universal truth.

The greatest danger for the Western world, according to Solzhenitsyn, is the loss of distinction between “truth” and “falsehood,” between undoubtable good and undoubtable evil. He characterizes this pluralistic principle as a call for “diversity for its own sake,” as “centrifugal disarray” and “the entropy of thought” (“Nashi pliuralisty”). To liberal thinkers, this centrifugal tendency represented the strongest challenge to all-encompassing Soviet centralism, but in his writings, Solzhenitsyn finds pluralism too weak to wage such historical-political combat. This is why he believes in the superiority of the centralist model, but proposes replacing the monism of political power with the monism of religious faith and moral commitment.

From a pluralist standpoint, Solzhenitsyn continues the authoritarian thread in Russian history, and for this reason displays a surprising affinity with Soviet ideology, condemning the bourgeois West for its moral degradation and relativism. From Solzhenitsyn’s point of view, pluralism shares with Soviet totalitarianism an origin in atheistic and materialistic doctrines of the nineteenth century; both emerged as two complementary aspects of the same processes of secularization. The only alternative to both world systems would therefore be the restoration of religious absolutism, equally opposed to the antireligious absolutism of the Soviet system and the irreligious relativism of Western democracy.

After his return to Russia in May 1994, Solzhenitsyn remained a staunch champion of the same fundamentalist principles he had consistently advanced since 1973. Ascribing the chaos of post-Soviet society to destructive and centrifugal tendencies unleashed by the pluralistic strategies of Gorbachеv and Yeltsin, he left aside the fact that the communist empire had broken up under the pressure of these same centrifugal tendencies. Solzhenitsyn’s enlightened conservatism held a strong appeal in the postcommunist climate of excessive instability, but at the same time it could not account for the democratic reforms that had led to the end of communism. This perhaps explains why Solzhenitsyn did not hasten to return to his motherland until his conservative stance could find some practical application. Only after totalitarianism was ruined by democratic reforms did Solzhenitsyn’s ethical and political monism come into its own right as a challenge to the extremes of pluralism.

However, despite all of Solzhenitsyn’s attempts to distinguish the “genuine” Russia from the Soviet Union, it is their shared historical identity that lends his thought a certain ambivalence. He could not but rejoice at the fall of Soviet communism, and could not but mourn the demise of a strong, unified Russia, but how in reality could one have been preserved while the other perished? If in the 1990s, with the demise of the Soviet Union and the triumph of centrifugal forces, Solzhenitsyn’s monism acquired political significance, it is only because the pluralists were right in their own time and succeeded in creating a new historical space that secured a relevance for Solzhenitsyn’s preachings as well as the very possibility of his homecoming.

Mikhail Epstein, December 2020



Borodai, Iurii. “Krest’ianskii trud i sel’skaia obshchnost’. Filosofsko-ekonomicheskie predposylki perestroiki agrarnogo proizvodstvsa.” Ed. V. Lazarev. Chto s nami proiskhodit? Zapiski sovremennikov. Moscow: Sovremennik, 1989.

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr. “A World Split Apart.” Harvard University commencement address, delivered June 8, 1978. Available electronically: Accessed Dec. 15, 2020.

—. “Nashi pliuralisty.” Vestnik russkogo khristianskogo dvizheniia 139 (1983). Available electronically: Accessed Dec. 15, 2020.

—. Rebuilding Russia. Reflections and Tentative Proposals. Trans. and annotated by Alexis Klimoff. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1991.

—. “Repentance and Self-Limitation in the Life of Nations” (1973). From Under the Rubble. By Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Mikhail Agursky, Evgeny Barabanov, Vadim Borisov, F. Korsakov, and Igor Shafarevich. Trans. Michael Scammell and A. M. Brock. Boston, Toronto: Little, Brown and Company, 1975.

—. “‘Russkii vopros’ k kontsu XX veka.” Novyi mir 7 (1994). Available electronically: Accessed Dec. 15, 2020.

—. Sobranie sochinenii v 20 tomakh. Vermont-Paris: YMCA Press, 1981.

Related Entries