When Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn entered the world stage in the 1960s, the West interpreted him without preconceptions. Then the West turned against him with a vengeance. The great exception to this turn was France—France!—where virtually all of his writings appeared in translation and where intellectuals took instruction from him on the nature of communism, generated The Black Book of Communism,1 and made a place for him at televised roundtables on world affairs. The United States, where Solzhenitsyn lived for eighteen years, showed little such intellectual receptiveness and indeed did the worst job of all in dealing with his texts.
Persons of a certain age will remember their first impression of Solzhenitsyn as a model of courage, a teller of truth, and a fighter for freedom. The press, after transmitting this heroic image, took only about a decade to pigeonhole him politically and, getting out its long knives, left his literary corpus for dead and his character shredded into an unrecognizable caricature. The herd of independent minds (to use Harold Rosenberg’s famous image) then tramped on down the road looking for fresh meat, leaving behind a public confused by the carnage.
Thus, two conflicting accounts of Solzhenitsyn remain in the American consciousness, and the abiding question has been which depiction will prevail. Isn’t it time for America to reconsider Solzhenitsyn? Since he died recently and fresh materials are appearing, the perfect moment may have arrived to ask if Solzhenitsyn offers wisdom that would enrich our minds and sustain our souls.
Let snapshots from early and late introduce the story of Solzhenitsyn’s Western reception. An Italian biography summarized opinion as the 1970s dawned: “Solzhenitsyn is first a great writer and only second a literary sensation. His greatness is not due to the publicity he has received; on the contrary, there would hardly have been such worldwide interest in his fate if he had been a mediocrity.”2 In 1974, the London Times called Solzhenitsyn “the man who is for the moment the most famous person in the western world.”3 That same year Harrison Salisbury explained the grounds for Solzhenitsyn’s lionization: “Against the powerful state stands a single man.…The odds against Solzhenitsyn seem tremendous. Yet I know of no Russian writer who would not trade his soul for Solzhenitsyn’s mantle, who does not know that one hundred years from now all the world…will bow to his name when most others have been forgotten.”4
Fast-forward to the 1990s. Even a friendly observer recognized that “when Solzhenitsyn’s name comes up now it is more often than not as a freak, a monarchist, an anti-Semite, a crank, a has-been, not as a hero.”5 And another observer describes the writer’s “descent from revered sage and prophet…to irrelevant political dinosaur and target of jokes.”6 Muscovites tried to one-up Manhattanites. One Moscow intellectual called the erstwhile hero “a walking hatrack” and “a eunuch castrated by his fame.”7 Another spluttered, “Solzhenitsyn is a spiritual statue. Let him stay in mothballs forever.”8 But it’s hard to outdo Western invective. We heard Solzhenitsyn called “rather a comical figure in Moscow—a sort of The End Is Nigh, sandwich-board old man,” also “a sort of biblical apparition, a joke clinging fiercely to a world that no longer exists.”9 Someone spoke for “most of us”: “Most of us were glad to see the back of him when he returned to Russia in 1994.”10
Whereas Solzhenitsyn was once assigned reading in many American schools, today almost none of the young have heard of him. On a recent questionnaire completed by college students in a world literature course, only two of fifty-six had read a single word by him. Ten more had heard of the Gulag, but several confused Gulag with goulash. Two gave recipes. The stray professor who asks me nowadays to lecture on Solzhenitsyn warns that I will have to start at point zero—or, more exactly, inspire students to want to crawl out from under their blanket of ignorance before I can start at point zero.
In November 1962 Solzhenitsyn’s novella One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich burst upon the scene like fireworks against a black sky. For all its shocking revelations about life in the Gulag camps, Western critics emphasized its literary accomplishment. One critic hailed the book as “one of the most powerful works of the twentieth century” and its author as equipped with “all the literary skill, acumen, power, and vision to write the Crime and Punishment of our time.”11 Another summarized the general enthusiasm that it evoked: “The literary talent of Solzhenitsyn was recognized at once: he became a classic overnight.” Solzhenitsyn is, this critic announced, “the first great Russian writer to emerge after the Revolution whose humanity can be compared to that of Tolstoy, his awareness of suffering to that of Dostoevsky, his lack of sentimentality to that of Chekhov.”12
Solzhenitsyn was quickly inducted into the Union of Soviet Writers, and then quickly blackballed from publication. The cat-and-mouse game between the writer underground and the Unsleeping Eye of the KGB returned Solzhenitsyn to the headlines sporadically. After he tried but failed to press Cancer Ward and The First Circle through the censors’ sieve, both novels appeared in the West in 1968. Neither the Soviet censors who blocked it nor the Western critics who celebrated it knew they were reading an already truncated version of The First Circle, the political explosiveness of which had been “lightened” by Solzhenitsyn himself in hopes of getting it published. Remarkably, a work of art deformed under pressure from totalitarian power received high praise through four decades. One American scholar proclaimed, “No longer can there be the slightest question about his literary stature or doubt of his permanence….Solzhenitsyn is no meteor; he will not fade into obscurity.”13 Another flatly concluded, “Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is the greatest living Russian writer.”14Cancer Ward and The First Circle vied with each other for the critics’ plum of top billing. In general, “Western opinion was united on Solzhenitsyn as on few subjects in living memory.”15
In 1969 Solzhenitsyn suffered his first expulsion: from the Writers Union. Two open letters in his defense were circulated. One was signed by such luminaries as Arthur Miller, John Updike, John Cheever, Truman Capote, Richard Wilbur, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Kurt Vonnegut. The other bore the names of W. H. Auden, Günter Grass, Graham Greene, Alfred Kazin, Mary McCarthy, Muriel Spark, and others. A moment of crowning glory arrived in 1970, when Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Despite Soviet vilifications, even the French and Italian Communist parties praised the choice as nonpartisan.
In that same year an article appeared, which—had it not gone unnoticed—might have had a salutary effect, because it set forth a course for criticism sharply divergent from the road soon taken by most American critics. In the article, Alexander Schmemann, an American Orthodox theologian, proposed that Solzhenitsyn’s writings were rooted in the core teachings of Christianity. Schmemann saw in Solzhenitsyn “a deep and all-embracing…perception of the world, man, and life, which, historically, was born and grew from Biblical and Christian revelation, and only from it.” At the heart of this perception lay what Schmemann labeled the “triune intuition of creation, fall, and redemption.” Solzhenitsyn found Schmemann’s essay “very valuable,” because “it explained me to myself,” and the product of Soviet schools was duly grateful to the theologian who “formulated important traits of Christianity which I could not have formulated myself.”16
The first sign of trouble appeared in 1972. Solzhenitsyn circulated an open letter to Patriarch Pimen lamenting the compromised position of the Orthodox Church in the Soviet Union, and one of Solzhenitsyn’s previously unknown prayers found its way into Western print. Heretofore, relatively few commentators touched on the topic of religion even obliquely, and then mostly to express relief that his writings were not (thank God) religious. The first English version of August 1914 also appeared in 1972, and even the least religiously attuned reviewers noticed his sympathy for Russia’s Christian heritage. August 1914 “disrupted the unanimity of opinion that had enveloped his earlier works,” a “schism” that he himself acknowledged.17 Plainspoken Mary McCarthy got to the heart of the matter: “Solzhenitsyn himself, to say it straight out, is rude and unfair to a whole category of society: the ‘liberals’ and ‘advanced circles’ of 1914….He has it in for those people, just as he would have it in for you and me, if he could overhear us talking.”18 As biographer Michael Scammell would later observe, McCarthy was pointing out that “Solzhenitsyn’s novel seemed almost deliberately designed to offend the sensibilities of Western liberals—in other words, the sort of people most likely to be reviewing it.”19 (One struggles to imagine a Russian in his hidey-hole writing about 1914 and thinking, “Wait till those New York liberals read this!”)
Solzhenitsyn’s religious streak laid the groundwork for the sense of estrangement that was about to break into the open. The great Csezlaw Milosz publicly asked a rhetorical question that drilled right to the heart of the impending dissonance: “Why is it that a major Christian writer has appeared in Russia where the Christians have been oppressed for decades, while in the West, where there is complete freedom of religious practice, literature is nearly synonymous with agnosticism and moral relativism?”20 True, Solzhenitsyn’s hopes to be published in his homeland initially drove him into “concealing my features from the police censorship—but, by the same token, from the public at large. With each subsequent step I inevitably revealed more and more of myself.”21 Schmemann could pierce the veil, but other critics could not. Historian Donald Treadgold perceived one factor moving Solzhenitsyn not to tell all: “In our time Christian writers cannot expect a reception based on an understanding of their position.”22
Thus we come to the fateful year of 1974. Rumors had been circulating—and who would know more about rumors than the KGB?—that Solzhenitsyn, even while putting out big novels, had been secretly working on a big book charting the history of the Soviet concentration camp system. Sure enough, the KGB got its hands on a copy. Solzhenitsyn, having smuggled out the 1800-page work, gave the order for the Western presses to roll, and The Gulag Archipelago was soon selling in the millions of copies. For his second expulsion, the prickly fellow was sent west to be a burr under someone else’s saddle. From the throngs of well-wishers thundered a tumultuous hero’s welcome; from the omnipresent reporters came merciless hounding for juicy quotations and interviews.
The newcomer felt sadness over his eviction from home, elation for the opportunity to speak freely, and annoyance at journalists. His speeches and interviews soon made opinion leaders squirm. Like them, he spoke for liberty and against oppression, but on different grounds. They called for a limitless tolerance based on relativism; he spoke in absolutist terms of good and evil, truth and falsehood. The statement he left behind for his countrymen was titled “Live Not by Lies!” He questioned how responsibly Westerners handled their cherished freedom and democracy. Had the critics misunderstood him? Had he changed? The more they learned about him, the more something felt wrong. Maybe (as Mary McCarthy had suggested) he was not really “one of us.” The conflict between worldviews referred to by Milosz was coming into play. Uneasiness was turning into resistance.
Historically, religion has served as the cornerstone for a society’s identity. Modern secular societies, relegating religion to a private indulgence, have filled the resulting void with politics. In 1972 Solzhenitsyn became suspect because of his religion; in 1974 he became ostracized because of his politics. It might sound too coarse to say that he was faulted for not being a Western-style liberal, but that is exactly what the journalists said. From the United States alone came word that he “is no liberal” and that “he is neither a ‘liberal or a ‘democrat.’”23 (By process of elimination, he must be—oh, let’s say—“a not-very-thinly disguised Czarist.”)24 Similar assertions abound. One pundit ventured that Solzhenitsyn would have voted for Nixon over McGovern.25 The die was cast. The subsequent harrumphing about this or that insufficiency or failing in Solzhenitsyn’s views could be summarized in the verdict “not a liberal.” A negative consensus was under construction.
Occasions to firm up the negative consensus kept coming along. Solzhenitsyn’s privately sent Letter to the Soviet Leaders went public in 1974, just as The Gulag Archipelago began to reach American readers. Bizarrely, the slim Letter played a larger immediate role than the weighty Gulag in affecting Solzhenitsyn’s reputation. Respondents ignored the elementary fact of the letter’s intended audience and treated the missive as if it had been addressed to Westerners.26 Thus, when Solzhenitsyn suggested that Soviet leaders simply jettison their ideology (which they no longer believed in anyway), knowing that they would not relinquish power, American reviewers charged that he was authoritarian on principle. This error entered the bloodstream of criticism and became passed along as fact.
The commentariat’s turn against Solzhenitsyn is emblematized in the series of judgments by journalist Jeri Laber. In 1968 she bestowed unqualified praise on The First Circle as “a distinguished work” and on its author “not [as] a polemicist” but rather “the symbol and embodiment of an undaunted creative spirit.”27 When August 1914 appeared in 1972, however, she was displeased by the “spiritual attitudes” expressed in “this overtly religious novel” and drew a bright line between the man’s “exceptional courage and sincerity” and the book’s “pedantic and highly moralistic tone.”28 Then, in 1974, provoked by his Letter to the Soviet Leaders, Laber unloaded two no-holds-barred articles that reveal the fury of a liberal who once believed Solzhenitsyn was also a liberal, discovers he isn’t, and can’t admit the error is hers.
Now Laber discerned “the authentically reactionary nature of Solzhenitsyn’s political statements,” then continued: “Many Western admirers of his fight against despotism had considered Solzhenitsyn an advocate of liberal values and had, until the publication of the Open Letter, refused to acknowledge what should have been evident from a careful reading of his fiction and his earlier political pronouncements.” He was not—repeat, not—a liberal: “Reactionary, authoritarian, chauvinistic—hardly adjectives that sit comfortably with the typical image of a freedom-fighter and Nobel Prize winner.” Once Laber found his politics wanting, the quality of his literature took a tumble; she declared it “often dull and ponderous.” For literary judgments she stood behind the “many”: “many Western readers appear to find his novels heavy-handed, humorless, and monotonous.”29Vox populi, vox Dei. Furthermore, Laber scolded Solzhenitsyn for engineering his “misleadingly ‘liberal’ image” and explained that it “should not really matter” that “he is not the ‘liberal’ that we would like him to be.” Yet her central message became precisely that “Solzhenitsyn’s beliefs are, in fact, quite alien to Western liberal thought.”30
The best known of Solzhenitsyn’s American episodes was his commencement address at Harvard University in 1978. He broke into the festivities of the powerful and influential to tell of a “decline of courage” among the West’s “ruling and intellectual elites” and decried before the congregated reporters the “hastiness and superficiality…manifested in the press.” At this citadel of enlightened secular thought, he denounced the “ossified formulas of the Enlightenment” and urged a recovery of age-old spiritual and religious values. Reactions to the address were swift, profuse, and—most of them—harsh.
This time, the disapproval penetrated the consciousness of the half-informed populace. The most widely expressed opinion was that Solzhenitsyn displayed a “gross misunderstanding of Western society.” Mary McGrory wailed, “The unspoken expectation was that after three years in our midst, he would have to say we are superior, that our way is not only better, but best.” The New York Times editorialized that in truth Solzhenitsyn “believes himself to be in possession of The Truth and so sees error wherever he looks.” The gong from 1974 resounded with Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.: “Solzhenitsyn’s ideal has nothing to do with liberal democracy.”31 The mix did include a considerable number of positive responses, the most probing coming from Michael Novak, who called the address “the most important religious document of our time” and made clear that the deepest problem at Harvard that day was a clash of worldviews.32 After Harvard, America’s upper crust needed no further instruction from Solzhenitsyn, and interest in him sagged.
Solzhenitsyn fallen status manifested itself with a will when in 1980 he injected himself into the scholarly debate among Sovietologists with an essay in Foreign Affairs that promptly appeared as a book, The Mortal Danger.33 The essay castigated the revisionists for blaming contemporary Russia’s travails on alleged defects in the primordial Russian character rather than on Marxism. Chastising scholars who use “Russian” and “Soviet” interchangeably, Solzhenitsyn averred that “‘Russia’ is to the Soviet Union as a man is to the disease afflicting him.” The article’s impatient, peremptory tone was, if understandable, also counterproductive, and the responses printed in the book’s second edition belabored this rhetorical misstep.
Of much greater interest were the respondents’ contents. If there was one subject upon which Solzhenitsyn might have been considered authoritative, it was Russian life under the Soviet regime. Yet the revisionists said he had it all wrong. Robert Tucker of Princeton University judged his “basic view of communism unsound” and declared him “in no position to lecture the American and world public on the Russian view of things.” Robert Thurston charged, “Mr. Solzhenitsyn makes errors about virtually every aspect of Imperial Russian history he mentions,” and “When he turns to the Soviet Union, Mr. Solzhenitsyn’s accuracy does not improve.” Alexander Dallin of Stanford University stated that Solzhenitsyn’s article “abounds in…misconceptions” about both Russia and America.34
The Mortal Danger was the first fusillade in the all-but-declared open season on Solzhenitsyn. The prize for viciousness goes to George Feifer for “The Dark Side of Solzhenitsyn.” Feifer catalogued Solzhenitsyn’s offenses against enlightened opinion but emphasized defects of character and temperament: his “zealous missionary mentality,” his “personal despotism,” his “bullying other people,” his “demonic energy,” his “posture of moral superiority.” Feifer told of an American who called Solzhenitsyn “the most immoral man I know.”35 As it happens, Feifer coauthored an early biography of Solzhenitsyn that depicted quite a different character. This Solzhenitsyn had an “essentially gentle” disposition: “‘easygoing,’ ‘genial,’ ‘even-tempered,’ and ‘kind’ are the adjectives most often used by those who know him well.” He embodied an “instinctive gregariousness and unfeigned curiosity in others’ interests and opinions.” When the other “side” was revealed, it didn’t seem very dark: Solzhenitsyn is “the prickly, uncompromising artist with the saintly ideals and somewhat monkish asceticism” who is not “wholly free of eccentricity.”36 If by 1974 Solzhenitsyn was deemed a great man but not a great artist, by 1980 the great man vanished, too.
Solzhenitsyn’s standing reached its nadir during the 1980s. He withdrew from the American limelight and stuck to his mission of writing. His 1982 speeches in Japan and Taiwan passed almost unnoticed, and his important Templeton Lecture in London in 1983 drew limited attention. However, the critical mills did not completely stop grinding, and in 1984 Michael Scammell published his mammoth biography.37 Based on assiduous research, it remains an indispensable repository of information about Solzhenitsyn, yet it also functions as a megaphone for the received opinion shaped during the 1970s. Biographer and subject had a falling out, and as the volume progresses Scammell’s animus increasingly takes over until, in the closing section, he delivers an utter travesty of Solzhenitsyn’s bedrock commitment, his Christian faith. This deeply flawed biography is both the most influential work on Solzhenitsyn and a fitting monument to the 1980s as the lowest point in his status.
The end of that decade heralded one of history’s greatest turning points. First the Soviet bloc disintegrated, and then the Soviet Union vanished into history’s abyss. No one had worked harder than Solzhenitsyn to delegitimize the Soviet experiment at home and abroad; the unanswerable Gulag Archipelago demolished the state’s ideological foundations. Awareness that Solzhenitsyn had played a role in reaching the endgame began to insinuate its way into the public record. Joseph Epstein, for one, marveled, “One man alone, without the aid of weapons, a party, or even a movement behind him, took on the most systematically brutal regime the modern world has known and, without even benefit of support in the realm of public opinion, brought it to its knees.”38
David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, went deeper: “In terms of the effect he has had on history, Solzhenitsyn is the dominant writer of this century.” Remnick explained later that no other writers of any time had been “able to do so much through courage and literary skill to change the society they came from. And to some extent, you have to credit the literary works of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn with helping to bring down the last empire on Earth.”39 The old scolds, though now muted, were not done with Solzhenitsyn; but the grounds for minimizing him shifted discernibly. The charge that Solzhenitsyn was wrong about things gave way to the charge that he was irrelevant, the death of his nemesis having made him a relic. This new approach was inherently flimsier than the old. Who ever claimed that the end of the American Civil War made President Lincoln irrelevant? A person who significantly influenced a significant historical event cannot be demeaned into insignificance. Such a person belongs not to the past but to the ages.
The surest sign that the old animosity was becoming passé in the 1990s was that even rancid fulminations incorporated concessions that Solzhenitsyn’s writings had influenced the course of history. The above-mentioned essayist who mocked the “sandwich-board old man” now allowed that The Gulag Archipelago “must stand as the book of the 20th century, if you have to choose one.”40 Another critic, in a column genially titled “Shut Up, Solzhenitsyn,” broke into his welter of scorn long enough to acknowledge that The Gulag was the book that “tolled the death knell for the Stalinist security state, and consequently for the Cold War.”41 The writer who called Solzhenitsyn “a joke clinging fiercely to a world that no longer exists” granted that “literature is not a popularity contest, and when it mattered most, Solzhenitsyn delivered the goods” and was therefore “one of the century’s most important writers.”42 Increasingly, routine references simply took Solzhenitsyn’s influence for granted. The squalls of yore no longer informed all mentions of Solzhenitsyn.
Solzhenitsyn’s death on August 3, 2008, naturally set off many profiles and retrospectives, some of them long. The collective result was not entirely predictable: the dominant note was firm praise. The decorum of not speaking ill of the recently dead went only so far toward justifying the reprise of early times when Solzhenitsyn was celebrated as a courageous individual and great writer. The alienation of the 1970s was treated more often as factual background than as a theme requiring elaboration. When the day for final grading came, jibes and attacks were not allowed to eclipse a vision of grandeur and enduring achievement. Some commentators, looking to update the record, referred to Russian politics, particularly the relationship between Solzhenitsyn and Putin. However, most of these references were superficial, some were grossly misleading, and almost none delved into the subtleties of Solzhenitsyn’s attitudes. The most common refrain was admiration for Solzhenitsyn’s influence on the course of history. Literary works, by contrast, were shortchanged. Only The Gulag Archipelago echoed through the obituaries, and even here few writers demonstrated familiarity with its textual details.
The greatest defect of the commemorative articles was that the cultural gatekeepers had not kept up. Much of Solzhenitsyn’s mind had been revealed since the 1970s, but it was as if the wardens of culture had dropped out of the chase and lost the scent. The most astounding instance of this failing was the absence of November 1916, a thousand-page volume published in the United States in 1999, from these memorials. Here was the second of four nodes (or knots) of The Red Wheel, Solzhenitsyn’s magnum opus. One might have expected at least the reviewers who panned August 1914 to review how its successor volume stacked up. This deficiency of knowledge cannot be glossed over, for it yields a strangely incoherent account of Solzhenitsyn. The elegists showed less knowledge of evidence supporting their praise than of opinions at odds with it. Still, what matters most is their sense that Solzhenitsyn’s achievement is infused with a certain greatness and majesty, even while they come up short on the reasons why. On balance, the obituaries are heartening not because they make a good case for valuing Solzhenitsyn but because they intimate a case for reconsidering him. Since so much American commentary on Solzhenitsyn has been awful, the generally favorable tone of the obituaries must be considered a step forward, though not a great leap ahead.
Granted, a strain of disparaging opinion was pulled from the files and put into fresh print. The New York Times remained true to its relentless unfriendliness toward Solzhenitsyn. Yet its long article presents considerable straight narrative of his life story, and readers who knew too little to spot its factual errors could find the account inspiring.43 More notable was the harmonious chorus of appreciation from many other papers. From the Washington Post: Gulag is Solzhenitsyn’s “monumentally damning masterpiece,” and its “impact on the moral legitimacy of the Soviet regime was so corrosive, and so irrefutable, that it can be said to have sown the first seeds of the Soviet Union’s eventual collapse.”44 From the Boston Globe: “The writer brought to his exile in Vermont a seer’s prescient conviction that the Soviet Union would fall, and that he would return to his homeland.”45 The Chicago Tribune, after noting that Solzhenitsyn helped bring down the USSR, appended that “his own work deserves a significant share of the credit for making [his return to Russia] possible.”46
The Wall Street Journal offered, “Solzhenitsyn fortified the West with the truth and will to triumph in the Cold War.” And it put in a good word for the Harvard Address: “his diagnosis of threats to the West—not least those from within—remains bracing.”47 The editorial board of the Christian Science Monitor gave a nuanced reflection on his influence: “His literary labors did not have a direct cause and effect in the downfall of the Soviet Union. But his most famous works [Gulag and One Day]…arguably did more than any other writings to make the slow boil of Soviet-bloc discontent—and nonconsent—boil over and eventually force out communist rule by 1991.” It also took note of the moral purpose of his art: “as he knew, the power of the pen to move and change thought lies in its message. The truth of the written word can work in human consciousness to help it climb further.”48 The Washington Times also touched on metaphysical matters: “Mr. Solzhenitsyn was not simply a formidable critic of a failed political ideology, he also presented an alternative world view,” and followed it with an amplification on Solzhenitsyn’s Christian faith and its ramifications for society both East and West.49
As the odometer of generations turns, Russia is demonstrating measurable respect for Solzhenitsyn. His books are required reading in schools. A televised series of Russian classics places In the First Circle in the company of top titles by Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Pasternak, and Bulgakov. A street in central Moscow now bears Solzhenitsyn’s name. With the first generation of post-Soviet scholars reaching maturity, Russia is forging into the lead in producing systematic scholarship on him. There as here, old controversies have faded.
Where does all that leave the United States? With considerable catching up to do—and with this good news: new materials are now available, and more are coming. A second batch of Miniatures, an exquisite genre that readers of the long works could hardly imagine Solzhenitsyn capable of writing, appeared in 2001. The Solzhenitsyn Reader: New and Essential Writings 1947–2005 (ISI Books, 2006), offers the American public the widest range yet of his writings gathered into one volume, and texts new to English comprise more than a quarter of its contents. The uncut version of In the First Circle has now, finally, been translated into English; it has an October 13, 2009, release date.50 Solzhenitsyn’s record of his two decades in the West is currently under translation. Efforts are underway to bring into English the “binary tales” that Solzhenitsyn wrote late in life. And let this point sink in: more than half of the gargantuan stack of pages he composed have yet to be translated into English.
Philadelphia Inquirer book critic Carlin Romano was prompted by his familiarity with The Solzhenitsyn Reader to offer a piece of advice: “A fine antidote to [the] simple-minded pigeonholing of Solzhenitsyn—as the brave anti-communist who later went off the deep end—is, as the author suggested, to read his work, particularly his later writings, which are not remotely as one-note as shibboleths about him suggest.”51 The forthcoming appearance of the unexpurgated In the First Circle just may show Romano to be a harbinger of a new day for Solzhenitsyn among Americans. Those who joined the resounding applause for the censored version of 1968 (who knew it was censored?) will thrill to the (even better) authentic version. How we Americans react to this exceptional novel will say something about Solzhenitsyn, but much more about us.
This article appears in a special issue devoted to revisionism. In recent decades much damage has been done to scholarship under the flag of revisionism. But the term is not intrinsically evil, and sometimes changing one’s mind is exactly what one should do. In the case of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, what is needed now is a good, strong dose of revision.