Personally, I know of no one else who read Solzhenitsyn’s “Gulag Archipelago” at Galena Park High School in the early 70’s, but I could be wrong. Well, I guess I was weird, but I loved this guy. He came as close to being a modern day Old Testament-type prophet as anyone I’d ever known of. He despised the communist system and yet, at the same time, most notably in a speech given at Harvard in 1978, ranted and raved against the materialistic excesses of the Western democracies. In the 80’s, I was what they referred to as a “Cold War Warrior”, and at that time his writings took on an added, personal significance. Well, according to his son, Mr. Solzhenitsyn died today at his home in Moscow. Here’s a quote from an article by Barbara de Munnynck, a Slavic languages expert, published in the Flemish newspaper De Standaard on December 8, 2006:
“Solzhenitsyn is no longer in fashion. It’s because of the recent political upheavals. Simply put, this man by his nature stands apart from all fashion. Though known as a political writer, he’s closer to a religion-inspired moralist. He often critiqued the Soviet dictatorship from a spiritual point of view, not in the name of an alternative political idealogy. Measured against the yardstick of Solzhenitsyn’s ethical criteria, neither the West nor the New Russia has any worth. For these reasons Solzhenitsyn might be considered merely a grumpy old man or a perinnial dissident. No matter: his attitude toward life, one of coherence, commands respect. It was forged under trying circumstances and has certain things in common with the Christian humanism of St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Edmund Burke. Solzhenitsyn is a venerable prophet whose message exists beyond the passage of time. The enthusiasm for him personally during the Cold War was as strange as the disinterest in him today.”
Here is an excerpt from 1973’s The Gulag Archipelago:
Following an operation, I am lying in the surgical ward of a camp hospital. I cannot move. I am hot and feverish, but nonetheless my thoughts do not dissolve into delerium, and I am grateful to Dr. Boris Nikolayevich Kornfeld, who is sitting beside my cot and talking to me all evening. The light has been turned out, so it will not hurt my eyes. There is no one else in the ward.
Fervently he tells me the long story of his conversion from Judaism to Christianity. I am astonished at the conviction of the new convert, at the ardor of his words.
We know each other very slightly, and he was not the one responsible for my treatment, but there was simply no one here with whom he could share his feelings. He was a gentle and well-mannered person. I could see nothing bad in him, nor did I know anything bad about him. However, I was on guard because Kornfeld had now been living for two months inside the hospital barracks, without going outside. He had shut himself up in here, at his place of work, and avoided moving around camp at all.
This meant that he was afraid of having his throat cut. In our camp it had recently become fashionable to cut the throats of stool pigeons. This has an effect. But who could guarantee that only stoolies were getting their throats cut? One prisoner had had his throat cut in a clear case of settling a sordid grudge. Therefore the self-imprisonment of Kornfeld in the hospital did not necessarily prove that he was a stool pigeon.
It is already late. The whole hospital is asleep. Kornfeld is finishing his story:
“And on the whole, do you know, I have become convinced that there is no punishment that comes to us in this life on earth which is undeserved. Superficially it can have nothing to do with what we are guilty of in actual fact, but if you go over your life with a fine-tooth comb and ponder it deeply, you will always be able to hunt down that transgression of yours for which you have now received this blow.”
I cannot see his face. Through the window come only the scattered reflections of the lights of the perimeter outside. The door from the corridor gleams in a yellow electrical glow. But there is such mystical knowledge in his voice that I shudder.
Those were the last words of Boris Kornfeld. Noiselessly he went into one of the nearby wards and there lay down to sleep. Everyone slept. There was no one with whom he could speak. I went off to sleep myself.
I was wakened in the morning by running about and tramping in the corridor; the orderlies were carrying Kornfeld’s body to the operating room. He had been dealt eight blows on the skull with a plasterer’s mallet while he slept. He died on the operating table, without regaining consciousness.
And again, in his own words, he leaves nothing else to be said following this observation of the modern world:
“The problems of both East and West are a disaster rooted in agnosticism and atheism. It is the calamity of an autonomous, irreligious humanistic consciousness. It has made man the measure of all things on earth – imperfect man, who is never free of pride, self-interest, envy, vanity, and dozens of other defects. We are now paying for the mistakes which were not properly appraised at the beginning of the journey. On the way from the Renaissance to our days we have enriched our experience, but we have lost the concept of a Supreme Complete Entity which used to restrain our passions and our irresponsibility.”
Alexander Isayevich Solzhenitsyn: Born December 11, 1918 in Kislovodsk, Russia. Died August 3, 2008 in Moscow, Russia.