Alexander Solzhenitsyn has been in my dreams a lot of late. I have read much and throughout this most mild of winters past I have fallen asleep with the gulag, the prison, Siberia and the steppe. There has been, I think, something of a relevance gap around Solzhenitsyn since his death in 2008, but the bleeding away of his stature has been going on since his return to Russia in 1994. It’s pretty understandable; the bulwark of his moral weight against the Soviets was relevant only as long as the Soviets themselves had weight. Solzhenitsyn’s fondness for Putin with his shirt off and Russian nationalists generally may also have had something to do with it.
The works remain. Lots of works, pages and pages, fiction and non-ish fiction, in many translations and editions. Thanks to the Cold War libraries are chockfull of Solzhenitsyn, even the poems. The short things are best: A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is something marvellous, an immersion in horror and a celebration of being alive enough to know horror when we see it. So alive, so loving, so hopeful: these are the strongest weapons in the moral armoury and he never deploys them with quite the taut significance again. “Matryona’s Home” too is something wondrous, a dense world of silent hope and foreboding, even when nothing happens.
Many of the short stories are crafted with concentrated, calculated, openness such that their wandering suggestiveness begins to equip the words with a turning away, a shunning of other readers, regulatory readers be they Soviet or otherwise. The spaces, the vast steppe, of possibility that these stories conceal but not quite are the most understated of moral denunciations, they declare awful narrowness of the choices offered and the poverty of life that results. This is a literary vein not without application to our happy non-Soviet lives.
The Gulag Archipelago is extraordinary, and it is not to be trifled with. To read it is something like a promise, an act of faithfulness, to proceed in the face of horror and loss. To read it, to be in it, is to undergo repeated, awful, sensations of loss and harm. The horror is not grandiose fathomless evil. Not too much in the way of spectacle, more the overlay of a thousand shadows on a black and white screen. But those shadows seep through, cutting and shocking in their attack upon the practice of living. As the winter grew darker there were nights when there seemed no end to the willingness of the Soviet state to do harm and no end of people(s) to do it to.
In the future, in some hallowed hall of learning where endowments have ensured that speculative and improbable research can still take place, and incredibly literate young person will do a comparative study of The Gulag Archipelago and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. They have more than a passing similarity; their representations of endlessness are of a pair. Foster’s middle America is a kind of Siberia, a vast playground for the banality of evil. When the time comes I should like to read that study, then again maybe I wouldn’t.
Throughout all those ponderous novels, weighty slabs of sometimes indigestible prose (like sides of beef frozen in the dark north); the core issue is not giving into the lie. The lies of the state, the party, their lackeys and organs with their mesmeric totality saying this is good, this right, this is the best thing we can have, this is the world. For Solzhenitsyn language is a deep shield against the lie, a jarring defence and a mode of self control, an active force for good and a staving off of the imposition of another lie. He does not resist, he builds his world of words and that world is not of the lie, the lie has no space. This is the gift of Solzhenitsyn, the model of open dissidence. No Carlos style heroics here, just a man inventing a world in words and never giving ground.
I want to be a dissident too.