Randy's Corner Deli Library

04 August 2008

What Do You Stand For?: An Appreciation of Aleksandr Solzhenytsin

I think I was 16 or 17 or so when I picked up the first volume of Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago. I ultimately read all three volumes, but it took me several years to do so, thick as the writing was. I still have the yellowed paperbacks in my library. I picked up that first volume after my high school literature class read A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch. I don't remember exactly what the attraction was, though it was clear from Denisovitch that concentration camps did not die with the Nazis. I thought it was unbelievable that gulags or labor camps could exist at the same time I did. It also had something to do with the fact that at around that time, I was madly in love with a Russian girl, Irina, whose family escaped Odessa; she loved blue jeans and Pink Floyd. I was interested in why she would want to leave her country as I could never believe that I would have to leave mine for the same reasons. I became fascinated with the fatalistic sense of humor that she had, and which I found out later that most Russians shared and which, I determined, I, too, shared. After all, it was my grandfather Mandel Shiner who had fled Eastern Europe (Galicia) to avoid being conscripted (they were in for 25 years, thank you very much) into the czar's army, so I wanted to see for myself what kind of society had taken the place of the one that was so hostile to Jews in particular. We shared a disaffection for large organizations such as, for example, the KGB. As Jews, we are a "low church", which is to say that our religion is very decentralized, unlike, for example, the Catholic Church, whose base is located in the Vatican. Jews are by and large free thinkers, even if all the thought that comes out isn't of the highest quality.

Thus began my love affair with Russian literature and life in the Soviet Union in general. I remember reading loads of Dostoyevsky - The Idiot - Prince Myshkin haunts me still - as well as The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment as well as accounts of life behind the iron curtain by Hedrick Smith, who wrote a book entitled, aptly enough, The Russians. There was Chekov's "Uncle Vanya" and "The Cherry Tree" and Pasternak's Dr. Zhivago, all of which I am sure contributed mightily to my sense of social melancholy and appreciation of irony and love of contradiction that I carry with me to this day.

I was obssessed with the Gulag Archipelago. There was something slightly revolutionary about reading a memoir that had to be smuggled out of the country of its origin. It was forbidden fruit, if you want, and this fact gave it an aura of immediacy and intensity. I read with horror at the things for which Stalin and his successors, Krushchev and Brezhnev could send social misfits on a permanent vacation in Siberia or worse. While I'd studied the Holocaust, it hadn't occurred to me that, in its own way, the Russians had endured their own holocaust, too; and what was so frightening is the feeling I had that it was still going on - people being sent away for speaking their minds, doing what they wanted - all the things that we Americans took (and still very much take) for granted.

Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, but did not go to Stockholm because he was afraid that the Soviet authorities would refuse him re-entry into the country that he adored and which consumed him. His acceptance address was widely circulated (a feat in pre-internet days)smuggled out no doubt in false bottomed suitcases or cleared through exit inspections with not a little bribery. As part of his acceptance, 'he wrote that while an ordinary man was obliged “not to participate in lies,” artists had greater responsibilities. “It is within the power of writers and artists to do much more: to defeat the lie!”' http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/04/books/04solzhenitsyn.html?ref=europe#

Solzhenytsin died at the age of 89. He knew well personal tragedy that was of his own making. He could not abide the lie. He paid dearly for principle. Which is why his life and his death, whose nearness he was not afraid of, is so remarkable and speaks so loudly to me today. Deported from the Soviet Union in 1974, he moved to the US and established a residence in Vermont, as I recall, but never stopped, not for a minute, "trying to defeat the lie." As much as he was a thorn in the side of Soviet Authorities, he was likewise as brutally honest at what he perceived to be the lies that the West was and remains possessed of and which continues to feed us today: materialism, narcissism, nihilism and the rest of the usual suspect isms. Through it all, he remained a Russian and in 1994 he left the US to return to Russia after the fall of Communism. He was a Russian.

This was a man who stood for something: as a man, he did not want to participate in the lie. As an artist, he fought and was punished horribly for trying to defeat them.

What are we Americans of whatever persuasion to learn from Solzhenytsin's life and death? We need only review the catastrophe of a government and social structure that we in the US have allowed to exist in this country to see that we have all collectively participated in the lies and the actions based on them.

I am currently reading a general history of the events of 1968 by Mark Kurlansky, entitled, aptly enough again, 1968. To imagine that young people in this country were so enraged against what they correctly viewed as a racist, imperialistic society and government that they would take to the streets seems impossible today to even think about. Sure, there have been protests, but they have been muted. To imagine students in Paris and across Europe protesting their societies and governments from behind and in front of barricades, fighting with police seems quaint in today's world. To imagine that the Prague Spring could occur today is an absurd notion, is it not? Americans in 1968 drove Lyndon Johnson out of the White House, but caused the rise of the paranoid right, embodied in Richard Nixon and his intellectual progeny. In 1968, there were, according to some quick research, about 35,000 American dead in Vietnam. Over the course of the next five years, until the last helicopter left the US Embassy in Saigon, another 23,000 Americans would die. http://www.archives.gov/research/vietnam-war/casualty-statistics.html

It's evident that in 2008, too many Americans are afraid to stand for anything out of fear of being "politically incorrect". Or a fear of being branded as "unpatriotic" or "un-American". Or who are so deeply invested in lies that to fight them means self-destruction. Those who do stand up are as ostracized as much as is possible in a country that thankfully runs only one set of detention facilities, that being in Guantanamo, Cuba. The lies that we have become too comfortable living with arise out of fear not of being politically incorrect, but what political incorrectness means to our lives if words spur action: the loss of business opportunities, income and social standing. Look around you: how are people who question the system in this country treated? With disdain, hatred and derision. Look at what happened to Cindy Sheehan some years back when she went very public in her condemnation of the war in Iraq before that, too, became politically correct. She was painted as a psychiatric patient. There are other examples, but hers pops to mind immediately. We have, all of us, become participants in the lie; we are all "Good Germans", as I wrote in this space some time ago.

We can look back on Solzhenitsyn's life and body of work and see clearly what he stood for. I do not know where you stand in your life's chronology, but in mine, I've come to the age where, unlike some of my contemporaries who have given up or who are just bored or who think that they do not matter any more, it is thanks in some consciously inexplicable part to my love affair with Russian literature and history that I do what I can to stand for something other than the notion of "getting along" just to get along. What that something is is a work in progress, but it is, I hope, not nothing as with too many people I am too well acquainted with these days. Character traits and actions demonstrating commitment, honor, loyalty, integrity, kindness, trustworthiness or dare I say faith, are not things that any of us should be afraid of but which, unfortunately owing to the social consequences of doing so to the extent we might in our daily lives, we are. Which is not to say that I am perfect, and if I seem as though I am lecturing, rest assured that the lecture is largely self-directed and aspirational.

It is a waste of a person's life to not stand for anything. Too many people go through the motions of life, standing for nothing, running on a tank empty of meaning, caring not a whit if they leave a legacy of which they can be proud, a legacy that is larger than they are as mere humans. Inside all of us is the ability to transcend ourselves in order to give meaning to the world and to truth and then only incidentally yet naturally to ourselves. It is the striving for meaning in a world that defies it that gives us what we call our humanity, and without it, we are not fully human.

If there is one thing that I want to leave my son, it's the notion that, like Solzhenytsin, you cannot participate in the lie. And because he is an artist, it's his responsibility, according to Solzhenytsin, to defeat those lies wherever he can and to be proud to know that there is a truth out there somewhere that everyone knows; it's just a matter of how we individually and collectively choose to distort it that makes the lies possible. On second thought, I will have to differ somewhat with Solzhenytsin: to the extent that living is itself an art - G-d knows it is not science - we all have an obligation to put the truth out there for all to see; we all have an obligation to defeat the lies that we know are lies but which, in the battle, might somehow inconvenience us or cost us money or worse. Is that too high a price for our souls? How much does personal integrity cost?

As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet: "to be or not to be - that is the question". Will we choose to "be" like Solzhenytsin or will we choose to "be" participants in the lie? That is the question of our age.

Randy Shiner

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