Feb/Mar 2009

Prophet Margin


Dear Editor:

I’d like to address some of the hostility Keith Gessen shows toward Alexandr Solzhenitsyn while allegedly reviewing The Soul and Barbed Wire: An Introduction to Solzhenitsyn by Edward E. Ericson Jr. and Alexis Klimoff (“Calamities of Exile,” Dec/Jan 2009).

Gessen writes that Solzhenitsyn “lived his life in the mode of a biblical prophet.” This stretch of rhetoric skirts Solzhenitsyn’s Marxist views from the age of twelve through the Second World War and into the camps (which, incidentally, he did not enjoy seeing, as Gessen wickedly thinks he seems to), where his beliefs ran into severe opposition. The process of entering the gulag and meeting other free-speaking prisoners changed Solzhenitsyn’s views, and he then reacquainted himself with the Orthodox Church. Implying that Solzhenitsyn’s entire life was biblical denies the biographical facts set out in many of his works and in the book under review. Any committed Christian can be described as de facto biblical, and therefore the word has no special significance when applied to Solzhenitsyn.

Gessen states that Solzhenitsyn “moved to a small town, far from Moscow,” after being released from the camps. This is wrong. Any reader of The Soul and Barbed Wire, books by Solzhenitsyn, or books on Solzhenitsyn would know that after being released from the camps, he was internally exiled for three years to Tashkent, during which time he underwent cancer treatment. Only after those years could he move to Ryazan by his own choice.

The feeling that Gessen is an unreliable guide to Solzhenitsyn’s life deepens on considering this sentence: “It was only after Khrushchev was well into his anti-Stalinization campaign that Solzhenitsyn decided he could submit his work for publication.” This makes it seem like Solzhenitsyn was merely waiting for a change of editorship at the nearest publisher. Substituting the words “it was perhaps safe to submit” for “he could submit” would be closer to the truth. Gessen has erased the qualitative difference and removed the historical context.

Gessen further says that the Soviet government removed Solzhenitsyn from the USSR in 1974 as “an act of generous humanity.” In the book under review, where this “external exile” is hoped to generate some portion of goodwill for the USSR, the very next sentence reveals more of the motives of the man behind the strategy: “[Yuri] Andropov hoped further that Solzhenitsyn would lose his status and significance once he found himself in the West.” Gessen presents half of the reason and believes he has made a whole argument.

Finally, and predictably, Gessen judges that Solzhenitsyn’s Two Hundred Years Together (2001) is “not anti-Semitic in the sense that it calls for the Jews to be killed, but the problem with it is”—quoting Ericson and Klimoff—that Solzhenitsyn hopes “‘Russians and Jews can move toward reconciliation.’” Not only is Solzhenitsyn not calling for Jews to be killed, he wants Russians and Jews to admit they’ve treated each other terribly and then to show and ask for forgiveness. How this is anti-Semitic, or even evokes the thought of anti-Semitism, is unexplained. Is Gessen unable to contemplate reconciliation?

On finishing the review, a reader interested in finding out what arguments The Soul and Barbed Wire offers, how it is structured, and what it contains remains ignorant of these basic matters. Mostly, Gessen peddles a scornful and mean-minded characterization of Solzhenitsyn. The closest he gets to discussing the book is when he calls ISI Books a “quasi-academic press” and the book “quasi-academic” and “pure hagiography.” These are assertions bereft of the underpinning of analysis or evidence. Gessen works hard to remove Solzhenitsyn—and supporters such as Ericson, Klimoff, and ISI Books—from the literary picture through half quotations, inaccuracies, and misrepresentation, reminiscent of how Soviets worked at scrubbing people from history.

Jeff Bursey
Charlottetown, PE, Canada

Keith Gessen responds:

Anyone who emerges from my piece on Edward Said and Alexandr Solzhenitsyn believing that I am hostile toward Solzhenitsyn can only believe that any form of skepticism is an act of outright aggression at their sainted battler against godless Communism—which, incidentally, is also the position of the Solzhenitsyn book I was reviewing.

Mr. Bursey makes a little much, I think, of the fact that I said Solzhenitsyn moved to Ryazan after “the camps”—he was still a prisoner in Tashkent, if no longer a camp prisoner—but I apologize for the misleading formulation. The rest of the objections in Mr. Bursey’s letter are matters of interpretation, but there is one thing it appears I should have been clearer about. The Russians, as a people, have engaged in anti-Semitic violence for centuries; what I can’t understand is in what sense, exactly, the Jews, as a people, can be said to have “treated” the Russians “terribly”—unless you think, as I’m afraid Solzhenitsyn thought, that the Bolshevik Revolution was at some level an act of aggression against the Russians by the Jews.

The broader point of my piece is that we should not let the Russian right claim or define an invaluable writer like Solzhenitsyn any more than we should let the posthumanist postmodernists, or the neo-humanist medievalists, or even frankly the humanist liberals, claim Edward Said. The same goes for the American right and Solzhenitsyn. Most readers of his books can see that he was sometimes an infuriating writer, and other times a prophet, but that he was never a saint.

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