August 3, 2008


-REVIEW: of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The Ascent from Ideology By Daniel J. Mahoney (Robert P. Kraynak, First Things)
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Russian writer and former Soviet dissident, is not yet dead, but he is in danger of fading into oblivion in the West and of being dismissed as a crank in his own country. This is a terrible shame. For Solzhenitsyn is one of the giants of the twentieth century-a heroic witness to truth who resisted Communist tyranny and exposed the horrors of Soviet forced-labor camps in The Gulag Archipelago. He is also a powerful novelist whose works of historical fiction-The First Circle, August 1914, Cancer Ward, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich-depict the enduring struggles between good and evil in the human heart.

If these achievements are not enough to save Solzhenitsyn from premature death, then one can read Daniel Mahoney's inspiring new book Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The Ascent from Ideology to appreciate the philosophical and spiritual reasons for keeping him alive. The most important reason, Mahoney tells us, is Solzhenitsyn's understanding of "the permanent propensities of the modern mind"-namely, the fatal attraction to utopian ideologies and the totalitarian temptation to radically alter human nature. Solzhenitsyn not only dissects these propensities; he also provides a way out-an "ascent from ideology," in Mahoney's words, that aims at healing the human soul by recovering the God-given natural order of things as well as the spiritual basis of political freedom.

In presenting a reasoned defense of Solzhenitsyn, Mahoney joins a distinguished group of scholars, including Edward Ericson and Alexis Klimoff, whose mission is to rehabilitate Solzhenitsyn in Western eyes. Their task is formidable, because most Westerners have accepted the demonized caricature of Solzhenitsyn as a Russian "ayatollah," a Tsarist reactionary, a nationalistic extremist, and, to boot, an anti-Semite.

These scholars must also contend with the bias of modern intellectuals against any attempt to portray Solzhenitsyn as a spokesman for responsible political freedom. As Mahoney points out, "Contemporary intellectuals and journalists will not tolerate any serious challenge to the enlightenment or progressivist assumptions underlying modern liberty." What he means is that Western intellectuals are intolerant because they are hardly aware of decent alternatives to the secular theories of freedom and rights flowing from the Enlightenment. Hence, it is almost inconceivable to them that Solzhenitsyn could hold traditional beliefs about God, Orthodox Christianity, the mystical basis of the Russian nation, and the soul's eternal destiny while also being a spokesman for responsible political freedom (meaning constitutional limits on power, moderate nationalism, private property, and local self-government). And yet this is the real Solzhenitsyn, according to Mahoney, not the demon of Western journalism. [...]

Mahoney begins by arguing that the most reliable statement of Solzhenitsyn's political views is not the sensational Harvard Address of 1978 but rather the largely ignored Liechtenstein Address of 1993. This is a bold and original way to interpret Solzhenitsyn. The Harvard Address created a huge stir because it criticized Western liberal democracies for their loss of courage during the Vietnam War and for their adherence to legalistic rights without moral restraints. The Harvard Address was strident (though also powerful and inspiring, in my view) and seemed to offer no third way between the spiritual exhaustion of Western democracy and the tyranny of Soviet communism.

The later Liechtenstein Address continues the criticism of modern Western life, challenging its notion of progress for diminishing the human soul by glorifying materialism and trivializing death. Yet the address also sounds a new theme by praising the moral strengths of Western democracy-especially Ronald Reagan's inspiring political leadership that enabled the West to win the Cold War, as well as the constitutional restraints on power that protect personal liberty. The mature Solzhenitsyn, Mahoney demonstrates, is a man capable of prudent political judgment who clearly recognizes that political freedom is indispensable for survival as well as for spiritual renewal.

Mahoney locates a crucial element of Solzhenitsyn's political teaching in his analysis of Peter Stolypin, the Prime Minister of Russia from 1906-11. Solzhenitsyn's appreciation of Stolypin has been largely unknown because it appears in the second edition of August 1914: The Red Wheel I (1989), which few have read. What Solzhenitsyn claims in the Stolypin chapters is that a moderate alternative to Tsarist autocracy existed in Russia in the early twentieth century-namely, a peaceful evolution toward a European-style constitutional monarchy under the enlightened statesmanship of Prime Minister Stolypin.

The main features of Stolypin's plan were the preservation of the Romanov dynasty and Orthodox Church, combined with economic and political reforms-reforms that would have given land to peasants and established local self-governing councils. Tragically, Stolypin was assassinated by terrorists who feared the success of his plan (which Solzhenitsyn estimates could have created an independent peasantry in twenty years and prevented Communist revolution). Mahoney's analysis shows Solzhenitsyn to be a Burkean-style admirer of constitutional monarchy that gradually evolves toward ordered liberty while preserving his nation's distinctive traditions.

Had Mr. Solzhenitsyn been content to demolish the legitimacy of the Soviet Union, his contribution to mankind would have been more than sufficient. That he also showed us the rot creeping into the foundations of our own culture makes him one of the most extraordinary men of our time. [originally posted: 2003-05-30] Posted by Orrin Judd at August 3, 2008 4:10 PM
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