Fifty years ago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn was in the midst of the fight of his life. Having already survived World War II as a Russian officer on the eastern front, a divorce from his university sweetheart, and eight years in the Gulag Archipelago because he wrote some letters to his friend in which he claimed to love socialism but which were judged to prove he just didn’t love socialism enough, he was now being threatened with potential re-imprisonment and, in his opinion, the more serious threat of having his novels censored from the reading public. In fact, many of his drafts and notes had already been seized by the KGB and his novel The Perfect Circle had been rejected for publication, presumably due to pressure from communist party officials on the writers union. Now, his novel Cancer Ward (Oh yeah, he also had cancer while in a prison camp) was facing the same treatment. For Solzhenitsyn, enough was enough.
What do you do when murderous psychopaths who wield the power of life and death begin to threaten you with a permanent vacation to Siberia where you will enjoy making clay bricks with your bare hands while feasting on a starvation-diet? Do you shut up, keep your head down, and burn all your manuscripts? If you’re Solzhenitsyn, you actually create a plan of action that is quite the opposite. Here, in a few easy (frighteningly death-defying) steps, is how to take down a repressive authoritarian government with the power of your art.
So, corrupt Neanderthalish government officials want to censor your work? No problem, just distribute full copies of the manuscript via samizdat! This time-honored, entirely illegal form of publication under repressive regimes that prefer to control the written word never fails to gather a reading public. Soon enough you will have enough notoriety that publishers in the “Capitalist Pig” areas of the world will begin printing your work for you. Solzhenitsyn eventually began using this form of publication preemptively to ensure that if his novels ever were published, the editors would not be able to selectively remove what they perceived to be offensive passages.
- Public letters of complaint to literati and journalists
On May 16, Solzhenitsyn wrote to a gathering of fellow Russian writers to complain about, “The no longer tolerable oppression, in the form of censorship, which our literature has endured for decades.” He went on, “Works…are proscribed or distorted by censorship on the basis of considerations that are petty, egotistical, and…shortsighted.” The response of the powers-that-be? They basically did that thing where a petulant child sticks his fingers in his ears and pretends not to hear when you tell him to brush his teeth. Solzhenitsyn wouldn’t let them off the hook, though, and penned another letter: “Does the Secretariat believe that my novel will disappear as a result of these endless delays, that I will cease to exist…?” After being told that the answer was essentially, Yes, yes we do hope that you cease to exist, he reminded them that the novel was actually already being read in samizdat form (because, preemption). He went on to note that his work was not so much a political work as it was a look at “universal and eternal questions.” Of course, this very concept of universal truth is precisely what Marxists refuse to admit exists since everything falls under the rubric of class struggle. So to them the mere fact of an artist talking about universal truth is very much a political attack.
- Public attacks on the KGB
Is your public feud with the entirety of your professional class not dangerous enough? Why not up the stakes and make a run at the secret police too? Solzhenitsyn, after having already been in the Gulag for 8 years and actually seeing it effect him spiritually for the better, wasn’t afraid of returning if need be*. After having half a dozen of his speaking engagements cancelled due to, as he discovered upon his arrival to speak, “Author’s Indisposition,” he finally managed to overcome his imaginary illnesses and arrive at a speaking engagement at which the audience hadn’t been warned away. He took his chance. To a crowd of five-hundred, he proclaimed, “There is a certain organization that has no obvious claim to tutelage over the arts, that you may think has no business at all supervising literature–but that does these things. This organization took away my novel and my archive…Even so, I said nothing, but went on working quietly…What can I do about it? Only defend myself! So here I am!”
In fact, he could do much more than he imagined, because as the KGB understood well enough, his literature was powerful beyond words, communicating a depth of despair and truth that had sunk into the hearts of the Russian people and would never be extracted by any amount of force or propaganda. A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch had become a day in the life of all Russians. They’d all been touched by the pain of the Gulag in some form or another. Up until this moment, the secret had been kept, a sort of conspiracy between abuser and abused. But Solzhenitsyn, in speaking so boldly, finally broke the spell. At grave risk to himself (the KGB attempted to assassinate him in a ricin attack), he created one of the first chinks in the armor of the Communist Party.
- Soak up the Slander
If you can’t censor a writer, you can at least slander him mercilessly. According to Joseph Pearce’s biography A Soul In Exile, the editor of Pravda gave a speech in which he called Solzhenitsyn, “A psychologically unbalanced person, a schizophrenic.” He goes on to declare, “Of course we cannot publish his works.” This was but one of many slanderous accusations that he was a traitor and a capitalist pig. A few years later at a meeting of the Writer’s Union, he was systematically attacked, labeled “anti-social,” and finally kicked out of the Union. It was this final act of anti-free speech behavior that finally caused international sympathizers with the Soviet experiment to finally break ranks. Soon enough, criticism from intellectuals such as Jean Paul Sartre, Arthur Miller, and Kurt Vonnegut were made public. Now, as Pearce writes, Solzhenitsyn was, “a living symbol of the struggle for human rights in the face of state censorship.” This point was driven home triumphantly when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970. Solzhenitsyn was unable to retrieve his Nobel for fear of never being let back into Russia, so he sent a printed speech. In it, he reveals the reason that a mere writer could cause so much discomfort among the political powers.
The task of an artist is to sense more keenly than others the harmony of the world, the beauty and the outrage of what man has done to it, and poignantly to let people know…By means of art we are sometimes sent—dimly, briefly—revelations unattainable by reason. Like that little mirror in the fairy tales—look into it, and you will see not yourself but, for a moment, that which passeth understanding, a realm to which no man can ride or fly. And for which the soul begins to ache…
Truly, an artist who reveals truth through beauty is stronger than any government and any artificially constructed set of beliefs that would lay claim upon us. Art reveals to us who we are, and such a truth cannot be silenced. Cheers to Alexander Solzhenitsyn for his bravery, his wit, his perseverance, and most of all for his poignant, honest, heartbreaking art.
*This reminds me of the legend of St. John Chrysostom, who had become such a thorn in the side of the Emperor that government leaders wanted to throw him in jail. Upon being advised that he would actually like that because it would allow him more uninterrupted time to pray, they decided to make him Patriarch of Constantinople instead.
All the credit for sourcing this essay goes to Joseph Pearce and his excellent biography, Solzhenitsyn: A Soul In Exile.