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A Book Review… Solzhenitsyn Remembered

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By JUDE DOUGHERTY

Congdon, Lee. Solzhenitsyn: The Historical-Spiritual Destinies of Russia and the West. DeKalb, Ill.: NIV Press, 2017; 163 pp.

This book is descriptive of the prophetic voice of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008), who was convinced that the West has set out on a road similar to that which “led Russia into the abyss.” Solzhenitsyn first came to attention of the Western literati in 1962 with the publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the only book he was allowed to publish while in the Soviet Union.
That was followed years later by his acclaimed Gulag Archipelago. In 1970 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature “for the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature.”
In telling Solzhenitsyn’s story, Lee Congdon points out that Russia never experienced the Renaissance or the Reformation. What sets her apart from the West is her Orthodox faith. It defines her sense of nation, history, and identity.
“When men forget God,” Solzhenitsyn held, “Communism or a similar catastrophe is likely to be the fate that awaits them.”
In his 1973 Letter to Soviet Leaders, of which a personal copy was sent to Leonid Brezhnev, he rhetorically asked, “Could the Soviet leaders not see that it was ideology, the Progressive World View that led the regime to act in ways contrary to the interests of the Russian people?” He told Brezhnev that Christianity was the only living spiritual force capable of undertaking the spiritual healing of Russia.
That did it. Solzhenitsyn, within hours, was put on a plane to Frankfurt am Main and what would be twenty years of exile in the West.
The Western left was appalled when it discovered that Solzhenitsyn in his defense of the Old Believers was not merely a nominal Christian but a committed Orthodox Christian. The Old Believers were followers of Archpriest Avvakum, who refused to accept the seventeenth-century reform of Orthodox texts and ritual. Although he did not have a favorable opinion of the Church hierarchy, Solzhenitsyn expressed admiration for the courage and faith of the humble parish priest and the Russian faithful to whom he administered.
Congdon explains, “There were many reasons for Solzhenitsyn’s defense of the Old Believers, including their political conservatism, opposition to Western influence, and readiness to flee the ‘permissiveness, disorder, and lack of religious piety’ that they encountered in the densely populated urban areas.”
From Frankfurt, Solzhenitsyn in 1975 visited Paris where he was heralded as a great and prophetic writer. Later, he traveled to North America, first visiting British Columbia and Alaska, which, Congdon reports, appealed to him because of its harsh climate and because it was formerly a Russian possession. Then, too, it was in Alaska that the Russian Orthodox first evangelized the native populations of North America.
His journey down the Pacific coast took him next to Stanford, where the Hoover Institution made him an honorary fellow. June 30 finds him in Washington, D.C., where, speaking to members of the AFL-CIO, he told them that in their dealing with Soviet leaders they should be aware that Soviet leaders respected only firmness and held in contempt those who constantly gave into them.
Otherwise, his message was the same: The West may soon be faced with a fate similar to that experienced by Russia.
Returning to Europe in 1976, he gave an interview to BBC in March of that year. Solzhenitsyn told his listeners that he did not regard the West as a model for post-Communist Russia. England, he reminded his audience, had forced the repatriation of 100,000 Soviet citizens at the close of World War II, most of whom Stalin put to death. At Nuremberg, he maintained that British and Western elites “exhibit an inexplicable sympathy for revolutionaries and terrorists, and contempt for any reference to spiritual regeneration.”
He then added this piece of advice: “We the oppressed peoples of Russia, the oppressed peoples of Eastern Europe, watch with anguish the tragic enfeeblement of Europe. We offer you the experience of our suffering: We would like you to accept it without paying the monstrous price of death and slavery that we have paid.”
In Spain, he had good words for the authoritarian rule of General Francisco Franco’s government. Needless to say, the world press subjected those remarks to endless criticism.
When, in 1976, it came to choosing a place to rest, he picked Vermont for a home.
Invited to give Harvard University’s Commencement Address in 1978, he spoke of the West’s spiritual exhaustion.
“The West,” he said, “is so obsessed with human rights that it has forgotten human obligation. Its freedom has degenerated into license, its ‘media’ fills minds and souls with gossip and nonsense, its popular culture serves only to coarsen and degrade, its people exhibit an unthinking sympathy for socialism and its excessive rationalism and philosophical materialism undermines its ability to recognize evil, and destroys the habit of spiritual reflection. . . . Westerners have placed too much hope in politics and social reform, only to find that they were being deprived of their most precious possession, their spiritual life.”
Westerners may say, “It will never happen here.” But it can, he said, and as an old Russian proverb has it, “When it happens to you, you will know it is true.”
One must applaud Lee Congdon, emeritus professor of history, James Madison University, for this timely volume. It follows several of his acclaimed books: Exile and Social Thought, Seeing Red, and George Kennan: A Writing Life. He also coedited a two-volume work on the Hungarian Revolution.

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