This picture sits on my desk. It is a picture of Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn taken in the Gulag sometime in the early 1950’s. I don’t intend to do an unauthorized biography in this post, instead I want to share why he is my hero.
Apart from the fact that he is a Nobel Prize winner for Literature, and apart from the fact that he, more than any other dissident, helped pave the way for the dissolution of the old Soviet empire, and apart from the fact that he is a great writer, I think most of all, it is because he was a genuinely good man.
Good men are, I believe, still to be found. The thing is–and it’s part of what makes them good–that they don’t feel the need to blow their own horn. They go about quietly changing the world, only occasionally doing so loudly, and only when called for.
Good men are innately heroic. Rarely does heroism involve snatching someone from a burning building. More often than not, heroism manifests in an unwillingness to give in to a lie despite the prevalent societal pressures to do so. The ability to stand and say that the current fashionable trend is wrong, or evil, no matter the personal cost, is heroic.
At a time when the world was blind to the evils of the Soviet system, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn spoke out. He saw it as his duty to his beloved Russia and his fellow Zeks, to tell the world about the horrors of the Gulag. The fact that he did so while an inmate, and later in exile, is all the more amazing. While in the camps, he wrote by memorizing what he wanted to say and then writing out the text on tiny pieces of paper, in even tinier script whenever he could. All this under the brutally repressive regime of the prison camps.
Later, he risked re-imprisonment by publishing works that pushed or surpassed the line demarcating what the regime would tolerate. He gave courage to others to join him in this work; to make their own stand. He felt that an artist motivated by truth and understanding was specially suited to be heroic. In his Nobel lecture on Literature he said this:
“Another artist realizes that there is a supreme force above him and works away gladly as a small apprentice beneath God’s heaven, even though his responsibility for everything he writes or draws and for the souls which perceive it is all the more strict. But still: it was not he who created the world, nor is it he who provides it with direction, and he has no doubts of its foundations. The artist is only given to sense more keenly than others the harmony of the world and all the beauty and savagery of man’s contribution to it–and communicate this poignantly to people. And even in the midst of failure and down at the lowest depths of existence–in poverty, prison illness–the sensation of stable harmony will never leave him.”
…Friends! If we are worth anything, let us try to help! In our own countries, torn assunder by the discord of parties, movements, castes, and groups, who is it who has from the earliest ages been a force not for disunity but for unity? This in essence is the position of writers: the spokesmen for their national language–the principal tie binding together a nation, binding together the very Earth occupied by people, and in fortunate cases their national soul also.
I think that world literature has it within its power in these frightening hours to help humanity know itself truly despite what prejudiced people and parties are attempting to instill; to communicate the condensed experience of one region to another in such a way that we will cease to be split apart and our eyes will no longer be dazzled, the units of measurement on our scales of values will correspond to one another, and some peoples may come to know the true history of others accurately and concisely, and with that perception and pain they would feel if they had experienced it themselves–and thus be protected from repeating the same errors.
…Simple is the ordinary courageous human being’s act of not participating in the lie, of not supporting false actions! What his stand says is: ‘So be it that this takes place in the world, that it even reigns in the world–but let it not be with my complicity.’
Writers and artists have a greater opportunity: TO CONQUER THE LIE! In battle with the lie, art has always been victorious, always wins out, visibly, incontrovertibly for all! The lie can stand up and win out over much in the world–but not over art.
And as soon as the lie is dispersed, the repulsive nakedness of violence is exposed, and violence will collapse in impotence. And that is why, my friends, I think that we are capable of helping the world in its white-hot hour of trial. We must not reconcile ourselves to being defenseless and disarmed; we must not sink into heedless, feckless life–but go out to the field of battle.
In the Russian language there are some favorite proverbs on TRUTH. They express endearingly the immense folk experience, and are sometimes quite surprising:
‘One word of truth outweighs the whole world.’
And so it is that my own activity is founded on so apparently fantastic a violation of the law of conservation of energy and mass, as is my appeal to the writers of the whole world.”¹
Solzhenitsyn was a humble man but had no tolerance for fools, liars or cowards. Still, his compassion for his fellow man is evident in his writing. Never is there a trace of self pity. Very often there are tinges of humor. To me, these are characteristic of someone who possesses great empathy for souls. And for all this he is my hero.
God rest you Aleksandr Isayevich!
¹A.I. Solzhenitsyn, “The Nobel Lecture on Literature”, translated by T.P. Whitney, (New York: Harper & Row, 1972) 3, 35, 37-38