If Americans think of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, they think of him as a negative person–full of doom and gloom, cursing the future. Russians often view him as a political hero, who stood up to the Communist regime. However, if he only has political importance, then after the fall of the Berlin wall, he should fade into obscurity. In accord with Natalia Dmitrievna (Mrs. Solzhenitsyn), Professor Emeritus of Calvin College Edward Ericson has insisted on the literary merit of Solzhenitsyn’s work and promoted the importance of his worldview for lasting questions and permanent things.
For first elucidating the worldview of Solzhenitsyn, Ed credits Alexander Schmemann, a Russian-American theologian. However, it is Ed who has recently perpetuated the study of this great author’s worldview by editing a volume entitled Solzhenitsyn: Thinker, Historian, Artist: Western Criticism, 1974-2008 (Solzhenitsyn: Myslitel, Istorik, Khudozhnik: Zapadnaya kritika, 1974-2008) published by Russkii put, a Moscow publishing house. The work draws together Western scholars’ essays on the worldview of Solzhenitsyn and has been translated into Russian and published by a Russian publishing group for Russian readers.
Natalia Dmitrievna conceived the idea for the book in 2007 and this March 2011 hosted a launch of the book in Moscow. Scholars and critics vied for the opportunity to critique the book at this public forum, and there was enthusiastic appraisal by the Russians for this work. Natalia Dmitrievna open the proceedings, and then concluded them with the showing of an exclusive video presentation of Solzhenitsyn’s acceptance of the Nobel Prize in Stockholm in 1974, four years after he received the award. He had been recently exiled from the Soviet Union.
When a few of us went to dinner on Friday evening, Natalia Dmitrievna spoke about her husband’s arrest and subsequent exile. She asked us if we wanted to see the apartment in which he was arrested, and she took us there in a taxi. As we drove out from the alley in which the restaurant was situated, St. Basil’s lunged into view. It reminded me of turning the corner in Florence and facing the Duomo. Such historical and beautiful monuments impress themselves upon me like eternity stamping the present. When I stood in Solzhenitsyn’s entryway, I tried to imagine the past—his story, his moments, his suffering—but it evaded me as had Dostoevsky’s and Bulgakov’s memories in their vacant homes.
Like those great Russian authors, Solzhenitsyn will live through his work. Mrs. Solzhenitsyn has abridged his The Gulag Archipelago into an accessible volume for Russian high school students, where it is assigned in literature classes. She does not smile when she tells us of this required reading because she fears a battle has been lost in schools; students are studying business and computers more than literature. I tell her that I still consider myself fighting on the front lines, trying to offer hope to a woman whose husband has given me hope.
In the preface of the version of The Gulag Archipelago that Ed abridged for non-Russian readers, Solzhenitsyn writes, “Alas, all the evil of the twentieth century is possible everywhere on earth.” Then he adds, “Yet I have not given up all hope that human beings and nations may be able, in spite of all, to learn from the experience of other people without having to live through it personally.” Often in his various works, the note of hope has been Solzhenitsyn’s final word, and here he connects it with the power of literature to remind us of the past and change the future.