Solzhenitsyn sons salute an artist foremost (Carlin Romano, 11/12/06, Philadelphia Inquirer)
Like many great writers who outlive their regular presence in the media, Solzhenitsyn is unfamiliar to many younger American readers. Older ones know him as the writer who introduced us to the word gulag – a Russian abbreviation for Soviet concentration camps. Solzhenitsyn served eight years in forced-labor camps after being arrested in 1945 for criticizing Stalin in letters to a friend.
So the Union League event, attended by many students affiliated with ISI, a Wilmington-based institution devoted to “educating for liberty,” also allowed attendees to reflect on how the world’s best-known writer in the early ’70s embodied the claim of a character in The First Circle that “a great writer is, so to speak, a second government of his country.”
Confronting one misconception, Ignat acknowledged that his father considers Orthodoxy “an integral component of Russian history, of Russian identity. To erase that, to pretend it to be otherwise, is to do a great disservice to the Russian future.”
“Having said that,” Ignat added, “never, ever, anywhere, in a speech, in a book, in an essay, has he proposed any kind of a theocracy.”
Stephan said that to think so ignores his father’s complaint that the Russian Orthodox Church ended up “effectively under the thumb of government” from Peter the Great on. “But that, too,” he lamented, “always gets ignored.”
Asked what their father thinks about Russia under Vladimir Putin, increasingly criticized for suppressing democracy in Russia, both stressed a brighter side.
“I would say it’s his view,” Stephan replied, “that the 1990s were a period of chaos and destruction for the great majority of the population, and he views that as a calamity… . The restoration of some modicum of order doesn’t mean that Russia has come nearly far enough or that it has cured its problems or that it’s not corrupt. He recognizes that. But it’s a great improvement over what you might call the Yeltsin period. And he’s also stated many times that what we have in Russia today is certainly not democracy.”
“Nor,” Ignat intervened, “was it ever a democracy in the ’90s, which is to say we still want to get to democracy, but let’s not pretend we ever had one.”
Both sons tire quickly of political questions. They want to stress what Stephan calls his father’s “extraordinary artistry.”
“I would urge any reader of this book,” Stephan said, “to get away from ‘views’ and toward the literature.” Ignat emphasizes his father’s early poetry, which he read to the gathering. “Obviously,” he said, “there are views and moral judgments being made, but first and foremost it’s an artistic endeavor.”
We were eager enough to hear the first part of his message, but not the second.