Tuesday, August 5, 2008

On Sunday, the great Russian dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, died of heart failure at the age of 89. Mr. Solzhenitsyn transcended the usual designations: novelist, social critic, historian, spiritual and moral giant. He was renowned for his moving portrait of the gulags, or the Siberian labor camps during the Soviet empire that annihilated millions of people. With tremendous courage and moral clarity, he bore witness to the plight of the victims of communism; he depicted the evil of totalitarianism. In his masterpiece works such as “The Gulag Archipelago” and “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” Mr. Solzhenitsyn awakened the West to the horrors of “utopia” gone awry. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970.

Mr. Solzhenitsyn was not simply a formidable critic of a failed political ideology, he also provided an alternative worldview. His writings were rooted in an Orthodox Christian faith that he grasped viscerally, from experience in suffering with Christ. During his eight years as a prisoner in the gulag (1945-53), he came to understand the fundamental beauty and paradox of Christian teaching: The worst of times - or the greatest suffering - are also the best of times. There, in his tiny cell, as he wrote in the “Gulag Archipelago,” he was closer to the beatific Christian vision than he had ever been before, or ever would be. Years afterward, when he came into the full light of freedom, he longed for that cell, that cell in which he ascended toward God and found his greatest serenity. It is ultimately Mr. Solzhenitsyn’s grasp of such eternal verities that will render his work enduring for centuries to come.

His writings helped expose and bring down an empire. Yet, he could not find solace in the societies that emerged. The late-20th century, either in Russia, met with his constant disapproval. He upheld Christian ideals throughout his life, and thus, neither post-Soviet Russia nor the wealthy, consumer American society in which he lived for 18 years (1976-1994) lived up to his standards. He regarded wealthy, capitalist American society as hopelessly enmeshed in an immoral and hedonistic culture; and he regarded post-Soviet Russia, to which he returned in 1994, as rife with crime, corruption, greed and lasciviousness. It failed to live up to his dream. He lamented in both East and West the loss of faith.

In dying, he is exalted because he did not waver in his faith. His invocation for freedom will continue to ring loudly.

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