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The Soul of Solzhenitsyn | An Interview with Joseph Pearce, author of Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile | Ignatius Insight | May 20, 2011

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Ignatius Insight: When did you first discover Solzhenitsyn? What attracted you to his writings?

Pearce: Solzhenitsyn became famous in the 1960s when I was a child. In consequence I grew up with the figure of Solzhenitsyn looming large as a legendary hero against Soviet totalitarianism. I read The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn's exposť of the Soviet system's treatment of political dissidents, when I was a politically active teenager in the 1970s. Solzhenitsyn has been a favorite writer of mine ever since.

Ignatius Insight: How did this biography come about? Why were you compelled to tell the story of Solzhenitsyn's life?

Pearce: As with so many of my books, I was initially prompted or provoked by the inadequacies and injustices of existing biographies. In Solzhenitsyn's case, I felt that Michael Scammell's biography failed to pay due attention to Solzhenitsyn's Christian faith and its importance to Solzhenitsyn's work. I also felt that Scammell and other writers had failed to understand Solzhenitsyn's Christian political perspective and were too uncritical of western liberalism. I felt that I could write a biography that would show the centrality of religious orthodoxy to Solzhenitsyn's vision and its challenge to western liberal assumptions. I hope and believe that my biography has succeeded in presenting the political and religious heart of Solzhenitsyn.

Ignatius Insight: You've remarked about how significant it was for you to be able to meet Solzhenitsyn in person. When was that and what came out of that time together?

Pearce: I had the inestimable honour of meeting Solzhenitsyn at his home near Moscow in the summer of 1998. It remains one of my most cherished memories. My time with the great man and his family was crucial to the book that I would write. It enabled me to address many of the issues and to ask many of the questions that were unasked and unanswered in earlier biographies.

Ignatius Insight: Solzhenitsyn was born in 1918, the same year that the Bolshevik party consolidated power. How was his youth and early thought shaped by the Revolution?

Pearce: As with most people of his generation he was utterly brainwashed by the communist education system and became a dogmatic Marxist and an atheist. It would take his personal experience of the brutality and injustice of the Soviet regime to open his eyes to the ugly reality of communism.

Ignatius Insight: Was eventually changed his thinking about communism? And what role did Christianity play in his eventual rejection of communism?

Pearce: He met with dissidents of various political and theological hues during his years of imprisonment and these helped him to ask the necessary questions about the nature of political justice and moral philosophy that enabled him to grow beyond the confines and constraints of Marxist ideology. Solzhenitsyn had already rejected communism as an ideology before embracing Christian orthodoxy but his conversion enabled him to move forward into a worldview that harmonizes with the Catholic Church's teaching on subsidiarity.

Ignatius Insight: You note how Solzhenitsyn was not just a polarizing figure in the Soviet Union, but, more surprisingly, was also controversial in the West. Why was that so?

Pearce: Solzhenitsyn understood that the communist East and the capitalist West had more in common than they realised. Both systems were fundamentally materialist in their respective philosophies. Solzhenitsyn's devastating critique of the hedonism and decadence of the modern West, particularly in his controversial Harvard address in 1978, heralded the fact that he was a prophet not merely of the evils of communism but of the evils of atheistic materialism in all its guises.

Ignatius Insight: What is your recommendation for those wishing to start reading Solzhenitsyn?

Pearce: At the risk of being guilty of self-promotion, I would say that my biography is a good place to start. It serves as a good introduction to Solzhenitsyn's life and thought and offers a panoramic overview of his writings. Having cut their teeth on my biography, I would recommend One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich as a short and densely-powerful introduction to the full horrors of life under communism.

Ignatius Insight: Where does Solzhenitsyn rank as a literary figure? As an intellectual, cultural warrior, and political critic?

Pearce: Solzhenitsyn is a writer of the first order who deserves the Nobel Prize that was bestowed on him, unlike many other far less worthy recipients. He is a noble heir to the tradition of Russian fiction epitomized by the Christian humanism of Dostoyevsky. As an intellectual, he is indubitably one of the greatest thinkers of the twentieth century; as a cultural warrior he is an inspiration for everyone fighting for the culture of life in our nihilistic times; as a political critic, he is one of the most articulate advocates of the Christian alternative to the dead-ends of Big Government socialism and Big Business globalism, a champion of the subsidiarist principles at the heart of the Church's social doctrine.



PREFACE TO THE SECOND EDITION

My meeting with Alexander Solzhenitsyn at his home in Moscow in 1998 ranks as perhaps the greatest honor of my life. At the time, the great Russian writer and Nobel Prize winner was approaching his eightieth birthday. My biography, therefore, was a timely tribute to a life well-lived, a life of courage in the face of tyranny, a life of true heroism. It was, however, a life that was still being lived, a life that still had a good deal of life in it. Solzhenitsyn would live for a further ten years, a full decade, in which he resolutely refused to retire and in which he remained a controversial figure in Russia, and indeed throughout the world. Since Solzhenitsyn's life was far from finished when I wrote about it, my "life" of him was also, ipso facto, an unfinished work. This second edition is, therefore, the final version of a biography of which the first edition was only a precursor. Containing four additional chapters and some important revisions, the present volume offers a panoramic perspective of the whole of Solzhenitsyn's life, all eighty-nine years of it, and a testimony and tribute to his achievement and his legacy.


PREFACE TO THE FIRST EDITION

If any twentieth-century literary figure has been the victim of media typecasting, it is Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Whenever his name is mentioned, it is almost invariably accompanied by the same stereotypical characterization. He is, we are reliably informed, a prophet of doom, an arch-pessimist, a stern Jeremiah-like figure who is out of touch, out of date, and, worst of all in our novelty-crazed sub-culture, out of fashion. He is also, we are told, irrelevant to the modern world in general and modern Russia in particular.

Perhaps this attitude to the Russian Nobel Prize winner was epitomized by George Trefgarne in an article entitled "Solzhenitsyn Loses the Russian Plot" in the business section of the Daily Telegraph on June 6,1998. "Alexander Solzhenitsyn proved again that he is never happier than when he is thoroughly miserable", Trefgarne wrote. "His impassioned critique of the new Russia displays the sense of doom, disaster and history you would expect from a survivor of the Soviet Union and a Nobel prizewinner. Solzhenitsyn believes Russia has overthrown the evils of communism only to replace them with the evils of capitalism." Mr. Trefgarne's article ended with the statement: "Alexander Solzhenitsyn is a better writer than he is an economist." Yet why, one is tempted to ask, should this disqualify the writer from commenting on his country's problems? Did Dickens have nothing of importance to say about the squalor of Victorian England? Did George Orwell have nothing to say about the dangers of totalitarianism? Compared with the literary light which these writers were able to throw on controversial issues, the weakness of much of the analysis in the business sections of newspapers is only too apparent. Indeed, Mr. Trefgarne's own article was a case in point. He stated that "Solzhenitsyn and the doommongers could have exaggerated their case" because the new and dynamic Russian prime minister, Sergei Kiriyenko, was revitalizing the ailing Russian economy with a "decisive package of measures". With an ingenious use of statistical data, Trefgarne painted a rose-tinted picture of Russia's future, which reminded one of Solzhenitsyn's complaints that his country's troubles were forever being "covered up . .. by mendacious statistics".

Only two months after Trefgarne's article had predicted that Russia would soon live happily ever after, Sergei Kiriyenko was sacked, his "decisive package of measures" was abandoned, and the whole Russian economy collapsed cataclysmically, sending shockwaves around the world. George Trefgarne had become only the latest in a long line of critics who had discovered to their own cost that it was perilous to dismiss Solzhenitsyn so lightly.

Yet even if Solzhenitsyn is right, the critics insist, he is still irrelevant because nobody is listening to him. "It is little consolation that his prophecies of catastrophe are fulfilled", wrote Daniel Johnson in the Daily Telegraph on December 12, 1998. "He is unheard." These words, written the day after Solzhenitsyn's eightieth birthday, were not completely true. To commemorate his birthday, two documentaries were shown on Russian television, one of which was broadcast in hourly installments on three consecutive nights. A third documentary was blocked at the last moment, after Solzhenitsyn complained that it included unauthorized footage of his private life. In the same week, the celebrated cellist and composer Mstislav Rostropovich conducted a concert in Solzhenitsyn's honor at the Moscow Conservatory, and a dramatized version of Solzhenitsyn's novel The First Circle was being staged at one of Russia's leading theaters. Finally, when, as part of the birthday celebrations, President Yeltsin sought to award Solzhenitsyn the Order of St. Andrew for his cultural achievements, the writer controversially refused to accept the honor in protest of Yeltsin's role in Russia's collapse. "In today's conditions," he said, "when people are starving and striking just to get their wages, I cannot accept this reward." He added that perhaps, in many years' time when Russia had overcome its seemingly insurmountable difficulties, one of his sons would be able to collect it for him posthumously. [1] Clearly, Solzhenitsyn, even as an octogenarian, was still capable of causing a great deal of controversy. Furthermore, the intense interest which his eightieth birthday aroused both in his homeland and in the media around the world contradicts the claims that he is either forgotten or irrelevant. On the contrary, seldom has a writer attracted so much publicity, both good and bad, throughout his life. Vilified or vindicated, loved or hated, Solzhenitsyn remains a provocative figure. Now, as he approaches the twilight of his life, it would seem timely to look back over the past eighty years. With the added insight provided by a recent in-depth interview with the writer himself, it is hoped that this book will help unravel Solzhenitsyn in a way that gets beyond the facts to the underlying truths underpinning his life, his work, and his beliefs.

Exactly who is Alexander Solzhenitsyn? The following pages will not only address this beguiling question but will, I hope, provide the beginnings of the answer.

ENDOTES:

[1] New Yorker, Digital Edition, August 6, 2001.



Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile

by Joseph Pearce

Also available as an Electronic Book Download

Revised, Expanded Edition


Based on exclusive, personal interviews with Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Joseph Pearce's biography of the renowned Russian dissident provides profound insight into a towering literary and political figure.

From his pro-Communist youth to his imprisonment in forced labor camps, from his exile in America to his return to Russia, Solzhenitsyn struggled with the weightiest questions of human existence: When a person has suffered the most terrible physical and emotional torture, what becomes of his spirit? Can science, politics and economics truly provide all of man's needs?

In his acclaimed literary and historical works, Solzhenitsyn exposed the brutality of the Soviet regime. Most famous for his novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and his three-volume expose of the Russian police state, The Gulag Archipelago, he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970.

Solzhenitsyn's Christian faith deeply informed his response to the inhumanity of modern materialism as it took shape in twentieth- century Russia. His critique applies not only to Communism, however, but also to the post-Christian capitalism now dominant in the West. On the spiritual, cultural, and socio-political level, his writings still have much to teach the world.

This book also contains a gallery of rare photographs.

"The publication of this updated version of Joseph Pearce's biography of the great Russian writer is most welcome, indeed. With impressive clarity, Pearce conveys the fullness of a life lived at the service of freedom of the will and service to the truth. Where other critics and biographers have lamented Solzhenitsyn's departure from the modern progressive consensus, Pearce allows Solzhenitsyn to speak for himself. He presents an evocative portrait of a "pessimistic optimist" whose final words are catharsis and hope. The four new chapters in this edition give a good sense of the range of Solzhenitsyn's concerns during the last decade of his life and will correct many misunderstandings."
-Daniel J. Mahoney, Author of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The Ascent From Ideology  

"Pearce has grasped with great insight the spiritual core of Solzhenitsyn's achievement as a writer, and indeed as a prophet to Russia and the world. He writes with warm sympathy for Russia's greatest literary voice in modern times."
-David Aikman, Author, Great Souls: Six Who Changed the Century

"Joseph Pearce is best on what matters most about Solzhenitsyn: the centrality of the author's Christian faith. It is no wonder that Solzhenitsyn chose to . . . provide Pearce with fresh information. Newcomers to Solzhenitsyn should start with this biography. They will find here a highly readable rendition of one of the most sensational lives of the twentieth century."
-Edward E. Ericson Jr., Author, Solzhenitsyn and the Modern World



Joseph Pearce is the prolific author of several acclaimed biographies of major Catholic literary figures, including G. K. Chesterton, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Hilaire Belloc, as well as several other works. He is a Writer in Residence and Professor of Literature at Ave Maria University in Florida, Editor-in-Chief of Ave Maria University Communications and Sapientia Press, as well as Co-Editor of the The Saint Austin Review (or StAR), an international review of Christian culture, literature, and ideas published in England (St. Austin Press) and the United States (Sapientia Press).

Pearce is also editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions, a tradition-oriented alternative to popular textbook series such as the Norton Critical Editions or Oxford World Classics, designed to concentrate on traditional readings of the Classics of world literature.




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