How are we to understand the fall of the Soviet Union in general and, in particular, the role played in it by Alexander Solzhenitsyn? To answer this question, we can perhaps look to the United States of America. In 1974, the USA was leader of the Free World. It was also in the last throes of its humiliating defeat in Vietnam and facing challenges to its moral view of itself from the civil rights movement, black power and the ideal of unlimited freedom proposed by the “hippies”. To Solzhenitsyn it would all have been eerily reminiscent of the condition of the Russian empire in February 1917. In conjunction with cold warriors like Jesse Helms and Henry Jackson, he set about stiffening the US’s moral backbone. The backbone was duly stiffened and by the end of the decade Zbigniew Brzezinski was arming conservative Muslim tribesmen in Afghanistan. The Helms/Jackson tendency triumphed with the election of Ronald Reagan, and we saw the introduction of the term “evil empire” into diplomatic language (possibly influenced by Solzhenitsyn), the mining of the ports of Nicaragua, the invasion of Panama and the threat to develop military technology to a degree far beyond the capacity of the Soviet Union to compete (“Star Wars”). The Soviet leadership responded by trying to outmanoeuvre the Americans politically with a policy of at least apparent openness and compromise which its rigid, sclerotic structure (described so well by Solzhenitsyn) could not sustain.Another direction to look in might be that of the ruling class in the Soviet Union, which, partly because of increased exposure to the West, was realising that its already comfortable lifestyle could become much more comfortable, even opulent, if only it could rid itself of the ridiculous pretence that it existed to serve the interests of the working class. Perhaps by convincingly demonstrating the moral rottenness of the foundations of the Soviet system, Solzhenitsyn relieved the apparatchiks of the moral obligation to provide work, education, health services and housing for the masses, thereby freeing them to devote themselves with even greater assiduity to feathering their own nests. The well-appointed flat could become an ostentatiously luxurious penthouse. With a clear conscience.Either way, it is by no means certain that Solzhenitsyn would derive unmixed pleasure from the success of his efforts. His book The Little Grain Managed to Land Between Two Millstones is due to be published in English at the end of this year (it has been available in French since the 1990s). The two millstones are the Soviet Union and the US, or more generally, “the West”. They are admittedly millstones of unequal weight. His complaints against the US are largely to do with problems over copyright and royalties which ‑ though it is understandable that they are of great interest to him ‑ are of little interest to most readers. Nonetheless there is an increasing awareness that his campaign against communism has been used by people who are not exactly friends of a hypothetical noncommunist Russia, people whose main concern is the projection of US power throughout the world. Solzhenitsyn had been brought up on a diet of Soviet anti-US propaganda, so he was inclined to see the US in a favourable light. In the 1970s, his main complaint was that it wasn’t tough enough in asserting what he believed were its own values. In the 1980s he largely retired from public view to concentrate on what he regarded ‑ rightly in my view ‑ as his most important work, The Red Wheel. In the 1990s, as the Soviet Union collapsed, he launched into a final battle against the policies that were being adopted under American influence.His major response to the end of the Soviet Union was published in Russian and French (as La Russie sous l’avalanche) in 1998. It appeared in English (as Russia in Collapse) in an edition published by the American conservative Intercollegiate Studies Institute in 2006. It seems to be already out of print. Here are some interesting extracts (I am using my own translation from the French edition):I would never compare Gaidar [Yegor Gaidar, Russian prime minister in 1992 and architect of the “shock therapy” reforms] to Lenin ‑ a question of scale. But they have, all the same, one thing in common. Both of them behaved like the fanatic who, blinded by his preconceived idea, seizes his scalpel and without the least hesitation begins to cut and cut again into the body of Russia. Six years further on the expression of smug self-satisfaction on the face of this politician shows not the slightest shadow of embarrassment, though he has thrown into poverty tens of millions of his compatriots, wrecking their savings and thereby reducing to nothing the foundations of this famous “middle class” which he swore he would create …Privatisation was enacted throughout the country with the same blind madness, the same destructive haste, as the nationalisation of 1917-18, and the collectivisation of 1930 … The industrial complexes of the Soviet era were often so enormous that no one could think of putting them into the hands of a single owner. All the same, Chubais’s [Anatoly Chubais, economist and politician in charge of privatisation in the 1990s] team cut them into twenty or thirty pieces with, as a consequence, the breaking up of unified technological cycles and the paralysis of each, now isolated, part (certain military industries knew the same fate. Paralysed by this process of being dismantled they found themselves partially linked to foreign firms, which had their own considerable interest in the matter, by means of “joint ventures”. It isn’t difficult to see the consequences that will produce for our national defence) …the American people’s reputation for generosity ‑ entirely deserved ‑ was extended with no justification to the government at Washington, selfish and calculating as all governments are, and, after the collapse of its Soviet rival, more and more drawn by ambitions of hegemony to control the whole planet …It is the New Russia which has contributed to this transformation of the universal mind according to which, from now on, the military intervention of a great power in no matter what part of the world is no longer described as an “aggression” but as an “effort to restore stability” … In dragging us into the world of international finance, they [the International Monetary Fund ‑ PB] are dragging us ‑ we who are in such a fragile state ‑ into financial crises that have nothing to do with us and which we could have avoided …Solzhenitsyn would have been acutely aware of the resemblance between contemporary events and the collapse of Russia in February/March 1917, which is the central drama of The Red Wheel. The work is divided into four “knots” ‑ August 1914, November 1916, March 1917 and April 1917. August 1914 and November 1916 have both been published in English, but the core of the series is March 1917 ‑ four large volumes giving a day by day account of the course of the February Revolution, the abdication of the tsar and the simultaneous creation in Petrograd of a “bourgeois” provisional government and a working class “soviet”. [In 1917 Russia was still using the Julian calendar, hence the discrepancy of a month; according to the Gregorian calendar the “October Revolution” actually took place in November.]April 1917 comes in two volumes. The first of these, covers Lenin’s arrival in Petrograd ‑ the occasion of the famous “April Theses” ‑ and the beginnings of a major crisis over the refusal of the foreign affairs minister, Paul Milyukov, to renounce, and call on the allies to renounce, imperialist aims in the war as demanded by the Petrograd soviet. The second volume, still available only in Russian, takes the story through to the resignation of Milyukov and the formation of a new government, in which the Social Revolutionary Alexander Kerensky, as war minister, was the dominant figure. The definitive version of August 1914 (a shortened version had been published shortly before The Gulag Archipelago) included a long section “From previous knots”, showing the events that had led to the war, centred on the career of Nicholas II’s first minister, Peter Stolypin, and his assassination in 1911. Similarly, the second part of April 1917 includes a selection of subsequent knots which, presumably, will tell the story of the creation of the Soviet Union.It is obvious that this is not a novel in the normal sense of the word; it has fictional characters, but Solzhenitsyn’s interest in them seems to decline as the book progresses. However, it is certainly not a “history book” either. Solzhenitsyn’s particular skill as a writer lies in his ability to think himself into other minds, and to see the world through eyes other than his own. The eyes of Alexander Shlyapnikov, for example. Shlyaphinkov was, along with Vyacheslav Molotov and Peter Zalutski, the main representative of the Bolshevik tendency living in Petrograd at a time when all the more prominent leaders were in exile. November 1916 largely turns on a strike he has organised. The Tsarist government’s failure to confront this strike was, in Solzhenitsyn’s view, a forewarning of its imminent collapse. Shlyapnikov, however, has been operating on his own initiative without clear orders from the Bolshevik leaders and, at a point when it is too late to call it off, he realises that the pretext for the strike is spurious.Shlyapnikov was one of the few genuine workers in the Bolshevik leadership and his life in Petrograd, constantly on the run from the authorities, was difficult. In the picture Solzhenitsyn draws he has a conscientious worker’s love of work well done and a sense of personal responsibility for his fellow workers. He is, in other words, painted sympathetically, even though for Solzhenitsyn the result of his action was another turn of the red wheel pushing Russia towards what he saw as a reign of absolute evil.Similarly, the event that finally precipitated the catastrophe (as Solzhenitsyn saw it) of the abdication of the tsar was the refusal of the Volhynian regiment to use force to break up the strikes which by February/March had brought Petrograd to a standstill. We share abundantly in the revolutionary “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive” atmosphere when, instead of being court-martialled and shot, the soldiers find themselves in a snowballing movement of unrestrained jubilation that eventually engulfs the whole population. (It is interesting to switch from that to the grim description of Petrograd under siege from the White and allied forces three years later in Conquered City, by the old revolutionary Victor Serge). Solzhenitsyn’s own views are, notionally, represented by the character of Colonel Vorotyntsev, whom we have met before stumbling through August 1914, seeing quite clearly the military disaster that was in preparation, with clear ideas as to what to do about it but unable to find anyone willing to take him seriously. By November 1916, he is persuaded that the only hope for Russia is that the tsar should abdicate and Russia withdraw from the war, making a separate peace with Germany. To this end Vorotyntsev finds himself mixing in different political circles ‑ meeting members of Milyukov’s Constitutional Democratic Party (the “Cadets”) as well as the “Octobrist” leader Alexander Guchkov (the Octobrists were supporters of the “October manifesto” which was agreed by Nicholas II in the wake of the 1905 rising and which established the elected consultative duma). But he hardly dares formulate his own judgement and finds that both the Cadets and Guchkov, however opposed they may be to Nicholas, are more than anxious to continue the war. Milyukov, in particular, sees Nicholas as a secret ally of the Germans.Vorotyntsev has a close friend, this time based loosely on a real person, a fellow officer and eventually a general, Alexander Svechin, who argues against Guchkov that loyalty to the tsar is the only option. Solzhenitsyn, in his author’s preface, remarks a little disingenuously that Svechin was “executed by the Bolsheviks”. He neglects to say that this was in the 1930s and that in the great confrontation between the Whites and the Reds he had joined the Reds (he was the author of an important manual of strategy published in the Soviet Union in 1927). It is not difficult to see why. Russia in his view needed a firm hand. And what firmer hand is offered through the whole of The Red Wheel than that of Lenin?During his visit to the Cadets, Vorotyntsev meets another enthusiast for loyalty to the tsar, the university professor and specialist in mediaeval history Olda Andozerskaya. Although it is her passionate advocacy of the principle of monarchy that excites his interest, their friendship quickly turns into a sexual relationship that renders them both (the people who seem best to embody Solzhenitsyn’s own convictions) impotent in the hour of Russia’s need. Vorotyntsev is married. From now on the need to save Russia is hopelessly tangled up with the need to save his marriage.But do Vorotyntsev and Andozerskaya really represent Solzhenitsyn’s own opinions? Andozerskaya’s defence of the monarchy has become little more than the initial move in a process of charming Vorotyntsev into her bed. Guchkov tries to enroll Vorotyntsev in his own plot to bring about the abdication of Nicholas. But Vorotyntsev has to bow out to be with his wife for her birthday, all the more urgently because of his infidelity. The abdication takes place all the same ‑ more or less as Guchkov had planned it (and it is in fact Guchkov who receives it). The result is a government that has neither the competence nor the authority to repair the damage for which Nicholas has been very largely responsible. Guchkov himself is minister of war but is too ill to concentrate on his work. His wholesale purge of generals he perceives as incompetent has disastrous consequences at the front.Vorotyntsev had wanted the government to disregard its agreements with its allies and make a separate peace with Germany, but the only people seriously advocating that are the Bolsheviks. In April 1917, there are large demonstrations in Petrograd against Lenin and the Bolsheviks who are seen as traitors and German agents. For Solzhenitsyn this was a moment when the communist monster could have been smothered in its cradle. But the cry of the demonstrators is one of support for Milyukov’s policy of continuing the war and fulfilling Russia’s obligations to the allies.The great subject of The Red Wheel is of course the triumph of absolute evil, that is of Bolshevism ‑ we hardly need to argue the case that that is what Solzhenitsyn believed Bolshevism to be. Bolshevism is personified in the novel by Lenin. But Lenin is also the only figure in The Red Wheel who sees clearly (from his own point of view) what needs to be done and has the ruthlessness to do it. The Volhynian regiment’s refusal of its orders precipitated the February Revolution; soon the Bolsheviks will be firing on unarmed demonstrators. In April 1917, Timothy Kirpichnikov of the Volhynian regiment, now deeply distressed by the consequences of his refusal to break up the February/March strikes, watches a demonstration of (now armed) workers calling for the overthrow of the provisional government. He considers the possibility of collecting his regiment again, in defiance of government orders, and shooting them down. And then he sees in the faces of the demonstrators signs of the hardship of their lives and cannot bring himself to do it. It is one of the all too rare moments in The Red Wheel when Solzhenitsyn, for all his ability to enter into other minds, has something to say about the subjective experience of the Petrograd workers, the reasons for the hatred both among them and among the Kronstadt sailors, which he represents as such a sinister force. Nonetheless, we feel that he regrets Kirpichnikov’s lack of ruthlessness at that crucial moment.Although The Red Wheel ends with the triumph of evil in the form of Bolshevism, it begins with another triumph of evil in the form of war. But, as one might say, “what is to be done?” Early in August 1914 we are introduced to the pacifist Lev Tolstoy, who tells the schoolboy Sanya Lazhenitsyn ‑ loosely based on Solzhenitsyn’s father ‑ about the purpose of man’s life: “To serve the good. And so create the Kingdom of God on earth.”“Yes I know that!” Sanya said eagerly. “But tell me ‑ how are we to serve it? By loving? Must it be by loving?
Of course. That is the only way.”Which is fine until Sanya begins to splutter out the thoughts that have been tormenting him since he himself became a Tolstoyan.“What if love is not so strong … what if love cannot prevail … ought we not to envisage some intermediary stage, ask less of people to start with and then try to awaken them to universal benevolence?”Tolstoy replies: “Love is the only way! The only way. No-one will ever find a better.” But by now Sanya is unable to restrain himself.“But there’s another thing, Lev Nikolaevich. How are we to know what the good is? You write that the rational and the moral are always identical … that evil does not come from an evil nature, that people are evil not by nature but out of ignorance … but it isn’t like that, Lev Nikolaevich, it just isn’t so! Evil refuses to know the truth. Rends it with its fangs! Evil people usually know better than anybody else just what they are doing. And go on doing it. What are we to do with them?”
He clapped his hand to his mouth so that he would say no more, so that he could not hear himself say more. The old man sighed deeply. That’s because no-one has been clever enough to explain to them in a way they can understand. We must explain things patiently. then they will understand. All men are born with the ability to understand.”
He strode off with his walking stick, obviously put out …Despite his Tolstoyan pacifism, Sanya signs up for the army the moment war is declared. He cannot help himself ‑ it is an imperative for him to stand by his country in its hour of need, though not a “moral imperative” since he still feels the immorality of it. Early in November 1916, he has another conversation on morality, this time with the Orthodox chaplain to his brigade, Father Severyan. Like Sanya, he is a sensitive man, excited by ideas, and the two are delighted to discover each other. Sanya tells the priest that when he first went to him for confession he had told him he was a volunteer and so“I voluntarily took all the sins and murders committed here upon myself … The main thing was that you gave me absolution for my sins and my doubts ‑ but I hadn’t absolved myself. It all came back to plague me again. Should I have gone back to you? A second and a third time? To repeat what I’d already said, in the very same words ‑ as if I was rejecting the absolution you’d given me? … Couldn’t you not forgive me? If I’m to bear the very same burden tomorrow, because you can’t relieve me of it, don’t forgive me! Send me away unrelieved. That would be more honest. How can I ever relieve myself of it while the war goes on? I can’t. The fact that I can’t see the people I’m killing doesn’t change matters …”Father Severyan has, of course, thought about the question himself and has developed an argument with which he tries to reconcile Sanya to the war:“Quite simply, no state can live without war, that is one of the state’s essential functions.” Father Severyan’s enunciation was very precise. “War is the price we pay for living in a state. Before you can abolish war you will have to abolish all states. But that is unthinkable until the propensity to violence and evil is rooted out of human beings. The state was created to protect us from violence … In ordinary life thousands of bad impulses, from a thousand foci of evil, move chaotically, randomly, against the vulnerable. The state is called upon to check these impulses ‑ but it generates others of its own, still more powerful, and this time one-directional. At times it throws them all in a single direction ‑ and that is war. … The real dilemma is the choice between peace and evil. War is only a special case of evil, concentrated in time and space. Whoever rejects war without first rejecting the state is a hypocrite. And whoever fails to see that there is something more primitive and more dangerous than war ‑ and that is the universal evil instilled into men’s hearts ‑ sees only the surface. Mankind’s true dilemma is the choice between peace in the heart and evil in the heart …”The last sentence of course evokes the famous passage in The Gulag Archipelago about the line between good and evil in the human heart:
So let the reader who expects this book to be a political exposé slam its covers shut right now. If only it were so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
Sanya is impressed by Father Severyan’s argument but not totally convinced. And there are other matters he wants to raise, but Father Severyan is tired and begins to get a little irritated. The conversation takes a turn similar to the end of the conversation with Tolstoy.Later Sanya meets Kotya, the friend of his youth, the one person with whom he can share all his memories and thoughts. Solzhenitsyn too had a friend like that, Nikolai Vitkevich, nicknamed “Koka”. DM Thomas’s biography includes a photograph of the two of them staring into each other’s eyes, deep in conversation, taken at the time when they were discussing plans to overthrow Stalin, which landed them both in the Gulag. Later they met up in that privileged part of the Gulag which is the setting for In the First Circle. But Koka was no longer so interested in ideas, least of all subversive ones; his principal concern was to lead a quiet life.The meeting between Sanya and Kotya is similarly disappointing. Sanya is bursting with eagerness to renew their old discussions and has a wealth of new ideas and impressions to share with him. But Kotya is unresponsive. He has lived through one of the worst incidents in the war, when his regiment was ordered to hold a position hard against the German lines:The ground was too soggy for deep digging, so under cover of darkness they hauled in bodies to make a parapet ‑ there were more than enough of them ‑ covered it with earth, and there you were, a strongpoint. They stayed there in that stench, and a cloud of blowflies, for a month … For anyone who crawled through blood and over dead flesh there, and had no hope of crawling to safety, that battle divides his life in two: there’s before Skrobotovo and there’s after Skrobotovo.It is rather the way Solzhenitsyn sees his time in the camps, but the camps were where he discovered God. Kotya rebuffs all Sanya’s attempts to interest him in Father Severyan’s intellectual explanation of war and why Christians can engage in it. Lying in bed, and conscious that Kotya isn’t sleeping, Sanya makes one last effort:“I started telling you about Trubetskoy’s article on the dispute between Tolstoy and Soloviev on the meaning of the Kingdom of Heaven. Some of the finer points of Christianity are not highlighted in the Gospels but only hinted at, and they get lost sight of completely in everyday life. For instance: ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.’ Are we to take this to mean that Christ is expressing approval of the Roman Empire, and of the state in general? Of course not! But he knows that people will not be able to live without the state for a very long time to come. That the state with all its deficiencies, its law courts, its wars, and its policemen, is still a lesser evil than chaos. But a time will come when every state will have to depart this earth and give way to a higher order ‑ the Kingdom of Heaven. Only here Trubetskoy himself loses sight of the problem. Because if we place our hopes on the transformation of the world by the Second Coming, it does not matter whether or not we gradually evolve toward it ‑ the transition cannot be effected gradually.”
Kotya had had enough. “Stop talking crazy, Sanya old friend. What’s this Kingdom of Heaven you keep on about? We could burble about it in our student days, when we were young pups who hadn’t seen war. But now that all the nations of Europe have been making mincemeat of each other, gassing each other, spewing fire at each other for nearly three years, does this look as if the kingdom of Heaven is at hand? You and I will be polished off well before that, never fear!”Does this imply doubt as to the value of belief in God, or of theology? The major theme of the Templeton Address, which Solzhenitsyn gave in 1984, is that the horrors that surround us are derived from the loss of a sense of responsibility to something higher than ourselves ‑ to God: “If I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous Revolution that swallowed up some sixty millions of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.” And yet, and yet … if ever there was a political figure who had a sense of his responsibility to God it was Nicholas II. And Solzhenitsyn stresses this in his account of Nicholas in the “previous knots” section of August 1914. All Nicholas’s decisions were accompanied by intense prayer. And one of the high points ‑ perhaps the high point ‑ of his life was the canonisation of Saint Seraphim of Sarov. Yet Nicholas’s decisions are generally represented as catastrophic and they include leading Russia into the Russo-Japanese war and, of course, however accidentally, the 1914 war ‑ partly motivated by the specifically religious ambition of recovering Constantinople for Orthodoxy. One of the very few people Solzhenitsyn admires without reserve is Nicholas’s minister Peter Stolypin. But Stolypin is not represented as a particularly religious man ‑ even if he makes the sign of the cross at the moment of his death ‑ and his problems and achievements are presented in entirely secular political terms. As Solzhenitsyn comments, giving an account of Kotya’s thoughts on the Battle of Skrobotovo: “there’s no use trying to put things right if your faults are the air you breathe, if your faults are you. Germans rely on heavy artillery, Russians on God …”Given the importance Solzhenitsyn attaches to religion, there is something a little odd about his attitude to the Orthodox Church. Father Severyan is, I believe, the only priest who appears as a distinct personality in any of Solzhenitsyn’s writings, and he only appears in two among the many chapters of The Red Wheel. Although he often refers to the martyrdom of the priests, monks and nuns of the Orthodox Church under Bolshevism, there are very few priests mentioned in The Gulag Archipelago. The word “thieves” appears in the indexes of the English translation of The Gulag Archipelago but not the word “priests” (the thieves were of course a very special category of prisoner, but so surely were the priests). The Red Wheel seems to be an attempt to show the February revolution from all important points of view, yet very little is said about the huge trauma undergone by the church.When he does mention the Orthodox Church he is often critical of it. One of his recurring themes is the sin which the church committed in its persecution of the Old Believers ‑ Orthodox Christians who refused to accept certain reforms of liturgical practice that were introduced in the seventeenth century. Without ever going into it very deeply Solzhenitsyn refers several times to the Old Believers as representing the genuine spirit of Old Russia. He sees the reforms of Peter the Great (when the supposedly independent patriarchate of Moscow was suppressed and the Church reduced to being a department of state after the manner of the Church of England) as an extension of the crime committed against the Old Believers. In the Templeton address he evokes “a time when the social ideal was not fame or riches, or material success, but a pious way of life. Russia was then steeped in Orthodox Christianity which remained true to the Church of the first centuries.” But he continues: “The Orthodoxy of that time knew how to safeguard its people under the yoke of a foreign occupation that lasted more than two centuries while at the same time fending off iniquitous blows from the swords of Western crusaders.” So he is referring to the period when Russia was under the domination of the Muslim Tatars, the period of Alexander Nevsky (1218-63). No sooner is Russia freed from its shackles than we have Ivan the Terrible at the end of the sixteenth century, the “Time of Troubles” (Polish support for a supposed son of Ivan as legitimate heir to the throne), the schism with the Old Believers and “Peter’s forcibly imposed transformation, which favoured the economy, the state and the military at the expense of the religious and national life”. Solzhenitsyn is often criticised as a “Russian nationalist” ‑ but he is an unusual sort of nationalist, one who is unable to find a great deal in the history of his country that is worthy of admiration. The names he evokes when talking about the development of religious thought tend to be the late nineteenth and early twentieth century intellectuals following in the line of the philosopher Vladimir Soloviev, whom we have seen mentioned by Sanya in his attempts to discuss theology with Kotya. Indeed, Father Severyan’s theological-philosophical explanation of war seems to me to be derived from Soloviev ‑ it closely resembles a discussion of war in his Justification of the Good. One priest who is briefly discussed in The Gulag Archipelago is Father Paul Florensky but he, a very interesting mathematician and philosopher, falls into the category of intellectuals following in the line of Soloviev. Although stressing the admirable continuity of Orthodoxy among the people, Solzhenitsyn rarely evokes more mainstream figures such as Paissius Velichkovsky in the eighteenth century or Metropolitan Philaret and the startsi of Optina in the nineteenth. Saint Serafim of Sarov is only evoked because of his importance to Nicholas II.Perhaps the most developed Christian personality in all Solzhenitsyn’s writings is Dmitri Sologdin in In The First Circle. The original and complete version of In the First Circle has only recently (2009) been published (under that title) in an English translation. The First Circle, published as far back as 1968, is actually an abridged version Solzhenitsyn had, in his own view, mangled in the hope of having it published in the USSR. One of the great revelations of The Gulag Archipelago was that Solzhenitsyn saw Stalinist repression, not as a deviation in the course of communist history but as a logical continuation of the process initiated by Lenin. Until then, he had been keeping up a pretence of being willing to accept the Leninist foundation of the state. But that pretence is already dramatically exploded in the pages of the original In The First Circle.The 1968 version – “Circle 87” ‑ so called because of its eighty-seven chapters, as opposed to the original “Circle 96” ‑ maintains a sort of balance between Solzhenitsyn’s two particular friends, Lev Kopelev (Lev Rubin in the novel), who still believes in the essentially progressive nature of the Soviet regime despite the abuses which he sees and denounces courageously, and the Christian Dmitri Panin (Sologdin). In “Circle 96”, however, the balance falls on the side of Panin/Sologdin ‑ the more so if I am right in speculating that another figure, who plays a larger part in “Circle 96” than in “Circle 87”, Ilarion Gerasimovich, may also have been based on Panin.The theme of the battle between good and evil looms large in In The First Circle, especially in “Circle 96”. One of the many conversations which take place over the three days covered in the book is between Nerzhin (Solzhenitsyn himself) and the yardman Spiridon. The conversation is largely a matter of teasing out the details of Spiridon’s very complicated life. In 1917 he supports the revolution and in the light of his later, appalling experiences, Nerzhin exclaims:“Dear oh dear oh dear! What extraordinary things you tell me, Spiridon Danilych! I can’t take it all in. You went over the ice to Kronstadt; you were one of those who set up this Soviet regime of ours; you forced people into the collective farms …”And Spiridon replies: “Well, it’s like that sometimes; we plant rye, and what comes up is goosegrass.”The conversation continues with more dreadful details. At the end of it, Nerzhin turns to the questions that are tormenting him:He laid his hand on Spiridon’s shoulder, still leaning back against the sloping underside of the stairs, and began hesitantly framing his question: “There’s something I’ve been wanting to ask you for a long time, Spiridon Danilych […] are there really people on this earth who deliberately set out to do evil things? Who say to themselves, I want to hurt people, to inflict all the pain I can, to make their lives impossible? I don’t really think so, do you? That saying of yours about sowing rye and goosegrass coming up … At least it was rye they sowed, or so they thought. It may be that all human beings want to do good or think they are acting for the best, but nobody is infallible, we all make mistakes, and some people are quite brazen about it, which is why they do each other so much harm. They can convince themselves that they’re doing good, but the results are bad […] What if I push you off your perch and take your place, and then if things don’t go the way I want, it’s my turn to pile up corpses? What I mean is, if you can’t be sure that you’re always right, should you or shouldn’t you intervene at all? When we’re at war, we always think we’re in the right, and the other side thinks they are. Can anyone on this earth possibly make out who’s right and who’s wrong? Who can tell us that?”Spiridon, who has appeared throughout the book as the very model of the patient, suffering Russian peasant, replies: “I can tell you: Killing wolves is right; eating people is wrong.”“Circle 87” leaves it at that, but “Circle 96” continues:“Gleb, if someone told me right now there’s a plane with an atom bomb on board – d’you want it to bury you like a dog here under the stairs, wipe out your family and a million other people, only old Daddy Whiskers and their whole setup will be pulled up by the roots so that our people won’t have to suffer any more in prison camps and collective farms and logging teams” ‑ Spiridon braced himself, pressing his tensed shoulders against the stairs as though they threatened to collapse on him, with the roof itself and all Moscow to follow – “believe me, Gleb, I’d say, ‘Come on, then! Get on with it! Drop the thing!’”I quoted earlier Solzhenitsyn saying he would never compare Lenin and Yegor Gaidar (a “question of scale”). It’s something of a smaller scale than the deaths of millions of people under the atom bomb but there is what might be called a parallel moment when Nerzhin is talking to Sologdin. Nerzhin is recalling a question he had asked him earlier (“Of the Karamazov variety”, Sologdin says):“I asked you what should be done with professional criminals. Remember what you said? ‘Shoot the lot.’ Right?”
Nerzhin, now as then, looked hard at Sologdin, as though giving him a chance to retract.
But the bright blue of Dmitri Sologdin’s eyes was untroubled. He folded his arms picturesquely over his chest, one of his most becoming poses, and loftily declared, “My friend! Those who want to destroy Christianity, and only they, would have it become the creed of eunuchs. But Christianity is the faith of the strong in spirit. We must have the courage to see the evil in the world and to root it out. Wait a while ‑ you, too, will come to God. Your refusal to believe in anything is no position for a thinking man; it’s just spiritual poverty.”He goes on to insist, against Nerzhin’s desire to pick and choose, that the doctrines of the church must be accepted in their entirety: “There’s no other way! If you begin to doubt a single dogma of the faith, a single word of the scriptures, all is lost! You are one of the godless!”The dogmas in question include “the Trinity, plus the Immaculate Conception …” The immaculate conception of the Virgin is a dogma of the Roman Catholic Church but it is not accepted by the Orthodox Church. We might think the translator is confusing it with the virgin birth, but Sologdin’s Christianity, looked at from an Orthodox point of view, is distinctly odd. At one point Solzhenitsyn, who has compared Sologdin’s face to the icon of Christ “not made by human hands”, remarks that he looks like Alexander Nevsky, the thirteenth century Russian prince who, though still paying tribute to the Tatars, fought against the Roman Catholic Teutonic Knights. We may remember that the Templeton lecture quoted earlier referred to “iniquitous blows from the swords of Western crusaders”. But this is not Sologdin’s view. In the course of the ongoing quarrel between him and the Bolshevik Lev Rubin, Rubin appeals to Nerzhin:Tell him what a poseur he is! I’m fed up with his posturing! He’s forever pretending to be Alexander Nevsky!Sologdin surprises them by responding:“Now that I don’t find a bit flattering!”“What do you mean?”“Alexander Nevsky is no sort of hero as far as I am concerned. And no saint. So I don’t take what you said as a compliment.”Rubin was silenced. He and Nerzhin exchanged a baffled look.“So what has Alexander Nevsky done to upset you?” Nerzhin asked.“Kept chivalry out of Asia and Catholicism out of Russia. He was against Europe,” said Sologdin, still breathless with indignation.Rubin returned to the attack, hoping to land a blow.“Now this is something new! Something quite new! …”“Why would catholicism have been good for Russia?” Nerzhin inquired, looking judicial.“I’ll tell you why!” the answer came like a flash of lightning. “Because all the people who had the misfortune to be Orthodox Christians paid for it with centuries of slavery! Because the Orthodox Church never could stand up to the state! A godless people was defenceless! The result was this cockeyed country of ours! A country of slaves!”Dmitri Panin, the model for Sologdin, left Russia in 1973 for France. According to DM Thomas, “Panin and his new Catholic-Jewish wife Issa had a cordial farewell with Sanya [Solzhenitsyn] before leaving for Paris: part of the limited Jewish exodus permitted as a contribution to détente with the West in the early 1970s.” In France, Panin published a number of books, including an account of his time in prison, Notebooks of Sologdin (Solzhenitsyn apparently took offence at the title). But he also published a number of more theoretical works including The World is a Pendulum, published in French in 1974, Builders and Destroyers (1983) and Theory of Densities. The latter includes an introduction by Issa Panin (Dmitri died in 1987), which gives a summary of his account of the ideal society:The principal characteristic of this society is the ethical supervision of an élite of men distinguished by their nobility of spirit. Their essential principles are as follows: nobility of soul, to be fearless following the commandment of the Saviour, freedom through semi-freedom (since the path towards the highest freedom demands the self-limitation of man), private property is inalienable.Builders and Destroyers, still following Issa Panin, outlines the political organisation of such a society, which allows for a very high degree of democracy at the lowest, local, level, where everyone can know everyone else personally, while insisting on the rule of the non-elected élite at the highest, national level. She maintains that Solzhenitsyn’s Rebuilding Russia (1990), his first response to the collapse of the Soviet Union, takes up “almost word for word” many of the ideas outlined by Panin: “I regret that Solzhenitsyn did not mention his name in the pamphlet.”This idea of a rationally organised society is advanced by the other figure I feel may have been based at least partly on Panin, that is Ilarion Gerasimovich, who appears in the chapter “On the Back Stairway”, which carries particular significance given that it is the last of the intense intellectual conversations of the book. Gerasimovich argues for a palace coup that will remove Stalin and his friends and replace them with “Inequality based on talent, natural or cultivated. You can please yourself whether you call it ‘the authoritarian state’ or ‘the rule of intellectual élite’. It will be rule by selfless, completely disinterested, luminous people.”Nerzhin/Solzhenitsyn is sceptical (as well he might be): “Alas, you’ve chosen the wrong person to advise you! I simply don’t believe that anything good and durable can be constructed on this earth of ours.” And he recalls the words of Spiridon: “Yes, our present regime is vile, but how can you be sure that what you want will be any better? Maybe it will be worse. No, you say, just because you want it to be better. But maybe those before you wanted things to be better. They sowed rye and what came up was goosefoot [sic ‑ not goosegrass, as in the earlier passage].”Panin’s Theory of Densities outlines a science-based philosophy which he claims is truly “materialist” and truly rational in opposition to the non-materialist and irrational “dialectical materialism” of Marxism ‑ details of the argument find their way into the quarrel between Rubin and Sologdin. He then expounds the principal dogmas of the church in terms of this overall theoretical framework and with the aid of an abundance of mathematical demonstrations. But of most immediate interest to us is a chapter on “the Church” which argues that only on the basis of the papacy can the church become a force capable of confronting the state and the forces of antichrist, of godlessness, in the world. And he suggests that a large part of the teachings of Christianity (notably “God is Love” and “resist not evil”) is not suited to mass consumption and should be reserved to the elite. The whole is strangely reminiscent of Dostoevsky and most obviously the famous Legend of the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov. The author of the Legend, Ivan Karamazov, was widely thought at the time to be modelled on Soloviev, who was a friend of Dostoevsky’s and who eventually became a Uniate ‑ a Roman Catholic who continued to use the offices of the Eastern Orthodox churches. Ivan uses the story (in the long conversation with his brother Alyosha that is among the most profound discussions in the whole history of Christian literature) to argue through the lips of the Inquisitor that the doctrine of Jesus is cruel because it allows a freedom of the soul that very few people are able to assume and that consequently can only open the way to evil ‑ terrible, absolute evil. Only iron control by an elite, represented by the Inquisitor, can save the people from the consequences of its own anarchic passions. For Dostoevsky, standing on the opposite side of the fence to Panin, it is an allegory of the essential difference between the rational Roman Catholic Church and irrational ‑ but Christian ‑ Orthodoxy. Panin is quite clearly and, we must assume, knowingly, taking the side of Ivan Karamazov.The Red Wheel argues that Russia was already lost by the time of the February Revolution ‑ that the country was so totally demoralised by liberal and socialist ideas that it could only deliver itself tamely into the hands of the Bolsheviks. In The Little Grain Managed to Land Between Two Millstones, Franco’s Spain is held up as a model of a proper Christian response to the evil of Bolshevism. Thus Solzhenitsyn seems to approach the position argued by Panin. Evil must be confronted by force, and the centralised, spiritually independent Roman Catholic Church is better placed to do it than Orthodoxy with its otherworldliness and tradition of subservience to the state.In exile, Panin and Solzhenitsyn fell out. According to Solzhenitsyn’s account (in The Little Grain), Panin accused him of temporising with evil since his Letter to the Soviet Leaders, written shortly before his exile, envisaged a reform of the existing system, not the outright revolutionary war Panin wanted to see. Solzhenitsyn denies that his opposition to Kissinger’s policy of détente amounted to a call for actual war, or even for a trade boycott ‑ he denies for example ever supporting an embargo on shipments of grain.It is one of the many contradictions that lie at the heart of Solzhenitsyn’s work. For all that The Red Wheel is a polemic against the February Revolution it also treats it with enormous sympathy. For all that Solzhenitsyn denounces both liberals and socialists, he is quite capable of seeing through their eyes ‑ as he sees through Lenin’s eyes and through the eyes of Nicholas II. If The Red Wheel is a book about the triumph of evil, it is also a book without villains ‑ everyone, almost without exception, is out to sow rye, to do good in the world (people whose main concern in life is, say, to make money, to look after Number One, may appear in Cancer Ward or In The First Circle. They are nowhere to be seen in The Red Wheel).Circumstances forced Solzhenitsyn into the role of a political fighter and moralist. But what distinguishes him from a political fighter such as Lenin is his inability to resolve contradictions of this sort ‑ in particular the battle between good and evil occurring in the individual heart and the need to confront evil as an external force that may have to be overthrown by brutal means. It is precisely in his inability to resolve this tension that his real greatness lies.
Peter Brooke is the author of Ulster Presbyterianism, The Historical Perspective, 1610-1970, Athol Books, Belfast, and of an account of the life and thought of the French Cubist painter Albert Gleizes, For and Against the Twentieth Century, Yale University Press, London and New Haven.