Interview by Annamarie Adkins
Now, as the West teeters on the verge of economic crisis and suffers from the increasing statist imposition of illiberal dogmas, the prophetic voice of Alexander Solzhenitsyn — one of the 20th century’s greatest writers who saw the same errors at the heart of both the capitalist and communist systems — seems more timely than ever.
According to Solzhenitsyn biographer Joseph Pearce, the heroic Russian dissident knew that the materialism that shaped the culture of both capitalist and communist societies was ultimately inhuman because of its denial of spiritual values and because it led to serious environmental degradation.
The professor of literature and writer-in-residence at Ave Maria University has updated and reissued his biography, Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile, including new chapters written after conducting more interviews with Solzhenitsyn’s family. The latest edition also follows the Russian writer’s death in 2008.
Pearce spoke to ZENIT about what Solzhenitsyn’s monumental writings can tell us today about our own spiritual, cultural and political condition.
ZENIT: Who was Alexander Solzhenitsyn? Why should non-Russian audiences pay attention to his writing?
Pearce: Alexander Solzhenitsyn is one of the most important figures of the 20th century, both in terms of his status as a writer and in terms of the crucial role he played in the collapse of the Soviet Union and its evil communist empire.
As a writer, he was justly awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, unlike many other unworthy recipients. His novels One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, First Circle, and Cancer Ward exposed the evils of socialism and totalitarianism. Solzhenitsyn is a noble heir to the tradition of Russian fiction epitomized by the Christian humanism of Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
His epic and seminal historical work, The Gulag Archipelago, possibly his magnum opus, documented the brutality of the Soviet regime’s treatment of dissidents.
All in all, Solzhenitsyn’s corpus constituted a damning indictment of the injustice of communism and served to undermine the Soviet Union’s political and moral credibility; it contributed significantly to the rise of dissident resistance within the communist empire and to the rise of political opposition to communism in the West.
In historical terms, Solzhenitsyn deserves a place of honor beside Blessed Pope John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Lech Walesa as a major player in the final defeat of Soviet communism.
As an intellectual, he is indubitably one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th 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.
ZENIT: One of the major themes of your biography is that Solzhenitsyn was a prophet, first in the Soviet Union, and then in the capitalist West. How did Solzhenitsyn have the ability to diagnose the deeper problems of his time?
Pearce: Clearly, as I’ve said, non-Russian audiences should pay attention to Solzhenitsyn as a great writer, and as a great hero in the cause of political freedom.
He is, however, also a prophet. He predicted the downfall of the Soviet Union as early as the 1970s when most so-called “experts” assumed that the Soviet bloc would be part of the global political picture for many decades to come.
Even more importantly, Solzhenitsyn prophesied the unsustainability of global consumerism and the impending catastrophe that awaited a culture hell-bent on hedonism at the expense of human community and the natural environment.
The current chaos in the global economy serves as a timely warning that Solzhenitsyn’s prophecies are coming true before our eyes. Solzhenitsyn’s socio-political vision, which harmonizes with the social teaching of the Catholic Church, is full of the sort of Christian wisdom that the modern world can scarcely afford to ignore — or, at least, the sort of wisdom that it ignores at its peril.
ZENIT: You discuss in the book how Solzhenitsyn believed that both the Soviet Union and the West suffered from the same spiritual and ideological maladies that would eventually doom both societies. How is this so?
Pearce: Solzhenitsyn’s diagnosis of the spiritual and ideological maladies of the communist Soviet Union and the capitalist West rested on the insistence that both systems shared the same fundamental materialism.
At root, the Soviet Union and the capitalist West were united by a secular fundamentalism rooted in an essential philosophical materialism that excludes God and religion from political and economic life. The ideologies of Mammon and Marx are equally godless and are equally inimical to religion in general and to Christianity in particular. Such systems are not merely wrong, they are ultimately evil.
Solzhenitsyn’s devastating critique of the hedonism and decadence of the modern West, particularly in his controversial Harvard address in 1978 (see The Solzhenitsyn Reader), heralded the fact that he was a prophet not merely of the evils of communism, but also of the evils of atheistic materialism in all its guises.
ZENIT: For much of his life, Solzhenitsyn was a committed communist, even when he suffered in the gulags of the Soviet Union. How did he come to embrace Christianity? What influence did faith have on his writings and outlook?
Pearce: As with most people of his generation, Solzhenitsyn 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.
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.
ZENIT: You note that Solzhenitsyn had deep respect for Blessed Pope John Paul II. What similarities did the two men share, besides being two key historical figures in the downfall of the Soviet bloc? Did Solzhenitsyn hope for reunion between the Eastern and Western churches?
Pearce: Solzhenitsyn and John Paul II shared the same experience of communism in the sense that both men lived as dissidents in communist regimes, the former in the Soviet Union and the latter in Poland. As such, they recognized each other as kindred spirits and as fellow warriors in the battle against communist tyranny.
When I met Solzhenitsyn at his home near Moscow, he spoke fondly of his meeting with John Paul II and stated explicitly that the Pope had played a crucial role in the downfall of communism. He also told me of his respect for John Paul II’s social and political vision, expressed most eloquently in his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus.
Solzhenitsyn’s vision is essentially the same as that espoused by John Paul II, and by John Paul’s illustrious predecessors Leo XIII and Pius XI in Rerum Novarum and Quadrogesimo Anno, respectively.
Each of these popes advocated the principle of subsidiarity, which places the family at the heart and foundation of political and economic life, and favors small business over big business, and small government over big government. In his own belief that subsidiarity must form the keystone upon which any healthy society is based, Solzhenitsyn’s political creed is essentially the same as that of the Catholic Church.
Solzhenitsyn lamented that the Russian Orthodox Church stood aloof from the socio-political questions affecting modern life and thought that the Orthodox Church could learn from the Catholic Church in this regard.
He did not necessarily favor union between the Orthodox and Catholic churches, however, believing that the heritage and destiny of Russia was inextricably bound up with the specific spiritual tradition of Orthodoxy.
ZENIT: Interestingly, you describe how Solzhenitsyn’s localist, agrarian political and economic views shared a lot in common with the distributism of Catholic thinkers such as Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton and E.F. Schumacher, yet he came to those views independently of these thinkers. What personal experiences formed his ideas?
Pearce: During my visit with Solzhenitsyn, I commented on the affinity he shared with Belloc, Chesterton and Schumacher, particularly with regard to the localism and agrarianism of their socio-political views. He mentioned that he held each of these men in high regard but that he had come to his own views independently. It was, I interjected, a case of great men thinking alike.
Solzhenitsyn’s localism and agrarianism are rooted in the lessons to be learned from the grievous errors of the Soviet Union and from the wisdom to be gleaned from Russian history.
With regard to the former, the Soviet Union’s pursuit of gigantism, which destroyed small government and small business and increased the power of the centralized state, had proved disastrous. Solzhenitsyn reacted against such evil in the direction of common sense, seeking the restoration of strong local government and the revitalization of small business.
In addition, Solzhenitsyn’s own political works, such as Rebuilding Russia and Russia in the Abyss, drew heavily on the lessons to be learned from Russian history as a guide to the future. In this historical perspective his approach parallels that of Hilaire Belloc, whose Servile State examined the lessons of history as a means of illuminating the present and prophesying the future.
ZENIT: 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 an introduction to Solzhenitsyn’s life and thought, and offers a panoramic overview of his writings. Having cut one’s 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.