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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Il fut Ivan Denissovitch

by Maurice Ulrich - Article paru le 5 août 2008

He was Ivan Denisovitch

Translated Tuesday 12 August 2008, by Edward Lamb

DEPARTED. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn gave a name to Stalinism. Slav at heart and nostalgic of an antique Czarist Russia, even anti-Semite in his later works, he was, above all, a major witness to the 20th century.

In 1962, Stalinism was given a name : Ivan Denisovich. Six years earlier, Nikita Khrushchev, behind closed doors and at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, revealed the magnitude of Stalinist repression and crimes, which had, for millions of men and women, turned the world upside down. It would take several months for the French Communist Party (PCF) to acknowledge the existence of the report « attributed to Nikita Khrushchev ». Yet, one had to face the facts, hidden for years behind the Red Army’s formidable struggle against the Nazis, the Stalingrad turning point, the fall of Berlin. Stalin, who was said to be the Father of the People, had been a tyrant. It’s true that there were a few accusing voices well before the 20th Congress. They were a very small minority and the Khrushchev Declaration itself, fundamentally, only exposed certain selected information. Precise, but not detailed. Narrating, in a small, densely written book, the matter of fact details of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn named the unnameable and offered to history the human flesh of the tragedy, the atrocious intimate truth of the drama.

Come to rest in his motherland

It is that, essentially, which has made of the writer, who has died at eighty-nine years of age on the outskirts of Moscow and in that Russia to which he returned some twenty years ago, a major witness and architect of the twentieth century. That century which saw, after the genocidal massacres of the First World War, the Red Dawn of the October Revolution and with it the realization of the hopes of those condemned by their humble condition, of artists and of intellectuals, hopes only to submerge again eighty years later. To that end, we would have made a prophet of the writer, a spiritual guide or even a strategist of the collapse of communism, as was Jean-Paul II. He was none of those, and in the course of his final years, his nostalgia for the values of an Eternal Russia and the anti-Semitism of which he was accused - even though he denied that – kept him from being utilized for any cause whatsoever, excepting a few typical cases, as with Philippe de Villiers, an admirer of the author who defended the cause of the chouans.

No prophesy, no banner waving for human rights worldwide, only a regard turned towards the past - in the belief that, there, could be found a possible future. But what a regard ! For, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, was a monumental writer. So, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was published in 1962, with Nikita Khrushchev’s blessing… a period that Ilya Ehrenberg, another literary giant, would refer to as the "thaw" [1]. In France, the book’s publication was welcomed by the magazine "Lettres françaises" [2], edited by Louis Aragon. But, after that short novel, would follow, exploring in depth the secret prisons and labour camps, that which the entire world would discover by the name of Gulag. Cancer Ward (1968; novel), The First Circle (1968; novel), the three volumes of The Gulag Archipelago (1973–1978) would influence the 1960’s and the 1970’s. At the same time, Solzhenitsyn began a colossal undertaking, with several different narrative stages, he called them the "knots" [3] , of The Red Wheel (overall title), evoking all the dimensions and in minute detail, ("the Devil is in the detail", as the proverb would have it...), those years prior to the October Revolution. Thousands of pages, volume III, or the third "knot" would not be published before 1998, finally accomplishing a project conceived as of 1936. A saga, often seemingly chaotic, a human comedy in which, as with Shakespeare, men are only passing shadows. It is the discourse of an idiot, full of sound and fury, and signifying nothing. If it were not that the revolution to come can only lead to Hell and that the World is about to shipwreck. History cannot make sense. But, by its scope and dimension, indeed, by that very chaos, the work has made its place in the grand tradition of Russian Literature; Tolstoy for his attachment to the earth, the Russian homeland; Dostoyevsky for the chaos and the suffering of souls…

Born, as if predestined, in 1918; a student at Rostov-on-Don, receptive, at the time, to revolutionary ideas, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn found himself on the battle front, facing the German invasion. His wartime experience on the front lines, in the artillery, having doubts about his conduct, brought him to criticize, in a personal letter, Stalin himself. He further considered that this War could have been avoided if the Soviet Union had made a deal with Hitler. In 1945, he was sentenced to eight years of hard labour. Rehabilitated after the 20th Congress, as were thousands of prisoners, he would go on to teach Physics at Ryazan, some 200 kilometres from Moscow.
Four years later, he would be expelled from the USSR and deprived of his nationality. A measure that would profoundly shock public opinion throughout the world, including communists. The French Communist Party (PCF) firmly condemned the punishment. He lived in Switzerland, for a while, afterwards in the United States, in Vermont, where he was to continue his work. Delivering conference after conference, the conservative pro-Slav dimension of his philosophy began to appear. The later convictions of Solzhenitsyn, the man, were not forged after the advent of Soviet style communism but had taken root much earlier. The fall of the USSR, allowed him to recover his nationality and his native land. His ambition was, at first, to play a role in politics, but he quickly gave up the idea. The country, as he found it, and as he sensed it would become, did not suit him any better than before and he did not assimilate with his contemporaries. « No man is a prophet in his own land », one of his peers, the writer Evgueni Sidorov, stated. Evgenij Evtusenko wrote : « Solzhenitsyn deserves that we raise a monument, during his lifetime, for his feat in having prevented even more human suffering, which, but for him, would have been forgotten ».

But having withdrawn himself from the context of literature, he didn’t know how to come back to it. His heroic attempt to write an epic, with The Red Wheel, fell apart »… His later works would further emphasize the lingering traces of his old fashioned values. In The Russian Question (1995), in Russia under Avalanche (Россия в обвале,1998; political pamphlet), he showed concern over the « cosmopolitism », of a Russia submerged by the « rising tide » of the Asian and Islamic cultures, he held on to his everlasting faith in Russian Orthodoxy, would have the Slavic Republics reunited, he believed and affirmed that « out of the earth springs the pure, unquenchable fountain of one’s love for his country ». With Two Hundred Years Together (2003) dedicated to the history of the Jewish presence in Russia, he aroused violent public controversy in his own country as well as abroad. Although there may well have been organized persecutions and exterminations, before them, it would seem that the excessive revolutionary zeal of young Jews contributed to the destruction of the Russian Empire. « What was it that encouraged those Jews, in the midst of all those hysterical plebes, to blaspheme so brutally that which the people still venerated »… Of course, he sometimes seemed to pit the Jews and the Russians against one another: « I appeal to both parties that they try patiently to understand each other, to acknowledge that each has his share of the blame », but is that not a way of creating and maintaining those obstacles, at the very least. A way of sketching a world divided between Jews and Gentiles, the latter, in this case, being pure Slavs.

The last respects paid to Solzhenitsyn, today, do not lack ambiguity. Particularly for those who would reduce the communist ideal to that unique Soviet experience, ultimately aborted. What remains, essentially, is that his work has been instrumental to those who persist in that endeavour.

Translator’s notes :

[1"Khrushchev Thaw refers to the period from the mid 1950s to the early 1960s, when repression and censorship in the Soviet Union were partially reversed, and millions of Soviet political prisoners were released from ’Gulag’ camps, because Khrushchev initiated de-Stalinisation of Soviet life and the policy of peaceful coexistence with other nations." William Taubman, Khrushchev: The Man and His Era, London: Free Press, 2004. The term was coined after Ilya Ehrenburg’s 1954 novel The Thaw, "Оттепель" (text in original Russian),

[2From the French Liberation to 1972, the magazine "Les Lettres françaises" , edited by Louis Aragon, benefitted from the financial support of the French Communist Party (PCF). Since the 1990’s, the magazine, renowned for its high literary quality, is currently published, the first Saturday of each month, by "L’Humanité".

[3In the entire cycle of novels The Red Wheel, each different stage in the narrative is referred to as a "knot" (uzel in Russian ?)

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