It will soon be thirty years since the implosion of the Soviet Union. That liberating event took place on the last day of August in 1991, exactly twenty-one months after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Will there be celebrations to mark the anniversary? Not if Europe and the West have grown so forgetful of their freedoms and where they come from that the day passes by without anyone remembering it.
Will anyone remember those who, by the sheer heroism of their lives, made it happen—Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, for instance, without whose witness the evil empire might never have fallen at all. How could any one man possibly have done so much to ensure the end of Soviet tyranny? And why exactly did we call it an evil empire?
It was Ronald Reagan, actually, who coined the phrase. Then, with that characteristic audacity we found so endearing, he went on to declare that it would shortly be consigned to the ash heap of history, forever confounding the prediction of Lenin that Communism would succeed in burying the West. That Cold War of conflicting ideas, that fierce clash of ideologies as long as any in the history of the world, is now over and, yes, our side won.
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But leaving aside the necessary contributions of statesman of the stature of President Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, not to mention the combined fire power of Pope St. John Paul II and the Holy Ghost, much of the credit for killing Communism belongs to the work of a single Russian writer, who, in the face of almost unimaginable hardship, set about dismantling the whole structure of lies.
I say almost because it certainly was not unimaginable to Solzhenitsyn, who not only was forced to endure it, but chose to write it all down in order to keep alive the historical memory of what had happened to his country from the moment systemic and widespread Marxist terror began in October of 1917. By simply telling the truth, he gave back to the Russian people, held hostage for more than seventy years, the memory of a world they had lost—a world where faith and family were not targeted by the State but allowed to flourish in freedom.
It all began in 1962 with One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a short, searing account of life in a slave-labor camp, much like the one to which Solzhenitsyn himself was sent for alleged offenses committed against Josef Stalin. In those days, even the most trivial of indiscretions, like telling a joke against Stalin, could easily result in long stretches of incarceration. Solzhenitsyn was given eight years, not an unusual stretch for provocations of that sort. It would later be commuted, however, during the Khrushchev years, when Stalin was safely dead.
Even then, however, it was a lonely and difficult life, with the overarching fear and uncertainty of a knock on the door in the middle of the night from the KGB. Yet he carried on, lacking both editorial support and even the expectation that what he wrote, painstakingly typed and retyped, would ever emerge above ground to make a difference.
Slowly, the books appeared, including Cancer Ward and The First Circle, both published in 1968 but only in English translations, the Russian editions not yet available. Then came the blockbuster, The Gulag Archipelago, a massive three-volume indictment of the entire Soviet system, which first circulated underground in Russia, but by 1974 had reached the West, putting the last liberal illusion to flight concerning the benign shape of the Communist world.
It was never, however, about Solzhenitsyn alone. The witness was his to make but not for him to receive. Nor was it ever a matter of stoking his own muse as if that had been the source of the energy and inspiration which kept him going. It was God who directed him, his vocation having been given to him from above. “I had learned in my years of imprisonment,” he tells us, “to sense that guiding hand, to glimpse that bright meaning beyond and above myself and my wishes.” In other words, it was no longer Solzhenitsyn who was doing the work but some unseen force sweeping him along. “I was only the firing pin attached to a spring.”
And, again, to what end but to bear witness—to testify to numberless victims concerning the truth of an insane and violent ideology, the exercise of whose power would come to define the twentieth century. (As Whittaker Chambers once put it, who was himself charged by God to give witness: “If you had wanted a pleasant century in which to be born, you’ve certainly chosen the wrong one. History hit us with a freight train.”) Solzhenitsyn would be their voice, telling the world all those “dying wishes of millions whose last whisper, last moan, had been cut short on some hut floor in some prison camp.”
And yet there was more. Not only was his mission to be understood in purely destructive terms, as the demolition of a hateful and hideous system bent on violence; but it was equally to be seen as a work of resurrection, of breathing new life into a people whose memories had suffered a kind of amputation. “Beyond the immediate struggle with the Communist state loomed a greater challenge still,” he writes in Invisible Allies, a book which pays tribute to those who, at considerable risk, helped him smuggle his writings out of the country: “The Russian spirit lay comatose, as if crushed beneath a mighty rock, and this vast tombstone…must somehow be raised, overturned, and sent crashing downhill.”
Whether the work of Solzhenitsyn succeeds in accomplishing that far more challenging task, no one can say. But it remains undeniable that beneath the moral weight of his witness, an entire apparatus of deceit and violence came to an end.
It is up to all of us now to keep alive that historical memory.
[Photo Credit: Public Domain]