Translator’s Foreword (Fluctuarius Argenteus)
The doubtless success of the “primer” for Kholmogorov’s Solzhenitsyn treatise has compelled both the author and the translator to publish another “juicy bit” from the sprawling work. This part of the article analyzes Solzhenitsyn’s rejection of the Enlightenment that led him to lambast Andrey Sakharov’s project of a gradual “convergence” between Communism and Capitalism, causing a split within the dissident movement. It serves as a useful and engaging glimpse into Solzhenitsyn’s anti-Enlightenment, anti-Globalist, outspokenly nationalist philosophy that has reacquired relevance in recent years.
Most of the footnotes and tangents of the original text have been truncated, paraphrased, or incorporated into the body of the article proper. Several insignificant abridgements have been made, with the author’s consent.
The Enlightenment of Our Discontent
Solzhenitsyn was 20th century’s most consistent and paradoxical opponent of the Enlightenment. The paradox lied in the fact that he did not challenge Enlightenment secular humanism from the standpoint of a reactionary anti-humanism. Solzhenitsyn’s criticism came from a humane viewpoint, consistent and empathetic towards both the nation and the individual. This paradox was something that didn’t escape André Glucksman’s attention during his discussion with Solzhenitsyn on French TV: “For me, this man directly belongs and adheres to a group of writers who dedicated their talent to the cause of struggle for justice. However, some of those writers, such as Tolstoy, Zola, or Hugo, completely accepted and completely corresponded to the Enlightenment ideology. But Solzhenitsyn is now critical of this ideology, hence the paradox.” (Le Bouillon de culture talk show , broadcast on 17 September 1993 )
Solzhenitsyn resisted the Enlightenment by employing the language of suffering and acting as the voice of pain endured by those martyred for the cause of “Enlightenment ideals” during two Enlightenment-inspired revolutions: that of the French Jacobins and that of the Russian Bolsheviks. From this viewpoint, he definitely belongs to the “naturalistic” strain of Conservatism. However, he explicitly spurns Rousseauist naturalism and rejects its “noble savage” and his society-dependent “nobility”: “I am most unlike Rousseau in my views. Claiming that humans are good by nature but corrupted by their environment and circumstances was a grave error. I have always said, many times, that the line between good and evil is not drawn between governments, parties, or nations, but through every human heart. A human being is naturally inclined to both good and evil.” (Die Zeit interview, 1993)
Transferring the burden of responsibility for a moral choice between good and evil is the main sin against humanity committed, according to Solzhenitsyn, by the Enlightenment philosophy: “When religion started to wane in the 18th century (the 19th in certain areas), this faith was transposed onto the social system alone. After the loss of religious sentiment, the route of individual self-perfection, the way of individual education started to weaken, and the center of gravity shifted to this: once we change society, we’ll fix all of our problems.” Attempts at transforming humanity via a social transformation of the society were paid with the bloody toll of the guillotine and the Gulag.
That is why “Enlightenment” is one of the most negatively charged notions in Solzhenitsyn’s lexicon. “If the Earth is finite, then its spaces and resources are finite, and it is unfit for the sort of endless, limitless progress that was hammered into our heads by Enlightenment fantasists”, he wrote in his 1973 Letter to the Leaders of the Soviet Union.
A quarter of the century later, and the Limits to Growth myth-making of the Club of Rome, so influential in Solzhenitsyn’s early writings, is nowhere to be seen. Instead of a technological and environmental crisis, the West is faced with its own imperial Globalism. This was the subject of one of Solzhenitsyn’s last notable discourses, Degeneration of Humanism, read in December 2000 at the award ceremony for the Grand Prix of the French Académie des sciences morales et politiques. Once more, Solzhenitsyn drives an onslaught against the Enlightenment and its usual companion, secular humanism, as the main culprits of the modern crisis:
“Humanism was captivated by the seductive idea of taking from Christianity all of its noblest ideas, its goodness, its compassion towards the oppressed and the wretched, its acceptance of free will… while somehow doing without the Creator of the Universe.”
From time to time, humanism did succeed at assuaging cruelties. Nevertheless, over the course of the 20th century, the world was wrecked with two terrible wars, and in their wake, trying to preserve its zealous idealism, humanism morphed into a “humanism of promises”. Promises of establishing a rational worldwide order, giving equal rights to the entire population of the globe, creating a world government…
And, in its turn, this round of promises ended in falsehood.
“The term “progress for everyone” started to lapse from common usage. If some concessions are to be made by someone, somewhere, why should it be us, the most effective and developed nations, the Golden Billion?.. The gap between the most and least advanced countries keeps growing instead of shrinking. There is a hard rule: you fall behind once, you are to doomed to falling behind forever… If someone on this planet must dampen their industries, why not do it at the expense of the Third World? There are powerful financial and economic tools for that: world banks, transnational corporations… Is such a change completely unexpected for Humanism? Let’s recall that, during its development, there was a period, after d’Holbach, Helvétius, and Diderot, when a theory of “rational egotism” was proclaimed and gained significant traction… And now the current Russian press writes about an “enlightened egotistical interest.” Egotistical, but still enlightened , you see…”
As the zeitgeist changed, so did intellectual movements that influenced Solzhenitsyn. From a partisan of the Limits to Growth theory, he turned into a caustic anti-Globalist, pulling the mask off the same anti-industrialism that used to enthrall him, revealing it as an ideology of saving resources at the expense of the weak. There is one constant, however: Solzhenitsyn traces the evils of the modern world to the Enlightenment paradigm. “From the Age of the Enlightenment”, he argues, “grow the roots of Liberalism, Socialism, and Communism alike.”
This Enlightenment humanism led to making it “possible – with only the most humane of goals in mind! – to carry out a three-month long bombing of a European country populated by millions, robbing large cities and entire regions of electricity, so vital in our day and age, and destroying without hesitation marvelous European bridges over the Danube. Is it in the name of saving one part of the populace from deportation – and dooming the other part to the same fate? Is it in the name of healing a country branded a “sick man” – or is it in the name of stripping it of a lucrative province?” The 1999 Kosovo War, a watershed of Russian consciousness in its relations with the West, was, for Solzhenitsyn, the latest fruit of the Enlightenment.
The Enlightenment of Solzhenitsyn’s writings is a composite image, if you will, a general metaphor of the evils of modernity that he was opposed to. The two millstones that his grain has been caught between – those of Communism and Western Liberalism – are, essentially, parts of the same Enlightenment windmill. Two roads to the same abyss, to paraphrase Solzhenitsyn’s ally Igor Shafarevich, were laid by the same motor grader, with Voltaire, Diderot, and Rousseau pulling its levers.
Feud with Sakharov
The entire period of Solzhenitsyn activity as a publicist, thinker, intellectual, and political prophet is a constant and fierce duel with the Enlightenment. And it begins with a resistance to the menace of convergence, that is, a rapprochement and a fusion of the two versions of the Enlightenment project: Soviet Communism and Western Liberalism.
To properly understand what the concept means, we should turn to the reality of late 1960s – early 1970s. For an analyst at that time, it seemed beyond any doubt that “convergence” was the keyword of the decade. A democratic West and a Communist East were drawn together, heading towards a complete merger.
In the West, the Left reaches the apex of its power. Leftist parties, and Leftist ideas even more so, influence the policy-making of most Western countries. In the US, Lyndon Johnson ushers in his Great Society programs and rapidly does away with racial segregation. In the UK, the Labour are almost always in power (and when they aren’t, Tory policies aren’t that different). In France, General de Gaulle not only pursues friendship with the Soviet Union but also strongarms entrepreneurs into a system of sharing their revenue with their workers. In Germany, Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik ends an acrimonious confrontation between its West and East. The youth revolution of 1968, despite its defeat, changes the paradigm of social consciousness.
The USSR and its satellites, dubbed as “the East”, undergo a different revolution, social and psychological in character. While the official Soviet Union is engaged in a confrontation, and sometimes even a war, with the West, the average Soviet citizen craves nothing else than becoming Western in all respects – in fashion, music, books, ideas, living standards and lifestyle. Consumerism becomes the foundation of life choices. The main grievance with the Soviet regime has nothing to do with its suppression of freedom, persecution of religion, stifling of free thought, exploitation or expropriation. The main discontent is that it fails to provide living standards commensurate with the consumption standards of the West (or their imitation, such as a Lada instead of a Fiat). The Prague Spring of 1968 is a suppressed revolution just like the Paris Spring, but it is also seen as a major paradigm shift – a complete loss of faith in Soviet Communism by pretty much everyone.
The development of this situation, it seemed, could follow but a single scenario: a Détente and a gradual waning of hostilities and erasure of borders between West and East, with a well-fed European demi-Socialism at one end of the bridge and a famished Soviet demi-bourgeoisie at the other. Both sides would, of course, stamp out the “radicals”: the “Stalinists”, hell-bent on continuing class struggle until the bitter end, and the Right, made of out reactionaries, nationalists, and Christians rejecting Communism specifically because of its radical secularism and lack of nationality.
In the long run, it would lead to a fusion of the Soviet Union with the West as its demi-periphery with a sizeable geopolitical autonomy, a consolidation of all versions of the Enlightenment historical project, and the coming of a Euro-Communist, Socialist, and Liberal Reformist “end of history”. This would be exactly the future envisioned by one of the heroes of the age, Academician Andrei Sakharov, in his Reflections on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom (1968):
Stage 1: […] A growing struggle of ideas between Stalinists and Maoists on one side and realistically minded left-wing Leninists and “Occidentalists” on the other leads to […] chartering the course to a deeper peaceful coexistence, a stronger democracy, and wider economic reforms (1968 to 1980).
Stage 2: In the USA and other Capitalist countries, the assertive demands of real life […] lead to the victory of the left, reform-conscious wing of the bourgeoisie. In their actions, they adopt a program of a rapprochement, or “convergence”, with Socialism… This program envisions a stronger role for the intelligentsia in the struggle against racism and militarism (1972 to 1985).
Stage 3: The Soviet Union and the USA, leaving their differences behind, solve the problem of rescuing the “poorer” half of the globe… They construct enormous chemical fertilizer factories and nuclear-powered irrigation systems… At the same time, disarmament is well underway (1972 to 1990)
Stage 4: A Socialist Convergence leads to weakening the contradictions of social structures… to a world government and a mollifying of national antagonism (1968 to 2002)”
The picture of a consolidated Communo-Liberal world, built on a common Enlightenment foundation and unfit for nations and national uniqueness, where Red atheists continue to lord over the destiny of the Russian people (who will also be subject to, in Sakharov’s term, a “very cultured world management” – all of this was so repugnant to Solzhenitsyn that he wasted no time in rushing into battle.
By the point of Solzhenitsyn’s transformation into a public civic thinker, his views solidified around an unwavering opposition to the entirety of the post-Medieval “orbital route” of humanity, starting with the Renaissance and the Reformation. For Solzhenitsyn, the only difference between Soviet Communism and Western Liberalism is the intensity and the degree of violence in their imposing of godlessness. In the Letter to the Leaders, he emphasized that “atheism was the main emotional center of inspiration for Marxism, and the remainder of its doctrine was tacked onto this.”
Solzhenitsyn equally rejects a Western ingrowth into Communism, leading to lenience towards totalitarian Soviet repression, and an ingrowth of the USSR into the Western system through its acceptance of consumerist behavior patterns. One of the final chapters of Cancer Ward is a peculiar manifestation of these anti-consumerist views, shown through Kostoglodov’s confusion and irritation at a Tashkent department store during his attempts at buying a “lightweight smoothing-iron”. The extremely meager range of goods on sale is portrayed as an unnecessary and obscene opulence, as a meaningless clutter of useless objects, and an overheard snippet of a conversation about a “size 50 shirt with a size 39 collar” nearly drives the protagonist into a frenzy.
The main spiritual foe of Solzhenitsyn’s is not Communism by itself and not the liberal West but what they have in common: a project of improving human life without God, the general preference given to the material over the spiritual. The greatest danger for him is a threat of consolidation of the two Enlightenment projects on a single platform. Such a consolidation would lead to an unstoppable reinforcement of the Enlightenment world order and a doubling of the negatives of the two Enlightenment “schools of thought”.
It was entirely logical that Solzhenitsyn’s first attempt at political debate, the As Breathing And Consciousness Return article opening the seminal dissident anthology From Under the Rubble published in Paris in 1974, would be a dispute with Sakharov’s Convergence project.
Solzhenitsyn argues that a conflict between Stalinism and Leninism is impossible because Stalinism is Leninism put to practice. Socialism, as a revolutionary ideology, is incompatible with any sort of ethics or nonviolence and thus cannot lead to a peaceful coexistence.
As a counterweight to Sakharov’s globalism, Solzhenitsyn consistently emphasizes nationalism:
“Against the current of Marxism, the 20th century gave us the limitless strength and vitality of national sentiment, which impels us to ponder more thoroughly over this conundrum: Why is humanity so clearly quantified in terms of nations, no less so than in terms of individuals? Is this national faceting not one of the greatest riches of humankind? Should it be erased? Can it?”
In the text of his Nobel lecture (1970), the Russian writer is even more assertive in formulating his nationalist and anti-Globalist manifesto:
“Lately, it has become fashionable to speak of an erasure of nations, of peoples vanishing in a melting pot of modern civilization. I disagree… the disappearance of nations would make us even poorer than making all humans alike, having the same character, the same face… Nations are humanity’s treasure and its collective personalities; the smallest of them has its own colors and conceals within itself a special facet of God’s design…”
Finally, Solzhenitsyn lands a powerful blow against his main unspoken enemy – the Convergence theory.
“For solving the ethical problems of humankind, the prospect of a convergence is a rather dreary one: two flawed societies with their own vices, slowly coming together and turning one into the other, what can they produce? A society that is doubly immoral.”
A convergence does not produce a mutual transfer of advantages, just a duplication of vices typical of either type of society. Those vices are rooted in their common foundation – the Enlightenment, and, consequently, atheism.
Solzhenitsyn is very well aware of Sakharov’s true intentions behind his statement that a Globalist convergence would produce a planetary government best described as a “very cultured world management”. This program of transit from a “Socialist democracy” and plain old “democracy” towards an authoritarian rule of Enlightenment “holy orders” forces Solzhenitsyn to lay out a completely opposite plan: an exodus from Communism via a nationalist authoritarianism heaving closer to earth, to the soil, to the breath of historical tradition.
Continuing his debate with Sakharov, Solzhenitsyn grinds his axe particularly against the “democratic” utopia of Occidentalist dissidents.
“An external freedom, freedom by itself, can it be the ultimate goal of sentient creatures? Or is it but a form for accomplishing other, loftier tasks?”
“In a persistent search for political freedom… it would be useful to understand what to do with it. We achieved this freedom in 1917 (and it kept expanding month by month) – and how did we use it? Grab your rifle and go wherever your fancy takes you. Cut off the wire from a telegraph pole for your own personal use…”
To debate democratic utopianism, Solzhenitsyn employs a principle of historical duration. The bulk of human history unfolded under an Ancien Régime, but people still could live, and their lives weren’t particularly bad.
“…In the long course of human history, there have been rather few democratic republics, but people kept living for centuries, and not always in a bad way. They even felt this much-vaunted happiness, which is sometimes called pastoral or patriarchal and wasn’t simply invented by literature. And they managed to preserve the physical health of the nation (it is apparent because nations haven’t lapsed into degeneracy). They also preserved a spiritual health reflected, for example, in folklore and proverbs, a health much greater than the one expressed nowadays in ape-like radio melodies, musical hits, and bothersome commercials. Can a radio audience from outer space guess that this planet once had – and then left behind – Bach, Rembrandt, and Dante
Among those forms of government, there were many authoritarian ones, that is, based on a submission to an authority of a widely divergent source and quality… For many centuries, Russia endured many forms of authoritarianism but preserved herself and her health, and avoided the self-destructions that would happen in the 20th century. Millions of our rural forefathers who had existed over ten centuries did not feel at their deathbeds that they had lived overly intolerable lives…”
This argument, of course, could only be thought of by an anti-progressive, by someone not enthralled by the achievements of the industrial age, with its automobiles, TV sets, a developed medicine and supermarkets round every corner. Solzhenitsyn rejects an implied postulate of the progressive model: the relative growth of historical weight depending on the century, where the 19th century is infinitely more “weighty” than the 13th, and the 20th more so than the 19th. After enduring the main horrors of the 20th century, Solzhenitsyn is thoroughly skeptical of this thesis, and deliberately paints in the first chapters of August 1914 a near-pastoral picture of an Old Regime annihilated by the revolution.
Within the historical optics where the 20th century is not more important or relevant than the 10th, millennia of authoritarian, patriarchal regimes definitely have more weight than the short span of “democratic republics”, which has yet to demonstrate its stability and long-term effectiveness. Solzhenitsyn is more perturbed not by the autocracy of the past but by the “autocracies”, or rather totalitarian dictatorships, of the present (in the form of Communist partocracies) or the future (in the form of Liberal technocracies run by “very cultured people”).
“What is truly terrible is not authoritarianism by itself but regimes that bear no responsibility to anyone or anything. The autocrats of bygone religious ages, invested with a seemingly limitless power, felt their responsibility before God and their own conscience. Modern-day autocrats are more dangerous because it’s hard to find higher values that are binding for them…” As Solzhenitsyn’s main value is not progress, not consumerist plenty, not external freedom but a possibility to direct one’s soul to God, his rejection of Communism is logically followed not by an embracement of Occidentalist democracy but by a system more conducive to “render unto God the things that are God’s”.
“If Russia had been accustomed to living under authoritarians system for centuries, and a democratic system brought her to unraveling in the course of just eight months of 1917, then – I do not claim it, I merely ask – perhaps one should accept that an evolutionary development of our country from one type of authoritarianism to another would be more natural, smooth, and painless?” Without this polemics against Sakharov’s Convergence one cannot comprehend other principal ideas posited by Solzhenitsyn in his articles published in From Under the Rubble and his Letter to the Leaders.
The principle of self-restraint and the plan of Russia’s introspection, the inward turn towards its own North-East, were markedly anti-Globalist. When two globalizations, that of Soviet Communism and that of American Liberalism, intertwined in a bizarre antagonism/symbiosis known as the Cold War, their entanglement threatened to become a fusion. And the Russian writer proposes Russia to take a unilateral psychological and geopolitical leap out of globalization.
The Enlightenment doctrine had two essential foundations. It could be the Lockean principle of mutual limitation of individuals and limitless freedom where no such limitation existed, which led to the Liberal strain of the Enlightenment and the concept of human rights. It could be the Rousseauist principle of a fusion of individuals into a super-subject, an unrestricted collective sovereign; this paved the way for Enlightenment radicalism and Jacobin/Bolshevik practices.
Solzhenitsyn spurns this idea in favor of self-restraint, a personal limitation from within as a basis for true liberation. After quoting an Old Believer journal (“No true human freedom except in self-restraint”), he adds: “After a Western ideal of boundless freedom, after the Marxist notion of freedom as a deliberate and inescapable yoke comes the truly Christian definition of freedom: freedom is SELF-RESTRAINT! In the name of others!”
Once again, here we can discover a remarkable polar opposite to Sakharov’s famous formula “The meaning of life is in expansion”. For Solzhenitsyn, the meaning of life is in a rejection of expansion and a voluntary introspection, the development of what one already owns.
Hence both Solzhenitsyn’s anti-industrialism of this period and his geopolitical program championing a settlement of the Russian North-East. He attempts to get rid of the globalizing factors that kept drawing the USSR (and, consequently, Russia) into a closer entanglement with the West, hastening the dreaded Convergence. In From Under the Rubble and Letter to the Leaders, Solzhenitsyn seeks to convince both the Russian society and the Soviet regime to reject a competition with the West that draws them to a merger and turn inward, to improving their own homeland, the economic and geopolitical foundations of their civilization.
It is hard not to notice how directly opposed is Solzhenitsyn’s program of developing the Russian North-East as a home to Sakharov’s Globalist project of involving the USSR and the USA in solving Third World problems, as if the Russians really had nothing to do at their own home.
“We are tired of these global tasks, so useless to us! We must walk away from this heated global competition, from this much-advertised space race that we don’t need. Why should we plan building villages on the Moon while our own Russian villages are decaying and growing unfit for living? In an insane industrial race, we have herded immense human masses into unnatural cities with hasty and shoddy buildings, where we poison, overstrain, and debase ourselves starting with our youngest age. An exploitation of women instead of their equality, a dereliction of family education, alcoholism, loss of interest in work, the decline of schooling, the decline of our language – such are the spiritual wastelands that keep scouring our livelihood… And still, flaunting our “advancedness”, we have slavishly imitated the Western technological progress, only to thoughtlessly run with it into the impasse of a crisis that threatens the existence of humanity itself…”
A “convergent” globalization drains Russian natural resources and draws Russia into a pan-Western technological crisis, intensifying Russian de-nationalization. Most importantly, a US-Soviet cooperation/rivalry consolidates their materialist Enlightenment platform. Solzhenitsyn craves a change of direction: “We should stop running out into the street to pick each and every fight; we should humbly withdraw into out own home while we are in this state of disarray and confusion.” Instead of a globalizing Soviet outward expansion, Russia should turn to internal empty spaces, the key to Russian spiritual reintegration.
«The North-East is our vector, chartered long ago for Russia’s natural progress and development…
The North-East is a reminder that we, Russia, are the North-East of the planet! Our ocean is the Artic, not the Indian one, we are not the Mediterranean, we are not Africa, and we have no business there! Our hands, our sacrifice, our labor, our love is needed by these limitless spaces, recklessly abandoned to freeze in neglect for four centuries…
The North-East is the key to solving many allegedly unsolvable Russian problems… Its spaces give us a way out of the global technological crisis… Its cold, mostly frozen spaces are yet unready for agriculture and would require an immense investment of energy – but the very depths of the North-East conceal this energy, which we haven’t yet put to waste…
The North-East is larger than its name and deeper than its geography. The North-East would mean that Russia has eagerly taken the route of SELF-RESTRAINT, a choice of depth and not surface, an inward, not an outward choice. It would mean directing all of the citizens’ development – national, social, educational, family, and personal – toward an internal, not external prosperity.”
It was a brazen attempt to play at an “anti-Sakharov” field by pitching to the Soviets, instead of the globalizing Convergence of the Détente, a “divergence”, a planned de-globalization of the USSR in the name of Russian interests. “I write this under an ASSUMPTION that you have mostly the same concerns, that you do not shy away from your origins, your fathers, grandfathers, ancestors, and the nature you grew up with, that you are not devoid of nationality…” Solzhenitsyn addressed the Soviet leadership. He was mistaken: a clear national identity and national consciousness were something that his addressees sorely lacked. A telltale sign of this nihilism was Solzhenitsyn’s emphatic deportation from the USSR soon after he had sent the letter.
However, if the “ideological” part of Solzhenitsyn’s proposals was completely unacceptable for the Soviet establishment, some of his proposed routes of national development were either appropriated by the Soviets or masterfully predicted by Solzhenitsyn himself. Let’s check the timetable:
September 1973. The Letter is written and sent.
February 1974. Solzhenitsyn expelled from the USSR.
March 1974. The first of CPSU Central Committee plenary sessions devoted to the “Non-Chernozem Zone”. The Zone (essentially, the core of Russian territory) is in the center of Soviet government policies and sees real investment.
April 1974. The Baikal-Amur Railway is declared a construction project of national importance, both pursuing an anti-Chinese policy and developing the North-East. Peter Stolypin’s project of an Amur railway from nearly 70 years before had been explicitly mentioned in Solzhenitsyn’s Letter.