The Dissident We Didn’t Understand

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Reviewing Daniel J. Mahoney’s The Other Solzhenitsyn: Telling the Truth about a Misunderstood Writer and Thinker, Lee Congdon appreciates the effort to push back against the famed Soviet dissident’s most vehement Western detractors – but isn’t quite convinced when Mahoney “insists that Solzhenitsyn was a proponent of democracy”:

[Solzhenitsyn] was skeptical of democracy at the higher reaches of power. One need not, he recognized, hold a degree in political science in order to arrive at informed judgments about local matters, but only those qualified by education and experience were competent to guide policy, domestic and foreign, at the national level. It is true, as Mahoney points out, that Solzhenitsyn was more or less resigned to some form of democratic order in post-communist Russia, but like Tocqueville he was far from welcoming it. In Rebuilding Russia, written a year before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Solzhenitsyn observed that “Tocqueville viewed the concepts of democracy and liberty as polar opposites. He was an ardent proponent of liberty but not at all of democracy.”

One of the reasons for Mahoney’s insistence upon his subject’s commitment to democracy is his fear that the Russian might be classed as an authoritarian. In his Letter to the Soviet Leaders, Solzhenitsyn had, after all, written that “it is not authoritarianism itself that is intolerable, but the ideological lies that are daily foisted upon us.” Mahoney insists, however, that “Solzhenitsyn nowhere endorsed authoritarianism as choice-worthy in itself.”

Praising Mahoney’s book, Carl Scott advises those unfamiliar with Solzhenitsyn’s work where to start:

Had I to start over again, I’m not sure the order I’d go in, but certainly the GULAG Archipelago first, in the abridged edition, perhaps some of the key essays and speeches next, available in the Solzhenitysn Reader, edited by Ericson and Mahoney, and then onto either In the First Circle, or the first two first “knots” of the super-novel The Red Wheel, namely, the just reissued–in the superior/complete Willetts translations–August 1914 and November 1916.  The third of these is one of my very favorite novels, despite the criticism it gets for providing too much history and political commentary alongside its main sections.  For In the First Circle and August 1914, make sure you get the newer versions.  And somewhere in there, you need to delve into a number of the short stories and poems.

For more, you can listen to an absorbing podcast Mahoney did about the book here.

(Image: Solzhenitsyn in Cologne, West Germany, in 1974, via Wikimedia Commons)