Thursday, August 28, 2008

Alexander Solzhenitsyn

IN June 1974, or thereabout, a Ghanaian friend of mine presented me with a book, Letter to Soviet Leaders, written the year before by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The book was translated from the Russian original by Hilary Sternberg and published by Index on Censorship. It was distributed world-wide by Fontana Books, London. Coming three months before the appearance of Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago, the letter was a bitter and holistic denunciation of the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics (or the Soviet Union, or USSR): its philosophy, ideology, economics, politics, state system and foreign relations.

The Ghanaian friend who gave me Letter to Soviet leaders, by post, was a foundation graduate student of Computer Science at the University of Lagos. This was in the early days of my socialist consciousness and involvement in organised socialist politics. The reason for his book gift to me was patronising: to open my eyes to the "evils" of what I was getting into. I was angered by his patronising attitude, but I thanked him and read the book.

Ten months after this book gift, I was given another book authored by Solzhenitsyn. But the circumstances were different. I had been detained in January 1975 by General Yakubu Gowon's military government for "subversive" agitation. In April, I requested my jailers for books to read. After a long consideration, I was given two books: The Holy Bible and Solzhenitsyn's The First Circle. I was familiar with the former, but I was seeing the latter for the first time. The message of my jailers was clear. I read both of them. The First Circle is a fictionalised account of prison experience in the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin (1879 - 1953) and - to some extent-under his successors. Upon my release I obtained my own copy of The First Circle and a Soviet response titled The Last Circle. I scribbled my own comment: Neither First Nor Second Circle (unpublished).

Since these early days, I have read a couple of other fictions and essays written by Solzhenitsyn. They have added to my knowledge of the Stanlinist brutality and irrationality, as well as Russian history. Beyond this, I can testify that Solzehnitsyn, who died in Moscow on August 7, 2008, at the age of 89, was a fine writer, well-read in Russian history, philosophy and literature. He must have been a brilliant army officer, having been twice decorated during World War II. He was a courageous man with a very strong spirit. He was undoubtedly a Russian patriot, as distinct from a Soviet patriot. In spite of all these attributes, however, I am not a "follower" of Solzhenitsyn for reasons I shall provide below.

Many tributes have been paid to Solzhenitsyn since his death. The internet is loaded with them. He was given a semi-state burial in Moscow, and this was shown live by the leading international cable televisions. The limited aim of this piece is to refute some glaring errors, distortions and deliberate misinformation about him and his career-especially by Nigerian media commentators. I shall do this by invoking his Letter to Soviet leaders. After all, this letter was almost his last critique of the Soviet system before his expulsion from the Soviet Union - an act that cannot be defended now as it could not be defended then. But before this, I may sketch, as preface, the trajectory of the great man's life. More copious essays on this can be found in the internet and the world media.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn was born in Russia in 1918, the year after the Russian socialist revolution. His father, a retired army officer, died shortly before he (Alexander) was born. The young Solzhenitsyn was, therefore, brought up by his mother who encouraged him to study widely - mathematics, history, philosophy and literature. He was raised in the Russian Orthodox faith. He took a degree in mathematics. He became a member of the youth wing of the ruling Communist Party and edited several of their publications. He fought in the Society army during World War II, and rose to the rank of Captain.

It was towards the end of that war that his trouble began. His letter to a friend, in which he bitterly criticised Stalin and his conduct of the war, had been intercepted. He was charged with "anti-Soviet propaganda" and "founding a hostile organisation", found guilty and sentenced in July 1945 to "eight-year term in a labour camp, to be followed by permanent internal exile". In March 1953, following the death of Stalin, Solzhenitsyn was given a conditional release. He renounced Marxism and "Communism" during this period. Solzhenitsyn wrote several books during his "labour camp" years, and continued writing after his final release. Some of his books were published in the Soviet Union. In 1970 he received the Nobel Prize for Literature which was given in absentia because he was not allowed to travel to Sweden. In February 1974, Solzhenitsyn was deported from the Soviet Union.

I may now turn to Solshenitsyn's Letter to Soviet leaders which he completed on September 5, 1973, and sent to a number of Soviet Union's leaders of state and party. I shall use that book, as a source of refutations. And for these, I refer only to the article "Alexander Solzhenitsyn and the Russian liberation" (The Guardian, August 13, 2008), contributed by my friend, Professor Emmanuel Eseimokhai, the Academic Chancellor, Basas International Law Bureau, Abuja. I am selecting Eseimokhai because he is at home with the subject. I agree with much of what my friend wrote, but not when he said: "It is not true that Solzhenitsyn hated communism, as some ill-informed scholars have said. He was a communist cadre but disagreed with the Soviet Communist Party on ideological issues".

Not so, Emmanuel. Yes, Solzhenitsyn was a communist cadre. But he renounced Marxism and Communism fundamentally and in their totality - not just their Soviet variants - before he left the prison camps. Solzhenitsyn hated Marxism and Communism with a passion whose ferocity I have seen only in very few personages of his historical stature. Hear this: "Marxism is not only not accurate, not only not a science, has not only failed to predict a single event in terms of figures, quantities, time-scales or locations. Only the cupidity of some, the blindness of others, and a craving for faith on the part of still others can serve to explain this grim humour of the twentieth century; how can such a discredited and bankrupt doctrine still have so many followers in the West!" (Letter, page 43).

Just before this passage, Solzhenitsyn had claimed: "This ideology that fell to us by inheritance is not only decrepit and hopelessly antiquated now; even during its best decade it was totally mistaken in its predictions and was never a science. A primitive, superficial economic theory, it declared that only the worker creates value and failed to take into account the contribution of either organisers, engineers, transport or marketing systems". He then went on to list specific instances where, according to him, Marxism had been "mistaken". Beautiful language; but wrong, pathetically wrong. He was wrong when he wrote his letter in 1973. He is wrong today. But it is not my intention to refute Solzhenitsyn here. I only wish to correct misconceptions about him.

Solzehnitzyn's Letter to Soviet Leaders was essentially a call on Soviet leaders to abandon the ruling ideology. Leave it to other nations and peoples who may want it, he admonished. He blamed all the ills and problems of the Soviet Union on the ideology. He vehemently rejected suggestions that Russian history might, in part, explain some specific structure and practices of the Soviet State, including the labour camp system, internal exile, deportation, secret police, etc. He overlooked the fact that these features of the Soviet system existed in Tsarist Russia. For instance, Leon Trotsky, the field commander of the Russian revolution, was sent on internal exile to Siberia under the Tsar. Ten years after the revolution, he was sent by Stalin on internal exile to Kazakhstan; and then deported to Turkey.

Solzhenitsyn urged Soviet leaders to abandon internationalism. Hear him: "Let's leave the Arabs to their fate, they have Islam, they will sort themselves out. And let's leave South America to itself. Nobody is threatening to take it over. And let's leave Africa to find out for itself how to start on an independent road to statehood and civilisation, and simply wish it the good fortune not to repeat the mistakes of uninterrupted progress. Our people are not going to live in space, or in South-East Asia, or Latin America: it is Siberia and the North that are our hope and reservoir" (Letter, pages 28-29). Abandon "world revolution", he urged. Surrender "communism" to China, and the danger of a terrible war with that country would vanish, he pontificated. Solzhenitsyn was also anti-Jew, cynically and suggestively drawing attention to what he saw as the preponderance of Jews in the leadership and membership of the ruling Communist Party.

I mentioned Solzhenitsyn's courage and patriotism. Let me illustrate with the concluding paragraph of his Letter: "I have amply demonstrated that I set no store by material wealth and I am prepared to sacrifice my life. To you such a vision of life is a rarity - but here it is for you to behold".