By lex, on August 4th, 2008
My favorite professor at the US Naval Academy was a nattily dressed Pole with a charming accent and a casually exuberant attitude that stood in vivid contrast to the dour, patched elbow shabbiness of his departmental colleagues. Most of them were humorless liberals of the garden variety East Coast cohort, men and women who seemed to have purposefully installed themselves within the belly of the military-industrial beast, the better for to shake us from the bourgeois certainties of our middle class upbringing and preach the gospel of the Omnipresent Virtuous State. So long, you know, as the machinery of state was composed of bureaucrats from correct-thinking cadres.
Otherwise, not so much.
My professor’s father – an officer in the Polish Army – had been murdered by the Soviet Army NKVD in the Katyn Forest in 1940. My own father had delivered war supplies to the Soviet Union on the Murmansk Run from New York, nearly losing his life in the process and learning along the way an abiding respect for the endurance of the Russian people. This appreciation for their stoicism was generously admixtured with an unabashed loathing for their form of government.
I learned at my father’s knee a visceral hatred of tyranny in all its forms. My professor gave me and my classmates an intellectual underpinning for that same emotion, ammunition which served us in good stead back in the late ’70s, before the “inherent contradictions of the system”- to use the kind of language once sported by its apologists – the Soviet Union had not yet fatally manifested. At least, not to everyone’s satisfaction. And because the opinion of a Pole must always taken with a grain of salt when it comes to the issue of all things Russian, his chosen spokesman in our education was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
The innate character flaw of the political right, with its thrumming appeals to the logic of blood and soil, is its lamentable tendency to go in search of enemies abroad. The left, on the other hand, with its own appeals to the politics of envy and class warfare, is content to find mortal enemies closer to hand. Solzhenitsyn introduced us to the inner workings of the latter process.
His first dialogue with us came in the form of his “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch.” What Ivan Denisovitch taught us was not so much a lesson in depths of evil as a reinforcement of Hannah Arendt’s observation of its thoroughgoing banality. One innocent man’s ten year sentence – ten years and three days, courtesy of intervening leap years – to the Gulag: The body is (barely) sustained, but the soul completely destroyed. From the standpoint of the state, either outcome would suffice.
From the personal to the general, we were taken then to “The Gulag Archipelago.” A barbaric system of punishment through which tens of millions moved, most of whom never emerged again. I do confess that it was heavy sledding at times, getting through all those unfamiliar Russian patronymics. Until I realized the point the author was after: He wasn’t making this up, this was an enumeration, a reckoning. Real people. People whose role it was less to expiate their own sins than serve as examples of intimidation for the others.
For the greater good.
Solzhenitsyn was an imperfect hero, and no liberal – not in the classical sense: His legacy will always strive against a rebuttable presumption of Antisemitism, and he remained until his death an unrepentant nationalist whose disapproval of Communism was based not merely upon the brutality of its oppression but also by its ineffectuality. He died happily cheering the strong-man state built upon the ashes of Communism by Vladimir Putin, and loudly decrying the excesses of popular Western culture.
But he was a man who both cursed the darkness and lit a candle, and unlike those of our acquaintance busily congratulating themselves at Speaking Truth To Power, Man, he did so at a great personal risk against a utterly inhumane system whose retaliatory potentialities he fully understood. All human progress depends upon such as he.
He was a man, take him for all in all.
We shall not look upon his like again.
Update: Lileks does it better. Of course. Being, all you know: A professional.
I was in the perfect mood to read the entire Gulag Archipelago. I got all three volumes from the drugstore – which should have told me something about the land in which I lived, that one could buy this work from a creaky wire rack at the drugstore – and it taught me much about the Soviet Union and the era of Stalin. After that I could never quite understand the people who viewed the US and the USSR as moral equals, or regarded our history as not only indelibly stained but uniquely so. Reading Solzhenitsyn makes it difficult to take seriously the people in this culture who insist that Dissent has been squelched. Brother, you have no idea.