When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, pundits offered a variety of reasons for its failure: economic, political, military. Few thought to add a fourth, more elusive cause: the regime’s total loss of credibility.
This hard-to-measure process had started in 1956, when Premier Nikita Khrushchev gave his so-called secret speech to party leaders, in which he denounced Josef Stalin’s purges and officially revealed the existence of the gulag prison system. Not long afterward, Boris Pasternak allowed his suppressed novel “Doctor Zhivago” to be published in the West, tearing another hole in the Iron Curtain. Then, in 1962, the literary magazine Novy Mir caused a sensation with a novella set in the gulag by an unknown author named Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn.
That novella, “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” took the country, and then the world, by storm. In crisp, clear prose, it told the story of a simple man’s day in a labor camp, where he stoically endured endless injustices. It was so incendiary that, when it appeared, many Soviet readers thought that government censorship had been abolished.
Solzhenitsyn was no youthful beginner. Born a hundred years ago, on Dec. 11, 1918, just 14 months after the Bolshevik Revolution, he was virtually the same age as the Soviet state and had experienced every phase of its development. As a youth and college student he had been swept up in the revolutionary euphoria of the communist experiment and fervently believed in the premises of Marxism-Leninism. In World War II he served as the commander of an artillery sound-ranging battalion and was awarded two medals for valor.
But Solzhenitsyn’s promising career was brutally cut short by his arrest in February 1945 on a charge of anti-Soviet activities; he was swiftly sentenced to eight years of hard labor in the gulag. His crime? Criticizing Stalin and the Soviet Army in letters exchanged with a school friend on another front.
This Dickensian reversal of fortune plunged Solzhenitsyn into despair, but it also opened his eyes to the hideous underbelly of Soviet communism and gave him glimpses of the reign of terror and lies that had kept it going for so long. [Continue reading…]