The scholarship of Lee Congdon’s Solzhenitsyn: The Historical-Spiritual Destinies of Russia and the West is sound, demonstrating a breadth of knowledge and a depth of understanding of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s worldview…
Solzhenitsyn: The Historical-Spiritual Destinies of Russia and the West by Lee Congdon (164 pages, Northern Illinois University Press, 2017)
This December will mark the centenary of the birth of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. It is, therefore, good to see the publication of a book which encapsulates Solzhenitsyn’s intellectual engagement with the twentieth century through an integration of his corpus into its historical, political, philosophical, and religious context.
Dr. Congdon’s slim and engaging volume constitutes a significant contribution to the field of Solzhenitsyn studies. It complements the excellent books by Daniel J. Mahoney: The Other Solzhenitsyn: Telling the Truth about a Misunderstood Writer and Thinker; Solzhenitsyn: The Ascent from Ideology, and The Soul and Barbed Wire: An Introduction to Solzhenitsyn, the last of which was co-authored with Edward E. Ericson, Jr. It also serves to supplement my own biography, Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile, in its historical, political, philosophical and religious engagement with the profundity of Solzhenitsyn’s response to the trends and turmoil of the past century.
Dr. Congdon’s approach is original and singular insofar as it seeks to integrate Solzhenitsyn’s literary corpus into the backdrop of its historical context. The scholarship is sound, demonstrating a breadth of knowledge and a depth of understanding of Solzhenitsyn’s weltanschauung, rooted in a deep-rooted knowledge of Solzhenitsyn’s life and work and a panoramic engagement with twentieth-century history. The sources Dr. Congdon employs are appropriate, multifarious and comprehensive.
The material is organized very effectively through the adoption of a biographical timeline, beginning with the historical and intellectual currents that shaped the Russia into which Solzhenitsyn was born and continuing through the major events in his life as a means of connecting Solzhenitsyn to the political and historical upheavals to which he was responding. It’s an original and highly effective way of offering an exposition of Solzhenitsyn’s thought, as engaging and as accessible as the thematic approach adopted by Mahoney. Furthermore, the author’s writing style is clear, cogent and extremely readable.
Although the length of each of the relatively few chapters appears unwieldy and even somewhat daunting, their length is completely appropriate in the light of the overall and overarching form and structure of the work which is sublimely connected to the major divisions in Solzhenitsyn’s life. It is, therefore, gratifying that the publisher resisted the natural inclination to break these chapters into shorter bite-size chunks.
Dr. Congdon’s approach is implicitly Christian, which is refreshing in itself, and is suffused with a sympathy for the Orthodoxy that beats at the heart of Solzhenitsyn’s life and work. This is evident in the two epigraphs at the start of the book. The first is by Dostoevsky (“Without God… everything is permitted.”) and the second by Solzhenitsyn (“Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.”) This juxtaposition of Dostoevsky with Solzhenitsyn is also appropriate as an indication of the comparative and intertextual approach which animates Dr. Congdon’s discussion of Solzhenitsyn’s place in the wider cultural context. So, for instance, the first chapter “Revolution and War” begins with Solzhenitsyn’s birth in 1918, but proceeds backwards into the immediate past, discussing the upheavals of the preceding year, and then goes further back to the birth of Lenin in 1870 and the cultural backdrop to Lenin’s life. We hear of the place of “so-called Tolstoyan religion, which accepted the teachings of Jesus but not his divinity” and of Lenin’s splenetic hatred of Christianity in general and of Russian Orthodoxy in particular. “Every religious idea,” Lenin wrote to Maxim Gorky, “every idea of God, even every flirtation with the idea of god is unutterable vileness.”
The structural framework of the rest of the book is indicated by the other chapter titles, which break Solzhenitsyn’s life into distinct chronological categories: In the Gulag (his time in the Soviet prison system), Thorn in Their Side (his years as a vociferous dissident in the Soviet Union), In the West (his years in exile in Switzerland and the United States), The Return (his return to post-Soviet Russia in 1994), and finally Warning to the West (the priceless lessons that Solzhenitsyn teaches).
If we must dwell on the book’s flaws, it has to be said that the author occasionally assumes that his readers will already know some of the historical figures that he discusses and does not, therefore, offer the further details that many or most of his readers will need. There is also the occasional faux pas, such as the wrongheaded suggestion that Joseph Epstein’s disdain for the role or rule of children in the political sphere, what Epstein called the Kindergarchy, could be juxtaposed with Solzhenitsyn’s own view. “We are currently living in a Kindergarchy, under rule by children,” wrote Epstein, whereby “all arrangements are centered on children: their schooling, their lessons, their predilections, their care and feeding and general high maintenance.” Dr. Congdon juxtaposes this with Solzhenitsyn’s criticism of adolescent ignorance in his Nobel Prize acceptance lecture. “Today’s youth,” said Solzhenitsyn, “enthusiastically mouth the discredited clichés of the Russian nineteenth century, thinking they are uncovering something new.” Whereas Epstein seems to be suggesting that the care of parents for the needs of their children is problematic in the political sphere, Solzhenitsyn is saying nothing of the sort. He is saying merely that “youth,” by which he means teenagers and college-age young adults, are ignorant of the lessons and ideas of history, precisely because their parents neglected to educate them. Far from living in a Kindergarchy, we are now living in a culture that routinely exterminates children, and which sees them as a problem and an expense to be avoided. Speaking against this war on children, Solzhenitsyn warned the Russian parliament that Russia would cease to exist within a couple of generations unless Russians rejected the contraceptive culture of death and the plummeting birthrate which was its inevitable consequence and learned to be open to the gift of children. His speech had a profound effect on Russian government policy, nurturing the emergence of a pro-life culture.
It would be an act of injustice, however, to suggest that Dr. Congdon’s otherwise excellent book is greatly marred by the occasional inept juxtaposition. Such ineptitude is rare indeed, an exception to the rule which is so rare as to be almost an aberration. We should, therefore, temper such criticism with the praise that the work, as a whole, deserves.
Apart from those interested specifically in Solzhenitsyn, this book will be of great interest to students of the twentieth century. It maps out the intellectual errors that led to revolution and its bloody and blood-thirsty aftermath and uncovers the roots of the secular fundamentalism which is once again rearing its revolutionary head, poised to repeat the errors of the Bolshevik past. It should, therefore, be useful to all students of twentieth-century history and all those interested in studying political philosophy. Beyond that, it should be read by all who wish to understand the roots of the present malaise facing our world and who wish to be inspired by the courageous wisdom and witness of Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
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