Hitler was a giant, as were Lenin, Stalin, and Mao. Each of these Nietzschean supermen was responsible for the deaths of millions of people. As for the heroes, one thinks perhaps of the millions of victims of these tyrannical giants who were heroic in the face of tyranny and yet have been completely forgotten, their feats of heroism being unrecorded by any historian. One thinks also of the unsung heroism of countless ordinary parents, without whom the very existence of the family would crumble, as would civilization itself, the former being the very foundation of the latter. It is only Christ and those who follow Him who exalt the humble; it is only Christ and His followers who understand that true heroism is synonymous with true humility and the self-sacrifice which is its fruit.
This crucial distinction having been made, it is nonetheless true that some heroes are also giants. Within the context of the twentieth century we think perhaps of St. Pius X or St. John Paul II, those holy heroes who battled with the evils of modernism in its various guises. And one must include in such a number the giant and heroic figure of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
For those who don’t know this twentieth century giant, whom twenty-first century historians seem intent on ignoring, a few of the principal facts of his life should be given. He was born a century ago, in December 1918, a little over a year after the Bolshevik Revolution had unleashed its terror on his motherland. Suffering the brainwashing mechanism of Soviet education, he became an avowed atheist and a believer in the secular fundamentalism of the communist regime. Then, while serving in the Red Army during World War Two he made the fatal mistake of writing critical comments about Soviet leader, Josef Stalin, in private letters to a friend. Since there was no such thing as private correspondence in the Soviet Union, his letters were read by the authorities and he was subsequently sentenced to eight years hard labour for expressing his private opinions.
Solzhenitsyn considered the experience of being arrested and then imprisoned as an unmitigated blessing because it allowed him to see through the lies of the Soviet system and to perceive the evil which he had been deluded by propaganda to believe was good. In Solzhenitsyn’s eyes the knowledge of truth outweighed any suffering that was necessary for its attainment.
In March 1953, having served his sentence, Solzhenitsyn suffered the further torment of being diagnosed with what was believed to be terminal cancer. Faced with such suffering and the imminent prospect of death, he made a final embrace of Christianity, becoming a convert to Russian Orthodoxy, a decision which marked the most important pivotal point in his life. If he had died, he would have become one of those unrecognized millions of heroes of whom later generations would know nothing, another forgotten victim of twentieth century tyranny. As it was, he made a remarkable, some might say miraculous, recovery.
Thereafter he set about exposing the horrors of Soviet communism, documenting in book after book the ugly facts that the Soviets had sought to keep hidden from the world. From his novella, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich to his three-volume history of the Soviet forced-labour prison system, The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn did more than anyone to open the eyes of the world to the reality of communism. Having won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, he survived an assassination attempt by the KGB in the following year. He was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974, being deported to West Germany. After spending twenty years in exile, first in Switzerland and then in the United States, he finally returned home to Russia in 1994, after the fall of communism. He would remain an active voice, influencing politics in Russia, until his death in August 2008.
In the decades after his release from prison and his subsequent conversion to Christianity, Solzhenitsyn emerged as not only a hero but a giant. With the possible and arguable exception of St. John Paul II and Ronald Reagan, there are none who can claim to have had a larger part in bringing down the power of the Soviet Terror. And yet, although he is truly both a hero and a giant, he is also a slayer of giants; a St. George who slayed a blood-red dragon; a David who slew one of the great Goliaths of history; a soldier for Christ whose centenary is indeed worth celebrating.
This essay first appeared as the editorial of the latest issue of the St. Austin Review.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is a photograph of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2018), courtesy of Creative Commons 4.0.