Rescue or Hijacking? Mahoney on Solzhenitsyn
March 13, 2015
The Other Solzhenitsyn: Telling the Truth about a Misunderstood Writer and Thinker, Daniel J. Mahoney’s latest tome on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn poses a question: Is it a rescue or a hijacking? First, because this question above might seem unduly harsh, let me say upfront and emphatically, that this is a book, as is usually the case with Mahoney’s books, well worth reading. While it is a bit irritating in its rather endless praise of “everything Solzhenitsyn,” Mahoney writes so as to help us understand and appreciate his hero, Solzhenitsyn. And he makes it clear that those who would detract or diminish Solzhenitsyn can only do so by ignoring or distorting his work.
But the question remains: How is it best to understand that work and its author? Is “Mahoney’s Solzhenitsyn” an accurate portrayal of the man and his work? In one way, Mahoney’s portrayal is accurate, viz., when he labels Solzhenitsyn a “great man.” Few, even among his detractors, would doubt or challenge such a description. At one point, Mahoney characterizes Solzhenitsyn “as a writer, historian, philosopher, and moral witness,”  which might seem to be a bit much. But it is better than those “caricatures” by the “professional Solzhenitsyn bashers” Mahoney so rightly takes to task.
It is, however, Solzhenitsyn’s greatness that makes it possible to question whether he was the “moderate” Mahoney wants to make him out to be. For Mahoney, Solzhenitsyn chose “the middle way” and he was not, e.g., the radical nationalist some of his detractors make him out to be. Solzhenitsyn’s path went down the middle, between an “idolatrous nationalism and an apolitical, ‘excessive Orthodoxy’.” And his “resort to spirited rhetoric in dealing with . . .contentious issues” – the Ukraine and Russian Jews, for example – should not be taken to undercut “the fundamental moderation of his principles and of his political and historical judgments.” 
Although this is satisfying to some moderates, like Mahoney, who sees the essence of statesmanship as moderation, is it persuasive with regard to Solzhenitsyn or even in general with regard to statesmanship? As I would put the question about Solzhenitsyn to give it point: Would those in charge of our vast prison system, what might be called our “American gulag,” although not in a way meant to equate it with the Soviet gulag, want its inmates reading Solzhenitsyn? After all, he argued for the redemptive value of violence when one is in “a cage,” and seems, like Thomas Jefferson or Richard Wright, to think that rebellion is healthy, especially for the souls of those in cages, the “inmates,” those either in or out of prison.
This is just to suggest that there is something about Solzhenitsyn’s work that seems subversive. That is, his work is “radical” in the sense of going to the roots of our situation, thereby exposing “the Lie” and subverting the established order. He often called this order “the Progressive Doctrine” and, hence, necessarily included even “the West” in it. In a note Solzhenitsyn wrote to himself, dated June 28, 1979, he records his realization that his “mission” now included “the West” which was “Added to my enemies, the Soviets, [because of] the hostility of the pseudo-educated public of both East and West, as well as, one must say it – even more powerful circles.” [p. 14]
And why expect anything else from Solzhenitsyn, given his history, his intellect, and his spirit? Such men, “great men,” as Mahoney correctly calls Solzhenitsyn, disdain “the middle path.” And it is those who “live on the edge,” and not those who live in “the middle,” who see most clearly. It is from “the edge of town,” from outside the cave, that “the Lie” is visible. And this is true everywhere. Hence, Solzhenitsyn gives thanks for his imprisonment in the gulag, which was of course “on the edge of town,” for allowing him to see more clearly, to see “the Lie.”
This is why those most invested in the status quo – e.g., the graduates of Harvard University – reacted and react so intensely to Solzhenitsyn. They sensed and sense that he threatens them, their social standing, and their bona fides. It should not surprise anyone that, say, the New York Times in its obituary distorted Solzhenitsyn’s work when he died. It was to be expected. It is how entrenched moderates react to radicals, everywhere, unless of course they are domesticating them via their “interpretations.” But the cost of such domestication is high as it robs us of a light that penetrates our dilemmas most deeply and illuminates our situation most clearly. This, it seems to me, is what Solzhenitsyn claimed to do and, in fact, what he did. And as far as Solzhenitsyn giving witness, I cannot think of a better way to express that witness than to say, as someone once did, that “moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”