Fall 2008

On Solzhenitsyn

Alexander Schmemann

“His truth exposes the lie of Soviet literature, but because he is totally a part of it, he converts the ‘Soviet’ into Russian. Having brought forth a national writer, Soviet literature ends, but it also acquires in itself the principle for its rebirth as Russian literature.”1



That Solzhenitsyn represents a phenomenon of major importance is, I think, no longer disputable. For this very reason it is all the more imperative to ask what is, in fact, the nature of this importance. More than once during the past decades the world has been excited and agitated by events which could not be patly fitted into the conventional pattern of Soviet reality. Certainly everyone will recall the arguments, the emotions, and the hopes evoked in the fifties by Dudintsev's Not by Bread Alone, the subsequent shock of Doctor Zhivago, the emotional wave generated by the poetry of Evtushenko and Voznesenskii, and more recently still—the trial of Siniavskii and Daniel’. Is Solzhenitsyn—beginning with One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich—a phenomenon of the same order? One more brave voice breaking through the deafening silence of Soviet conformism? To identify him as such, however, would not yet determine his place in and significance for Russian literature, nor, for that matter, would it acknowledge that he is a phenomenon of any literary significance at all. One would hardly include Chernyshevskii’s What Is To Be Done?, for example, in the “golden fund” of Russian literature, even though no one would deny that the work played a tremendous part in Russian social history.

That Solzhenitsyn is a hero, a martyr, and a victim, that his works are “documents” of staggering importance—all this is indisputable and accepted by everyone, including the Swedish Academy. But the question remains: what is his place and significance in Russian literature? Do we experience trepidation, joy and elation when we read Solzhenitsyn because his themes are so agonizing for us? Or is it because something very significant, very profound has occurred in Russian literature when he appeared?

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1. This essay first appeared in English in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: Critical Essays and Documentary Materials, ed. John B. Dunlop, Richard Haugh, and Alexis Klimoff (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co, 1975). Reprinted by kind permission of Mrs. Julianna Schmemann. Original Russian publication in Vestnik KSKhD (Paris) 98 (1970): 72–87.