Tuesday, August 5, 2008
ON FEB. 18, 1974, this newspaper published an essay, " Live Not by Lies," by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who with his writings and dauntless moral courage had shaken Soviet power as no other individual had done. Written six days earlier, probably hours before the Soviet secret police broke into his Moscow apartment, arrested him and sent him into what would be a 20-year exile in the West, the essay was an ardent call for truth-telling, for spurning the monstrous lies that bore the USSR aloft. "Though lies conceal everything, though lies embrace everything, but not with any help from me," he wrote.
Mr. Solzhenitsyn wrote the essay in response to the officially orchestrated campaign of vitriol that greeted the publication of "The Gulag Archipelago," his monumentally damning masterpiece on the vast network of Soviet labor camps and their tens of millions of victims. The book's impact on the moral legitimacy of the Soviet regime was so corrosive, and so irrefutable, that it can be said to have sown the first seeds of the Soviet Union's eventual collapse. Who again could doubt the rot that was at the system's core or the sinister cynicism of its leadership?
In the paralysis of Leonid Brezhnev's Soviet Union in the 1970s, Mr. Solzhenitsyn understood that direct confrontation -- street rallies and strikes -- were impossible. But he knew, too, that the Soviet colossus was profoundly vulnerable and could be subverted by individuals intent on telling the truth about their morally bankrupt system and brutal history. "The simplest and most accessible key to our self-neglected liberation lies right here: Personal non-participation in lies," he wrote in his essay.
In the West, especially in Europe, Mr. Solzhenitsyn stripped away any romantic sheen with which some on the left still regarded the USSR. At home, where "The Gulag" was banned but circulated underground, he was a beacon of integrity for those who cared to subject their country to an honest accounting.
In a tyranny, he wrote famously, a true writer is like a second government. Accordingly, the Politburo regarded him as an affront. Unable to swallow Mr. Solzhenitsyn, the Soviet system spat him out. He spent those exile years mostly in Vermont, isolated, fiercely disciplined, writing day and night. Adamant, uncompromising and severe in his judgments, he condemned what he saw as America's moral laxity, though he engaged little with the country that granted him exile. All the while, he remained confident that the Soviet system was doomed and, with a prophet's certitude, knew that he would return to Russia one day.
When he did, in 1994, he found a new Russia traumatized by a wrenching transition. No longer under tyranny's yoke, his countrymen after a while tired of Mr. Solzhenitsyn's pronouncements, no longer looking to him for guidance or wanting him to unearth the grimmest secrets of the past. His work was done. But through his books and principles, Mr. Solzhenitsyn had waged war on a superpower and subverted it with a writer's only tools: his words.