Monday, August 4, 2008

The west is the best? (Thoughts on the passing of Alexander Solzhenitsyn)

On Friday, I wrote a blog post that talked about taking the time to read items with which we don't agree. In response to a comment by Kevin Bondelli about reading "what the people on the other side are saying and thinking, I responded, in part:

Kevin, I agree with what you're saying, although I would note that there are more than two sides to the story.

While I applied this thought in connection to Republican-Democratic debates in the United States, it just as easily applies to U.S.-Soviet relations from the 1950s through the 1980s.

I was reminded of this when I heard this morning that Alexander Solzhenitsyn died on Sunday.

In Russia.

I confess that I hadn't kept up with the Solzhenitsyn story, but I knew enough to know that his expulsion from the Soviet Union in 1974 did not automatically convert the well-known Soviet dissident and former political prisoner into Mister America. Solzhenitsyn wasn't exactly doing "baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet" commercials after his explusion.

Newsweek described Solzhenitsyn's post-Soviet life:

Solzhenitsyn eventually moved to America, settling in the tiny town of Cavendish, Vt., with his wife and sons, for the next 18 years. There he worked on what he considered to be his life's work, a multi-volume saga of Russian history titled "The Red Wheel."

The West offered him shelter and accolades. But Solzhenitsyn's refusal to bend despite enormous pressure also gave him the courage to criticize Western culture for what he considered its weakness and decadence.

When he first arrived, Solzhenitsyn became a hero to a number of people in the West, but they didn't really care about him personally. In fact, Solzhenitsyn was a pawn in an intra-Republican political feud that may have helped to elevate Jimmy Carter to the Presidency:

Solzhenitsyn was a hero to [North Carolina Senator Jesse] Helms. After just one year of service in the Senate, Helms introduced a resolution to make Solzhenitsyn an honorary American citizen. It failed in the House. Then Helms helped to arrange a Washington visit for the exiled Soviet dissident the following year. At every turn, he faced obstruction by key figures in the Ford administration, led by secretary of state Henry Kissinger. When, thanks to the diligent work of Helms’s staff, Solzhenitsyn was indeed brought to the country, Helms tried to set up a meeting for him with President Ford.

Not only was he rebuffed, but the State Department even forbade its employees to attend Solzhenitsyn’s major speech (to the AFL-CIO). So what did the freshman senator from North Carolina do? He went to the floor of the Senate, called it a “sad day for our country,” and accused Ford of “cowering timidity for fear of offending Communists.” It was a public-relations disaster for the White House. Among the conservatives angered by the administration’s parade of limp-noodle lickspittles was Ronald Reagan, who lambasted Ford in his newspaper column. Trying to rectify the situation, the White House approached Helms about a meeting with Solzhenitsyn, but refused to issue a written invitation for fear of supplying tangible evidence of caving in. Lacking such an invitation, Solzhenitsyn refused.

But I wonder if Jesse Helms regretted that honorary citizenship move after Solzhenitsyn’s views on the free enterprise system were clarified. For example:

Untouched by the breath of God, unrestricted by human conscience, both capitalism and socialism are repulsive.

Well, all that America needs is a good strong dose of that old time Protestant religion, right? Wrong:

[Modernity] does make a virtue out of selfishness and Protestantism made a major contribution to this....

One must not have any negative attitude to any religion but nonetheless the depth of understanding God and the depth of applying God's commandments is different in different religions. In this sense we have to admit that Protestantism has brought everything down only to faith.

Calvinism says that nothing depends on man, that faith is already predetermined. Also in its sharp protest against Catholicism, Protestantism rushed to discard together with ritual all the mysterious, the mythical and mystical aspects of the Faith. In that sense it has impoverished religion.

Wonder how that statement, and others like it, played out with Helms' devout Protestant constituents in North Carolina.

After discussing his time in Vermont, Newsweek touched on a part of the story about which I was completely unaware. I had assumed that Solzhenitsyn had remained in Vermont, a cantankerous figure. He hadn't:

Gorbachev restored Solzhenitsyn's citizenship in 1990 and the treason charge was finally dropped in 1991, less than a month after the failed Soviet coup.

After a triumphant return that included a 56-day train trip across Russia to become reacquainted with his native land, Solzhenitsyn later expressed annoyance and disappointment that most Russians hadn't read his books.

Was he happy at having returned home and living under freedom? Um, no:

During the 1990s, his stalwart nationalist views, his devout Orthodoxy, his disdain for capitalism and disgust with the tycoons who bought Russian industries and resources for kopeks on the ruble following the Soviet collapse, were unfashionable. He faded from public view.

He was, however, happier when Vladimir Putin took over, despite the fact that it was Putin's KGB who persecuted him in his earlier years. Putin, in fact, eulogized Solzhenitsyn:

Solzhenitsyn's literary achievements, as well as "the entire thorny path of his life," Putin said in a statement, "will remain for us an example of genuine devotion and selfless serving to the people, fatherland and the ideals of freedom, justice and humanism."

And I believe that there's a lesson for us in the United States. When we are faced with a foreign enemy, there's a perception that things would be best if we not only defeat the foreign enemy, but convert the foreign country into a U.S. clone. That way, we think, the foreign country will never be a threat to us again.

The truth is, however, we cannot convert any foreign country into a U.S. clone. Each country has its own experience, and you cannot graft "baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet" onto some other country. If we tried to do this to Canada, for example, we'd be battered with hockey sticks, and some people would start yelling at us in French (which would get Tom Tancredo really angry).

Alexander Solzhenitsyn didn't want to enjoy the fruits of American capitalism, or even the fruits of American Protestant religious practice. He wanted to enjoy the fruits of Russian Orthodox Christianity. There's a big difference, and a simplified binary view of godless Soviet communists vs. Protestant American capitalists is not in any way going to illuminate that view.

[12:50 PM - PART TWO.]

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