Sunday, August 03, 2008

A pen that truly was mightier than the sword -- goodbye Solzhenitsyn

It's been so long now since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 that we may have forgotten what an amazing achievment that event was. I know that I had long had little hope that the 10s of millions of people of Eastern Europe could ever be liberated from the Soviet yoke that fell upon the late 1940s in the wake of World War II.

But there were a small number of people who did not lose hope. They risked their lives to fight the mighty Soviet system. For the most part, they fought completely alone. They did not use guns or bombs, but words and ideas. Their weapons were hope and courage and righteous outrage. Chief among them was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who died today.

As a teen his books consumed me, starting with the amazing One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, his chilling description of one person's day living in a concentration camp. Like Orwell's Animal Farm, this novella amazed me for how much it was able to do with the simplest of language and images, and how few words it used. It was as damning an indictment of the Soviet system that could be imagined. In Western Europe, many on the left had continued to idealize the Soviet system in the first decades after World War II, and considered American capitalism to be the greater threat to humanity. Solzhenitsyn almost singlehandedly crushed that terrible misconception.

And he did not just write short works. Cancer Ward and The First Circle were huge novels that deeply impacted me. Their images were rich. They were indeed indictments of the Soviet system, but they were about much more as well.

Aleksandr, I thank you for what you gave us.

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