Not so long ago, criticizing Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was like throwing a firebomb at the Lincoln Memorial. His enormous literary talent, and the years of suffering and persecution he endured in the service of his political and moral ideals, formed a halo around his fierce and bearded visage. If he was intransigent and seemingly ungrateful, uninterested in the country that gave him asylum, he had earned the right. He became a literary and moral Mt. Rushmore.
But Solzhenitsyn is no longer a newcomer to America: familiarity can breed reality, if not contempt. Cracks have begun to appear in the previously unassailable facade of aleksandr Solzhenitsyn -- listeners have begun to tire of his thundering denunciations of American decadence, delivered with all the righteous indignation of a 20th-century Moses just down from Sinai. Even more important, numerous reports have begun to surface -- especially in connection with a recent publication of his literary memoir, "The Oak and the Calf," of Solzhenitsyn's cruelty and ingratitude toward those with whom he had close relationships, even toward those, like Alexander Tvardovsky, editor of the Soviet journal Novy Mir, in which "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" was published, who had risked their lives to help him.
Such debunking of cultural and political superheroes is, of course, an American national pastime -- one need look no further than Henry Kissinger or John Travolta -- but there is much that is genuinely disturbing in Solzhenitsyn's authoritarian and arrogant personal and political style. It begins to seem that Solzhenitsyn, who has made a career of throwing rocks -- no, boulders -- at Soviet (and other) oppression may himself live in a glass house.
The latest slim addition to Solzhenitsyn's burgeoning list of publications, "The Mortal Danger: How Misconceptions About Russia Imperil America," will provide substantial new ammunition to the growing ranks of the writer's liberal critics. In this political tract, originally published in the journal Foreign Affairs, Solzhenitsyn denounces, in a tone properly reflecting the hyperbolic title, American attitudes and policies toward the Soviet Union, and warns American leaders that they must ally themselves with the oppressed peoples of the Communist bloc, and not with their governments.
Professors, diplomats, journalists, presidential advisers -- all receive a generous share of the author's scorn. It is unfortunate that "The Mortal Danger" is written in a style so strident (translated smoothly by Michael Nicholson and Alexis Klimoff) as to be off- putting, for there are many valid points in this article, especially in light of Afghanistan and the waffling of the European-American alliance.
When Solzhenitsyn writes that "I am neither a political scientist nor a politician. I am simply an artist who is distressed by the painfully clear events and crises of today," it is difficult to take him at his word, for there is precious little artistry here and plenty of politics. "The Mortal Danger" is filled with highly opinionated political judgment, like "it was not until Lenin that totalitarianism was ever actually implemented" (how about Ivan the Terrible or Czar Nicholas I?); "the 'bad' Russia of old never loomed ominously over Europe" (how about czarist Russia's continual oppression of Poland?); "Communism is everywhere inimical to the national welfare, invariably striving to destroy the national organism in which it is developing, before moving on to destroy adjacent organisms" (how about Yugoslavia, or Czechoslovakia under Dubcek?).
When the evidence doesn't fit Solzhenitsyn's argument -- that "good" Russia has been kidnapped by "bad" Soviet communism, that the Russian people bear no responsibility for the oppressive government that rules them, that the true salvation for the Russians lies in Russian orthodoxy -- he ignores it, in the same way that Soviet newspapers don't report production failures or the Afghan resistance to Soviet troops.
Ultimately, Solzhenitsyn is a Sovietm man, artist, and political thinker. Despite his hysterical claims to some mystical "Russian" identity, he was born one year after the revolution, was educated in Soviet schools, worked in Soviet enterprises, and wrote for a Soviet audience. Though he stood at the opposite pole ideologically from the Soviet regime, he used -- and continues to use -- its same tactics of authoritarianism, justification of the means by the end, a messianic self- confidence.
Solzhenitsyn said in a recent interview that he would go back "at once" to Russia, preferably as a national political leader, if the situation changed there. I fear if this ever came to pass, solzhenitsyn's admittedly high ideals would, like the high ideals of many of the original Russian revolutionaries, be overwhelmed by the means he would employ to attain them. Prisoners and guards speak the same language, only from different sides of the bars.