In Invisible Allies, his tribute to those Russians who, at considerable risk to themselves, helped to further his work while he was under constant surveillance by the KGB, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn told of the support that came his way with the publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich—and how soon it was withdrawn. “Throughout this time,” he wrote, “I simply did not realize that the support I received from ‘progressive society’ was but a passing phase based on a misunderstanding.” Communist faithful who had become disillusioned with the Soviet regime had assumed that, though anti-Stalinist, the former zek—gulag prisoner—remained a socialist.
Solzhenitsyn’s reception in the West traced a similar trajectory. Universal approval of his courage in confronting the Soviet leaders soon gave place to outspoken disapproval of what Western bien pensants considered to be his unenlightened view of the world. Disapproval turned to outrage when, on June 8, 1978, the Russian delivered a commencement address at Harvard University in which he indicted a West that showed unmistakable signs of decadence. The West’s freedom, he declared that day, had degenerated into license, its media filled minds and souls with
and nonsense, its popular culture served only to coarsen and degrade, its people exhibited an unthinking sympathy for socialism and an inability to recognize evil. All of this, he concluded, was rooted in a view of the world that “was born in the Renaissance and has found political expression since the Age of Enlightenment.”
Overnight, those who had lionized Solzhenitsyn cast him into the outer darkness and adopted in his place the nuclear physicist and Western-oriented dissident Andrei Sakharov. A good and courageous man, Sakharov was a secularist and self-proclaimed socialist who had mastered the language—“democracy” and “human rights”—of Western liberalism.
Daniel Mahoney is well aware of this shift in allegiance, and in a book entitled Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The Ascent From Ideology he opined apologetically that Solzhenitsyn sometimes weakened his case by overstating his claims; he insisted, however, that the Russian writer’s combativeness was the result of his long struggle against the mighty “oak” of Soviet power. Mahoney’s purpose in both of his Solzhenitsyn books—including this latest, The Other Solzhenitsyn—is to argue that the unrelenting attacks on the Harvard address and on the man himself were primarily the result of misunderstandings.
Mahoney has little difficulty dismissing the charge, regularly leveled by Solzhenitsyn’s cultured despisers, that he was a Russian nationalist and imperialist. In fact the great writer was a patriot who loved his country and expected others to love theirs; he explicitly repudiated nationalism and imperialism. More important, Mahoney recognizes that “a burning love for one’s motherland [is] compatible with humility before God and deference to a universal moral order.”
On such a view, a nation is like an icon—it is not itself the universal but rather a window through which the universal may be glimpsed. Dostoevsky made a similar point in the famous address on Aleksandr Pushkin that he delivered in June 1880. “For what else is the strength of the Russian national spirit,” he asked on that occasion, “than the aspiration, in its ultimate goal, for universality and all-embracing humanitarianism?”