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Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn as he saw himself (the-tls.co.uk)
110 points by chesterfield 3 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 84 comments

Great profile of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn; one of the most important writers of the last century who was prolific up until his death. It's a shame that his last non-fiction work has yet to get a proper English translation even after all these years.

Well, I heard it's rather... controversial, to say the least.

He's a writer, not an historian. Thus his non-fiction works do not have to be read like history books, more like journalistic opinion pieces. In that sense, the factual errors on this book are mostly irrelevant, and the work is still very interesting and insightful.

Indeed. There's not a history book that is without some critique or alternative theories, anyway. Solzhenitsyn spent a long time compiling the information he presents in Two Hundred Years Together (1120 pages in the original Russian)[1], and I would like to read a professional translation of the entire work more than the small excerpt that's in The Solzhenitsyn Reader.

[1] https://www.amazon.com/Hundred-Together-Complete-Volumes-Dve...


Do you have any sources that you can share, that you believe give a more accurate count?

But if it is not factual, what makes it insightful? If you're looking for insights, aren't you better off reading an actual history, rather than the text of an anti-semitic, nationalist, Putin apologist?

You can read both, and learn more.

Are there factual errors in it? I haven't seen any actual valid criticism of the factual content of the book, just "its antisemitic ban it don't let anyone read it!".

I assume that most books must contain some false sentences. They are certainly worrying in a serious scholarly work, but not in the case of "Two Hundred Years Together", which is an informal essay that nobody is expected to use as the ultimate reference on historical facts.

I don't understand. You assume the book is wrong but that doesn't matter because it isn't serious? It is serious, and I am not aware of anything incorrect in it. The criticism is not its accuracy, it is that it says things you're not allowed to say.

It is certainly inaccurate (thus, false) in some concrete numbers. Most famously, it says that in the first Soviet government almost all of the ministers were jewish people; in fact it was less than a half of them who were jewish.

I am not saying that the book is not serious. It gives a valuable personal perspective of important historical facts. But it should not be used as a source of factual data.

>Most famously, it says that in the first Soviet government almost all of the ministers were jewish people; in fact it was less than a half of them who were jewish.

I think you are confusing him with Putin, who actually said that. He said the cheka was mostly jewish. Which is correct.

It very much has many factual errors pointed out by historians several times since its publication. If you're truly looking for an objective account and not something to stoke emotions and tell you want you want to hear, I think you're better off reading an actual history.

Define "What you want to hear"? It's someone's perspective, which is valuable.

As Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts."

Reading The Gulag Archipelago at university changed my life. I'd been reading Dostoyevsky for a bit, which I was enjoying, but The Gulag Archipelago was the book that opened my eyes to the idea that literature could have fierce moral purpose. I also loved the fact it was dripping with deadpan sarcasm and irony. A wonderful response for the powerless to take given the Kafkaesque situations that people found themselves in under Stalinism. I'm in awe of the incredible bravery of samizdat publishing given the horrific consequences that could follow if you were caught.

If you found the Gulag Archipelago insightful (the word 'enjoyed' seems wrong in this context), I highly recommend The Kolyma Tales[1] by Varlam Shalamov. Shalamov spent 17 years in 'hard labour' camps, in total. His work is more like a historical novel, akin to "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich", but more raw and visceral.

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Kolyma_Tales

"Things I Learned in the Gulag", from Kolyma Tales was on HN previously:


Thanks, I'll take a look.

>dripping with deadpan sarcasm

It seems that sarcasm became prevalent in Soviet Russia because it's a way of expressing opposition without party members being able to use your words to denounce you.

I've tried several times to read different Dostoyevsky stories but just can't follow them. It's written in too 'complicated' sentences I guess. It doesn't read like modern sentence structure I guess is how I would describe it. I'm just not smart enough to follow along without spending a lot of time rereading sentences trying to understand what is being said. It's like trying to read Shakespeare for me. I wish there was a better way to read it for dumb people I guess haha

It took me a long time to wrap my head around literature like this. I read nothing but simple sci-fi and fantasy as a teenager, and it wasn't until I got to university that I tried reading "literature". The first one was The Brothers Karamazov, which I picked up off my dad's shelf. I struggled for 150+ pages, until something clicked - I think I'd tuned into the way Dostoyevsky (or, more accurately, the translator) wrote or something like that. Not everyone has to enjoy this stuff - it's not worth beating yourself up if you don't like it - but I'd encourage you to stick with it for quite a while because, at least in my case, the rewards are more than worth it once you've tuned in. Having said that, I tried to read The Brothers Karamazov again recently and found it terribly histrionic, so there are definitely some books that click more at different times in life.

I highly recommend the article A Tiny Village in Vermont Was the Perfect Spot to Hide Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn[0] to learn more about his life in Vermont. His relationship to the town is very interesting and particularly interesting to me as I used to live near Cavendish.

[0]: https://www.neh.gov/humanities/2018/summer/statement/tiny-vi...

Shame much of what he wrote down was a lie, or at the very least fiction. Which wasn't necessary, because the system was terrible enough. The Gulag Archipelago is useful as a source for life within the system, but cant be taken as truth. His wife is quoted as saying the book was meant as fiction, but the West took it as fact (i'm sure they had no good reason at all to promote the shit out of an anti-Soviet book). Solzhenitsyn also praised Franco and his dictatorship, was fiercely anti-Semitic and would have preferred Hitler winning the war against the Soviets. So yeah, stand-up guy overall. Guess he simply preferred a different dictatorship than the one he to to live in.

Current historical analysis places the gulag system in a different light, with political opponents being a minor part of the population, sentences being much shorter (less than 5 years) and general conditions being better than described in the book. Solzhenitsyn talks about 50 million prisoners with a peak population of 14 million, while current figures are somewhere around 14-18 million prisoners in total, with 2 million peak population at it's height. Still really high, but really, compared to America in this day and age not that shocking.

I read The Gulag Archipelago then later I read Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum and while Solzhenitsyn's work shocked me the sheer scale of things described by Applebaum (and how utterly futile most of it was) really left a deep impression on me.

When you write "places the gulag system in a different light" I can't read it as anything but genocide denial.

> genocide denial

Please don't use powerful words at the wrong place, you are depleting them of their meaning.

A genocide has an actual definition according to the international law, and the Gulag system does not tick any of the boxes.

The Gulag system was a very harsh penal colony system (although on a far larger scale that what was done before), in continuation of the ones already existing during the tsarist times – and with death rates comparable to what could be found i.e. in the Cayenne penal colony.

It was neither aimed at killing convicts (with mortality rates under 10%, it would have done an awful job at it), nor was it targeting a peculiar ethnic group.

> The Gulag system was a very harsh penal colony system

This is incorrect - the purpose of a penal colony system is to host criminals, while most people who were imprisoned in Gulag were innocent. It looks like the real purpose of the system was to convert innocent Soviet citizens' bodies into energy needed for physical labor. People captured in the system got worked to the bone and were on starvation-level food rations. In the process of physical work, their bodies burned their tissues as fuel (in lieu of insufficient external calories being provided in food), which lead to death of malnutrition and starvation within a couple of years. Millions of people were used this way to complete great industrial projects at minimal costs. This is not a penal system, this is Auschwitz.

> with mortality rates under 10%

More than 10%, and much more in some places or during some periods.

Wow. #StalinDidNothingWrong, comrade?

Please read what you just wrote. The Gulags killed vast numbers of people in an incredibly inhumane fashion (no gas there!), in many cases based on their ethnic religion, and here you are defending it.

So what's the term for over 1.5 million Poles deported to the interior of the USSR?

Yeah I agree. This is tantamount to Holocaust denial, and to go on and compare the gulags to the American penal system really highlights the degree of nonsense.

I always wondered why Franco has such a bad rep. I'm not really knowledgeable about the Spanish civil war but it seems he prevented Spain from becoming a Stalinist totalitarian country, which is a good thing in my book.

I mean no doubt he was a brutal dictator but in the grand scheme of things he was by far the lesser of two evils.

Edit: also I think your comparison of the American prison system and the gulag to be rather ridiculous. Afaik, american prisoners aren't worked to death in arctic conditions.

It was not all that clear at the time that communism would become as bad as it turned out almost everywhere it was tried.

Edit: downvoted, but I think this is objectively true. The worst atrocities hadn't happen yet in the 1930's. Hindsight is 20 20. A lot of people drew on older ideals from the French revolution which we still celebrate today, not the least in the US. (Do you really think the blood of tyrants can be spillt without collateral damage?)

I think you're getting downvoted because people today still haven't learned their lesson.

If you wonder about Franco's bad rep, why don't you actually check it out, instead of challenging people to prove the evil of fascist to you from first principle, and claiming their virtue if they don't.

What is your professed naïveté supposed to accomplish, except to serve as propaganda for a universally abhorred fascist while simultaneously retaining your option to claim ignorance when challenged?

It wasn't actually a fascist regime (the Falangists were brought under political control by Franco); it was a standard issue military dictatorship, encompassing many right wing tendencies. Including things most English speakers would consider bonkers, like Carlism, which was a movement to install ... some other guy (from a slightly different branch of the Bourbon family) on the Spanish throne. Carlism was arguably more of a political force than the Falange (and still is) -they had just fought a vicious civil war over this a hundred odd years back.

Franco also wasn't and isn't universally abhorred; many Spaniards still admire Franco for whatever reasons, and there are large monuments and contemporary political rallies by fairly ordinary people honoring his memory.

Anyway, it's fascinating history and current events; reading a book will serve you better than ... expressing sentiments.

It wasn't actually a fascist regime

It is as much not a fascist regime as Hitler's wasn't, in that you can argue academically that there are better terms to describe it than "fascist". Nonetheless, you can clearly identify a set of characteristics that Franco's Spain has in common with fascist ideology, therefore you can call it fascist (among other terms that some argue are more descriptive).

Franco also wasn't and isn't universally abhorred;

Over 50% of Russians say they miss the Soviet regime and would prefer it to the current autocracy. What are we to conclude from that, according to you?

reading a book will serve you better than ... expressing sentiments.

But isn't that what you just did?

Unless you consider 'fascism' to be "stuff adrepd don't like," Franco's system of government was not fascist. The Falange, a movement eventually coopted into Francoism, was the local fascist contingent, and they weren't super popular. As I stated above, giving a mini lesson on Spanish mid 20th century history; reading a book will serve you better than point and sputter. Please go read a book and keep your point and sputter to yourself.

"Franco also wasn't and isn't universally abhorred; many Spaniards still admire Franco for whatever reasons, and there are large monuments and contemporary political rallies by fairly ordinary people honoring his memory."

Many Germans still admire Hitler, many Russians still admire Stalin, and many Chinese still admire Mao.

In Mongolia, Ghenghis Khan is admired as a great leader of their nation, and the negative things said of him are considered to be exaggerations or lies made up the people he fought with.

It seems no matter what a dictator does, or how many atrocities he commits, there'll always be people that admire and defend him.

Your point being? Point and sputter isn't much of an argument, even with great goblins like the ones you mention above.

Franco by any sane measure, was a much lesser goblin. As was his next door neighbor Salazar. For their times, and particularly considering their situations, they were fairly reasonable leaders. Which is probably why they were integrated into NATO.

Which is probably why they were integrated into NATO.

They were integrated into NATO for the same reason that Fulgêncio Batista was propped up by the US, or the Iranian Shah, or the guy that overthrew Jacobo Arbenz. That reason is: the US benefited economically and militarily from that situation, and any other considerations (moral, ethical, the well-being of the people, whether it was democratic) simply did not enter the equation one way or the other. Who cares if Arbenz was democratically elected and his land reforms lifted millions out of poverty, the United Fruit Company was making less money for their owners after some inhumane exploitation was outlawed so in comes the US coup, etc etc.

You simply cannot argue morality or democracy when discussing this.

I simply can argue morality when discussing this, actually, and just did. Again, point and sputter isn't an argument, and your argument will appear absurd in a few decades, as "point and sputter" at Napoleon was among Victorian gentlemen in the UK.

I didn't say anything about democracy, and confounding this word with the word "morality" is pretty ... questionable. That was one of the points that Solzhenitsyn made very well; go read his speech to Harvard.

The US picked Franco as an Ally, yes, because it served US interests. The US also allied with a lot of unsavory spanish speaking dictators in latin america; mostly for the same reason -they saw generalissimo types as a lesser evil to communist revolutionaries. All things considered, it was a reasonable thing to do. Communist body counts were considerably higher than all of these put together.

Spain only joined NATO in '82, years after Franco's death, already in the democratic era.

> prevented Spain from becoming a Stalinist totalitarian country,

Or maybe it would be a flop and something closer to present euro-socialism which Spain ended up implementing anyway.

One should avoid being a brutal dictator since you never know at which rate you exchange real blood to imaginary one.

The political situation in western Europe in the 1930s was explosive, specially so in Spain. On the one hand there was the then quite new Soviet Union stoking unrest in a, by contemporary standards, shockingly poor, unhealthy and exploited working and peasant class. On the other hand, you had much of the rest of society scared out of their wits by the very real prospect of revolution at their doorstep, and more than willing to support and make do with a strongman that, first and foremost, promised to crush the communists. Either side would have crushed the other if victorious.

I recommend anyone to read good books about the Spanish Civil War (like for instance Hugh Thomas' very readable history) to understand the huge polarization of both extremes, the violence, and how those in the middle where totally swept aside. I doubt that the only possible outcome, given those conditions, could have been but one side exterminating the other, either the left or the right.

Our world is, fortunately, very different. Of late, given an increasing political polarization and rise of populism, comparisons have been made with the 1930s, but if you start investigating you will realize that current conditions are nowhere near as bad.

I don't know where you are from, and how familiar you are with European politics, but modern euro-socialism is much closer to pure capitalism than anything the stalinists would have created in Spain.

I strongly dislike Franco, and I am aware that thanking him for preventing a stalinist Spain may turn heads these days. But the fact is that this is exactly what the West thought at the time. Franco became a pariah right after World War II as the only remaining leader that had supported Hitler. However, as soon as the reality of the Cold War kicked it, all that was forgotten, and western leaders (and specially the USA) started toasting him, indeed, as the man who stopped communism in a country in a very strategic position.

I hardly think there was a unified Western view at the time (perhaps amongst governments but not individuals). George Orwell fought in Spain against Franco's troops in an anarchist unit (POUM) and he hated Stalinism as strongly as anyone.

His Homage to Catalonia is a superb account of his time in Spain (and just how chaotic things were politically):


Sure, I meant across decision makers. Realpolitik (the rest is propaganda).

Before and in the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, when the great Orwell fought, the left in Spain was extremely atomized: there were the anarchist (very active in the beginning), the socialists, the communists (actually a minority initially), and many splinter groups (like POUM). But, just like an equally varied right swiftly unified under Franco, so did the left, more slowly, under the "oficial" communist faction, which, although it decided to be mostly pragmatic until the war had been won, fought some of the other leftists as fiercely as it fought the right.

"fought some of the other leftists as fiercely as it fought the right."

Wasn't that the Soviet influence though - they regarded anarchists/Trotskyists as a far bigger threat than Franco.

Yes, that was one factor for sure. But it was actually really complicated, quite mind boggling in fact. The thing is that, in spite of Stalin being pretty much the only effective external support the Spanish republic had, the communists inside Spain were pretty much a marginal group when the war started, and had to resort to all kinds of intrigues to get support from both the population and the, still, official government, and also to had get rid of rival groups, like the ones you mentioned.

Yeah - I read Homage to Catalonia again recently - I have read The Battle for Spain by Antony Beevor a while back but as you say, it is quite complex - I need to read it again!

Five years of freezing in siberian winter, starving and doing grueling manual labor makes the gulag experience not so terrible for you?

I like how all your posts consist of "he was in a gulag therefore you can't call him out or criticise him".

I find it terrifying that you feel the need to attack gulag survivor more than the regime that put millions of people in the gulag.

Is there any way to read this that doesn't require javascript?

The sad thing is that while the soviet union has lost the old war economically, it's ideas have been internalized by a great deal of western "intelligentsia" voluntary with open hearths, instead listening to people like Solzhenitsyn.

Solzhenitsyn is an anti-semite, and blames atheism for the existence of the Soviet Union and the problems in the modern world in general.

It is a great thing that he isn't being listened to - and yet, he is receiving more attention than he's worth.

Yes. He was hardcore Russian/Orthodox exceptionalist. A staunch Putin's supporter in his later years. He despised the Western values and was anti-Soviet since it was contrary to his nationalist ideals.

One of the most well known Soviet dissident works, Moscow 2042 by Voinovich, has a key character who is a spot-on satirical depiction of Solzhenitsyn.

Yep, people surviving gulags (where btw. lot of jewish people died as well), need to be called names, because they them selves were not saints and said stupid things sometimes.

When a public figure you used to support disappoints you in some substantial way, it's best to change your views rather than paint yourself in the corner by rationalizing their abhorrence.

All humans are fallible. There have been some regrettable Nobel Peace Prizes out there, and Amnesty International had to call off some of their awards.

I don't know who he disappointed, but he didn't disappoint me. His analysis of murderous regime is spot on, and there is no discussion about that. There are only character assassinations and name callings for totally unrelated things from his opponents. First discreditation, then disqualification and lastly liquidation.

There have been a number of notable Soviet dissidents who were no less apt in their criticism of the regime yet did not descend to imperialism or anti-Semitism.

How does the existence of more notable dissidents make his critique of the regime invalid or less true? If you found out that Newton was a thief, would that invalidate his laws of physics for you?

Don't ascribe me your ideas please. Did I say anywhere that his critique of regime wasn't true?

What about the killings and other atrocities committed by Putin's oligarchy? What about the suppression of dissent? What do you think of that, I'm genuinely curious. This is not an attempt to derail, it's that how can "his analysis of murderous regimes be spot on" if he supports Putin?

Well maybe he is imperfect. He did some things in his life right and some wrong. Aren't you like that? If you make a mistake today, does that invalidate all your previous work? And please have some perspective. Putin's Russia is not a place where I would want to live today, but compared to the Soviet union, I would take Putin's Russia in a heartbeat.

>When a public figure you used to support disappoints you in some substantial way, it's best to change your views

Why? Just because an author disappoints you, doesn't mean you need to try to undo your enjoyment of a book they wrote.

Solzhenitsyn in particular is a political writer/figure who largely overshadows in the West other Soviet dissidents. His (put mildly) ethnocentrism discredits the overall message and makes him unsuitable champion of their case.

I'm not sure what that has to do with anything. He isn't a champion of whatever, and nobody is trying to make him one. He's a dead author, that's it. This isn't a religious movement or something, it is people liking a book. People liked a book, then you said they aren't allowed to like it because you used one of the progressive thought terminating cliches.

The good old "Jews died in the holocaust, so you can't criticise Israel" argument. As you can see that's not very sound. Plus, nobody was calling then names, so that's another thing: conflating criticism with persecution (a favourite of e.g. Trump).

The fact is that his accounts are not factual, but designed to stoke emotions. That is the definition of propaganda, even though people may not like that word. Plus, his personal feelings about matters such as anti-semitism, Russian exceptionalism, and dictators such as Putin, have to be taken into account when reading his texts about such matters.

If he is an anti-Semite, it's not being called names, he is just an anti-Semite. And a Russian nationalist. A sad but prescient hint of what Russia would have become after the soviet era.


Anti-marxist-semite is still anti-semite in my book.


Lmao then why not just say you don't like criminals, murderers, and Marxists. The focus on their Jewishness is suspect at the very least...


If you are anti-Marxist, and not anti-Semite why do you feel justified to point out the ethnicity then? You never hear people saying "I'm anti-Stalinist-Georgian", "I'm anti-Chinese-Maoist", yet it's somehow benign with Jews?

If you find the ideology abhorrent, why you focus on a particular ethnicity? It is almost as if you believe there is something special about Jews and Marxism than, say Russians and Marxism?


I'm pretty sure this isn't true but I'm curious, got a source? Afaik they were somewhat overrepresented but never a majority and only about 5% of party members were Jewish although percentages in leadership were slightly higher at around 15%



That is the only source I could find as well but I also found others saying it was false and that Putin was lying and misguiding

So the leader of a G8 country speaks to a room full of rabbis, and the news article is published in a Jewish newspaper, and there's no rebuttal or other commentary in the article ... But some guy somewhere on the internet says it's not true. Okay.

Is it possible for a leader of a G8 country to lie to room full of rabbis?

What cynical times we live in.

It certainly is possible.

However it is unlikely that at least one person wouldn't correct the record after the fact, or make sure that the article would have an opposing view mentioned.

This is an anti-semitic rewriting of history.

The first Politburo was:

Lenin (his mother's father was jewish. Judaism is transmitted maternally, so neither of Lenin's parents were jewish, and neither was he)

Trotsky: jewish

Stalin: Not jewish. Launched Anti-semitic campaign around '50

Lev Kamelev: Jewish father, orthodox mother -> not jewish (see above)

Nikolay Krestinsky Not jewish

So that's 1/5, or 20%, and you're an anti-semitic troll with no interest in the facts.

You are also ignoring the part where the only Jew in the Politbro was executed rather early, while a member with absolutely no connection to Judaism, namely Stalin, appears to have had a rather, let’s say, “outsized” influence on the later failings of the system you want to nstrumentalize in your anti-Semitic insinuations.

Not to mention that this summation of individual sins and good deeds in an effort to paint their associated groups is the very definition of prejudice. In fact, I now realize I should probably never have bought into that premise?

(also: If you start arguing Lenin's judaism based on his heredity, I will invariably have to violate Godwin's law)


Sorry, non-native speaker. What’s better? “Inherited”?

Edit: “passed down” is most common, but “transmitted” isn’t totally unheard of. Transmission also touches many concepts other than diseases, such as messages, traditions, DNA, Torrents, or torque.

In this light, your interpretations seems somewhat bad-faithy and I retract that “sorry”.

It's an old trick of antisemites. If you lurk antisemite pages or speak with antisemites, you'll find that a common talking point is the importance of Jews in the birth of communism (and the supposed link between Jews and communism in general), and likewise the importance of Jews in contemporary finance and politics. If you were to listen to such talking points, you'd argue that they were not actual anti-semites, but merely anti-finance-semites, anti-globalization-semites, anti-Soros-semites and the like.

Being the author of important pieces of literature unfortunately does not prevent one from holding wrong positions - a similar, well-known case is James Watson, co-discoverer of the DNA, Nobel Prize in Medicine, and yet holding eugenetic views.


The matter is that he is specifically denouncing Jews in their link with the USSR, that's what makes him worthy of being called antisemite. It's not merely a coincidence (i.e. he denounces a specific social group which happens to contain many Jews), he singled them out in the context of denouncing the Soviet Union.


The problem is deeper than that. All discussion is absurd on both sides and nobody knows or understands the history that led to things getting this way. Particular peeves of mine are 'the Jews killed Jesus' and the 'usury' thing.

There is no evidence for the 'Jews killed Jesus' meme that has been doing the rounds for almost two millennia. Yet it persists like an extremely bad penny.

The 'usury' thing - Jewish bankers controlling everything is usually told by people who have no idea of how kings in Europe used to extort money from Jewish people, not allowing them to have land and basically making sure they did horrible jobs, like tax-collecting, which was not popular with peasant types in Middle Ages Europe. Then they would evict them taking their cash off them.

Another one that irks me is how people criticise Jewish people for being successful in various trades, for instance in the UK a huge amount of fashion retail is a Jewish thing. Other minorities get criticised for not being in business, e.g. in America the black people working for the white man and not setting up their own black business networks.

Despite all of the war-crime grade problems of what is going on in Israel and prevalent attitudes on all sides I really do like working with Jewish people, locally and from Israel. I have been astounded at the code written by some of the geniuses I have had to work with from Israel, yet at the same time felt happy with myself that I have not been indoctrinated in the way they have been when it comes to Palestine. Sometimes it is good to know that someone smarter than yourself does not know everything.

Trade and working together is the way to greater understanding. A lack of education about our collective history as well as our gone-wrong capitalism and the militarism that enforces our gone-wrong capitalism has to be seen as the true enemy. In a fair world of genuine free market internationalism we can move on from the lies and suspicions that have held mankind back.

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