Some good thoughts on Alexander Solzhenitsyn by Christopher Hitchens, fascinating both as a tribute to Solzhenitsyn and as a window into Hitchens’ own obsessions and prejudices, particularly as regards Christianity (which is allowed to take none of the credit for Solzhenitsyn’s good qualities, but plenty of the blame for his faults).
Hitchens summarises Solzhenitsyn’s “fortitude” as follows:
The simplest way of phrasing it is to say that Solzhenitsyn lived “as if.” Barely deigning to notice the sniggering, pick-nose bullies who followed him and harassed him, he carried on “as if” he were a free citizen, “as if” he had the right to study his own country’s history, “as if” there were such a thing as human dignity.
Hitchens does not seem to notice (or is unwilling to admit) that Solzhenitsyn’s Christian faith may have been what enabled him to live in this way; that he may not have been living simply “as if” he had freedom and dignity, but with confidence that he actually did possess those things, even only by faith and not by sight.
Of course, Hitchens is rather more willing to invoke Christianity as being to blame for Solzhenitsyn’s more “ayatollahlike” qualities:
As time went by, he metamorphosed more and more into a classic Russian Orthodox chauvinist, whose work became more wordy and propagandistic and—shall we be polite?—idiosyncratic with every passing year.
Hitchens suggests that “the resulting mixture of attitudes and prejudices puts one in mind more of Dostoyevsky than of Tolstoy”. (That’s a bad thing?)
Still, Hitchens’ last word is more generous:
Dostoyevsky even at his most chauvinistic was worth a hundred Mikhail Sholokhovs or Maxim Gorkys, and Solzhenitsyn set a new standard for the courage by which a Russian author could confront the permafrost of the Russian system.