From the Socialism Or Your Money Back blog
According to the BBC today, Solzhenitsyn "opened the eyes of the world to the evils of Soviet Communism". No, try again. "He exposed the brutality of the Stalin era." Much better. By way of contrast, the Socialist Party has held the same, consistent and correct attitude towards Russia since before Aleksander Solzhenitsyn was born!
Searching our website, you could be forgiven for thinking that we have had nothing to say about this world famous author. This is not the case as at present only a only a fraction of our published material going back to our inception in 1904 is available online. The Socialist Standard of January 1972, for example, has a piece titled 'From a Russian prison camp':
"...We are not concerned here with his stature as a writer but rather with the way he adds to our sketchy knowledge of Soviet society. In 1945 he was sentenced to 8 years for comments he made about Stalin....His three novels dealing with the Soviet scene are 'One Day', 'The First Circle' and 'Cancer Ward'. Respectively they describe the world of the manual worker, the intellectual and the chronically sick.
In 'One Day' we learn how starving and frozen prisoners labour on a construction site (temperature minus 39 degrees), queue for fuel, munch their ration of dry bread and try to wangle a smoke or an easy job. As in the outside world, "you feathered your own nest as best you could". You knew that you were cheated of your rations by all who handled them. Graft was everywhere, and so were the informers. But prisoners spared their energy, needing it for survival.
In 'The First Circle', he describes an expensive top-secret research institute in Moscow where class enemies, saboteurs and other top scientists, imprisoned in the Thirties and Forties, enjoyed relative luxury. Yet the State is cruelly oppressive here too: the cruelty is of a different type, that's all. At Karaganda it was physical cruelty - hunger, cold and overwork; at Mavrino it is psychological - pressure to meet impossible deadlines successfully, dread of a transfer back to labour camps and fear for their persecuted families. As at Karaganda, and as in all parts of Russia, informers abound - the hallmark of a police state.
If you ever wondered what has happened to ordinary Russians, these books will tell you much. In the two books together, Solzhenitzyn has covered a lot: from the lowest camp drudges, the wives at home on the collectives, ex-Party members who helped collectivize the countryside at gunpoint and their wives, unable to get work without disowning their husbands, right on up through the secret service rat-race to the Minister, Abakumov, and the Immortal One himself.
Finally in 'Cancer Ward' he underlines the idea that his real subject is not a prison society but Soviet society. The whole of Russia is a sick society, all alike are sick - doctors and patients, jailers and prisoners. All Russia is a prison where every fifth man is an informer.
For all Russians, he says, life is an endless sentence without amnesty, measured by months of deprivation and humiliation. The proletarian is everywhere a prisoner of the system: we are all doing time. Some prisons are plush like Mavrino "the first circle of hell." Others are unspeakable. His explanation of the lush conditions at Mavrino applies equally to the so-called middle-class here: "It has been shown that the better sheep are fed and looked after, the higher their yeild of wool."
Solzhenitzyn earned the right to claim: "I've got an advantage no spy can make me lose: what I've been through, and seen others go through, should give me a good idea of what history is about, don't you think?"
But notwithstanding such insights, another article - 'About Solzhenitsyn' - from the April 1974 Socialist Standard reveals some serious flaws in his thinking:
"..Before weighing in with criticisms of his manifesto (Sunday Times, March 3), we must make it clear, first, that we have always opposed all forms of censorship, and secondly, that in criticising his ideas we are no way defending the Kremlinite creed, to which we have consistently expressed our hostility. But however sympathetic we may be to one who has struggled successfully and made his views heard in spite of all the Soviet censorship and suppression machine, we cannot applaud his political views.
We should like to have greeted him as a world citizen, an internationalist, not a nationalist. But his views are based on an insular patriotism and Russian Orthodox Christianity. He believes in the myth of the "national interest": indeed he bases his argument against a Russian war with China, not on the view that working-class interests are not at stake, but simply on the calculation that Russia could not win such a war and therefore it would be against Russia's "national interest"..."
By way of conclusion, his writings did not as the BBC claim help "expose and bring down the Soviet Communist system". Since the collapse of the brutally oppressive system of state capitalism in Russia, can it be said that the life of the working class there has improved dramatically? The same question can be asked about South Africa since apartheid. Another novelist, D.H. Lawrence, gave the answer when he stated "earning a wage is a prison occupation".