Dr. George Friedman of Stratfor has published a very interesting article with this title on his Web site. Since Stratfor are kind enough to allow re-publishing of some of their articles, with attribution, here's a sample of what he says. I encourage you to click over to Stratfor to read the whole thing. It's worth it.
There are many people who write history. There are very few who make history through their writings. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who died this week at the age of 89, was one of them. In many ways, Solzhenitsyn laid the intellectual foundations for the fall of Soviet communism. That is well known. But Solzhenitsyn also laid the intellectual foundation for the Russia that is now emerging. That is less well known, and in some ways more important.
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One of the most important things about “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” was not only that it was so powerful, but that it had been released under the aegis of the Soviet state, meaning it could not simply be ignored. Solzhenitsyn was critical in breaking the intellectual and moral logjam among intellectuals in the West. You had to be extraordinarily dense or dishonest to continue denying the obvious, which was that the state that Lenin and Stalin had created was a moral monstrosity.
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When he reached Vermont, the reality of who Solzhenitsyn was slowly sank in. Conservatives realized that while he certainly was an enemy of communism and despised Western liberals who made apologies for the Soviets, he also despised Western capitalism just as much. Liberals realized that Solzhenitsyn hated Soviet oppression, but that he also despised their obsession with individual rights, such as the right to unlimited free expression. Solzhenitsyn was nothing like anyone had thought, and he went from being the heroic intellectual to a tiresome crank in no time. Solzhenitsyn attacked the idea that the alternative to communism had to be secular, individualist humanism. He had a much different alternative in mind.
Solzhenitsyn saw the basic problem that humanity faced as being rooted in the French Enlightenment and modern science. Both identify the world with nature, and nature with matter. If humans are part of nature, they themselves are material. If humans are material, then what is the realm of God and of spirit? And if there is no room for God and spirituality, then what keeps humans from sinking into bestiality? For Solzhenitsyn, Stalin was impossible without Lenin’s praise of materialism, and Lenin was impossible without the Enlightenment.
From Solzhenitsyn’s point of view, Western capitalism and liberalism are in their own way as horrible as Stalinism. Adam Smith saw man as primarily pursuing economic ends. Economic man seeks to maximize his wealth. Solzhenitsyn tried to make the case that this is the most pointless life conceivable. He was not objecting to either property or wealth, but to the idea that the pursuit of wealth is the primary purpose of a human being, and that the purpose of society is to free humans to this end.
Solzhenitsyn made the case — hardly unique to him — that the pursuit of wealth as an end in itself left humans empty shells. He once noted Blaise Pascal’s aphorism that humans are so endlessly busy so that they can forget that they are going to die — the point being that we all die, and that how we die is determined by how we live. For Solzhenitsyn, the American pursuit of economic well being was a disease destroying the Western soul.
He viewed freedom of expression in the same way. For Americans, the right to express oneself transcends the content of the expression. That you speak matters more than what you say. To Solzhenitsyn, the same principle that turned humans into obsessive pursuers of wealth turned them into vapid purveyors of shallow ideas. Materialism led to individualism, and individualism led to a culture devoid of spirit. The freedom of the West, according to Solzhenitsyn, produced a horrifying culture of intellectual self-indulgence, licentiousness and spiritual poverty. In a contemporary context, the hedge fund coupled with The Daily Show constituted the bankruptcy of the West.
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Solzhenitsyn served Western purposes when he undermined the Soviet state. But that was not his purpose. His purpose was to destroy the Soviet state so that his vision of Russia could re-emerge. When his interests and the West’s coincided, he won the Nobel Prize. When they diverged, he became a joke. But Solzhenitsyn never really cared what Americans or the French thought of him and his ideas. He wasn’t speaking to them and had no interest or hope of remaking them. Solzhenitsyn was totally alien to American culture. He was speaking to Russia and the vision he had was a resurrection of Mother Russia, if not with the czar, then certainly with the church and state. That did not mean liberalism; Mother Russia was dramatically oppressive. But it was neither a country of mass murder nor of vulgar materialism.
It must also be remembered that when Solzhenitsyn spoke of Russia, he meant imperial Russia at its height, and imperial Russia’s borders at its height looked more like the Soviet Union than they looked like Russia today. “August 1914” is a book that addresses geopolitics. Russian greatness did not have to express itself via empire, but logically it should — something to which Solzhenitsyn would not have objected.
Solzhenitsyn could not teach Americans, whose intellectual genes were incompatible with his. But it is hard to think of anyone who spoke to the Russian soul as deeply as he did. He first ripped Russia apart with his indictment. He was later ignored by a Russia out of control under former President Boris Yeltsin. But today’s Russia is very slowly moving in the direction that Solzhenitsyn wanted. And that could make Russia extraordinarily powerful. Imagine a Soviet Union not ruled by thugs and incompetents. Imagine Russia ruled by people resembling Solzhenitsyn’s vision of a decent man.
Solzhenitsyn was far more prophetic about the future of the Soviet Union than almost all of the Ph.D.s in Russian studies. Entertain the possibility that the rest of Solzhenitsyn’s vision will come to pass. It is an idea that ought to cause the world to be very thoughtful.
Thought-provoking indeed! Thank you, Dr. Friedman, for a very interesting article.