Joseph Pearce didn’t expect much when he wrote to Alexander Solzhenitsyn in 1998. Why would the Russian dissident writer and Nobel Literature Prize winner bother granting an interview to a relatively unknown English biographer? And besides, the stern-looking bearded literary giant was famously reluctant to be interviewed.
What Pearce received in the mail surprised him. The biographer of several literary converts and writer-in-residence at Ave Maria University ended up spending a weekend in Moscow, interviewing Solzhenitsyn. The resulting biography, Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile, was published to mark the author’s 80th birthday. This year, Ignatius Press published an updated edition of the biography that covers the remainder of Solzhenitsyn’s life since the interview.
Today would have been the 93rd birthday of Solzhenitsyn, who was born one year after the Russian Revolution. He became an idealistic communist in his youth and served in the Soviet Army during World War II. He was arrested in 1945 for disrespectful remarks he made about Josef Stalin in private correspondence and sentenced to eight years in prison. While serving his term, and undergoing the suffering it entailed, he rediscovered the Orthodox faith of his youth.
He came to fame in the 1960s and 1970s, with works like One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, and spent several years in Vermont, while exiled from his homeland. After the fall of communism, however, he returned to Russia and remained active until the time of his death in 2008.
Register news editor John Burger spoke to Pearce about his biography and what Solzhenitsyn has to say for Americans today.
Why Solzhenitsyn? How did you become interested, and why do you feel he’s important?
Solzhenitsyn was a major influence upon me as I was growing up. As a teenager, I read The Gulag Archipelago — the first two volumes of it — in the 1970s. It convinced me not only of the evils of communism, but of a deeper spirituality, which at the time I couldn’t articulate as Christianity. But I think Solzhenitsyn was one of those key figures who led me on the path to my own conversion, ultimately to Catholicism.
I rediscovered him a few years after my conversion, when I was in my late 20s, some of his more recent writings, which clearly showed Solzhenitsyn’s own Christian perspective on political and social problems, which seemed to me to reflect very closely the social teaching of the Catholic Church, which was also very influential upon my own conversion.
I once again saw in Solzhenitsyn a kindred spirit, and it was this knowledge of Solzhenitsyn as a great man and one who had been a great influence upon me, which animated my desire to write his biography.
What’s new about this edition?
The first edition was published by Harper Collins in the UK back in 1999, my having interviewed Solzhenitsyn at his home in Russia in 1998, when Solzhenitsyn was approaching his 80th birthday. But Solzhenitsyn would live for a further 10 years. … Most of the people I’ve written about have been safely dead, as it were; therefore, when you write the biography, you can tie up all the loose ends and put the final period as their life ends. But Solzhenitsyn lived a further 10 years, and not a further 10 years of dotage, but another 10 years of creativity and controversy. His star was very much in the ascendant in post-communist Russia. The leading politicians would actually ask him for his opinion, if they were to pass new laws. So he was a major influence in the last 10 years of his life, so clearly the first edition of my book was an unfinished work. The new edition, published by Ignatius this year, takes several new chapters at the end, bringing the story right up to date with Solzhenitsyn’s death.
How ever did you manage to get an interview with him?
I must confess, it’s something of a mystery to me, in the sense that, I can’t now remember how I got Solzhenitsyn’s mailing address.
He was very reclusive and a private man, and there’s no doubt at all that his private address near Moscow would have been something that was not widely known. But somehow or other I managed to get his mailing address, and I sent him a letter, basically saying that I didn’t believe that any of the existing biographies of him had done him justice in the sense that they all accentuated his politics to the ultimate detriment of his faith, his Christian religion, his Christian beliefs, and that I wanted to rectify that in writing a new biography.
I mentioned in my letter to him that I had written a biography of G.K. Chesterton, by way of giving some kind of weight to who I was. At the time that was the only book I had published. So, of course, being an unknown writer, I fully expected not to receive a reply. My hope was merely to maybe get a reply from him saying “Thanks but no thanks,” at least having his autograph, as it were, as a fan.
But to my astonishment, he wrote back in his own hand, saying, “Yes, please arrange to come to Moscow to interview me. I’ll happily cooperate with your book.” And he gave me the contact details of two of his sons and said they would act as intermediaries and translators etc.
So I took the letter down to my publisher in England, Harper-Collins, and waved it in front of them, and I said “You have to give me a contract to write this book and an expense account so I can go to Moscow and interview him. Thankfully, Solzhenitsyn’s signature on the letter was sufficient to convince them that indeed they did need to do that.
How much time did you spend with him, and where?
I stayed for a long weekend, but it was pretty intense, from morning — just after breakfast, Yermolai, his son, would pick me up at the hotel, take me there. I’d spend the whole day there, including having lunch with the family and, I think, even the evening meal with the family, and in between, it was just solid interviews with him.
What was it like meeting him, interviewing him?
My initial reaction was one of almost awe because Solzhenitsyn, for the people of my generation growing up in the ’70s, his face was one of the most famous faces in the world. You just had to see his photograph in the newspaper, and you knew who he was without having to read anything. A very recognizable face.
So when he walks into the room, for a moment, I’m almost dumbstruck by the fact that here I am in Moscow in the home of this great hero against communism and Nobel Prize winner. I was sort of stunned into momentary silence, but managed to overcome that initial reaction and got down to business. I interviewed him mostly on the spiritual dimension of his life and work for the remainder of the time I was with him.
He certainly was a keen observer of what was going on in society. Thinking about his critiques of Russian society and politics in its various phases — from the Revolution to the fall of Communism and beyond — are there lessons Solzhenitsyn learned that we should be particularly alert to today in the West?
Absolutely. One thing he said in his Harvard address in 1978, which shocked everybody at the time but was profoundly true, is that the whole of secular fundamentalism and the murderous nature of the culture of death, if you like, of secular fundamentalism, is not restricted to communism. He said in that address that the same poisonous materialism also animated much of the philosophy of the West and its decadence.
I think what his life and experience shows us is that secular fundamentalism is deadly and poisonous and intolerant. When you take God out of politics you end up with a horror story, whether it be the secular fundamentalism of the French Revolution and the guillotines or the secular fundamentalism of the Nazis and the gas chambers or the secular fundamentalism of the communists and the labor camps or the abortion mills of modern America and Europe.
What we’re seeing is the culture of death killing millions of innocent people.
The Soviet Union disintegrated in the late 1980s, early 1990s, and most of the world believes that communism is pretty much dead and no longer a threat. Do you think that if Solzhenitsyn were alive today, would he be at ease with that assessment?
I think he would ask that we define our terms.
In one sense, of course, the secular fundamentalist experiment which was the Soviet Union floundered and fell after almost a century of bloody excesses culminating ultimately in the killing of tens of millions of people. But it did flounder and fall in the late ’80s and early ’90s. But what we’re really talking about here is big government, and big government animated by a secular fundamentalist philosophy. In other words, ultimately, that enemy is still very much present and we are still in danger of lurching blindly in a belief that problems can be solved by big government and that problems that are caused by the lack of God can be solved by a godless response.
So in that sense the lessons haven’t been learned, and the lessons haven’t been learned in the West, absolutely, that we could be lurching toward a secular fundamentalist big government, regardless of whether or not it quotes Karl Marx, it’s basically of the same spirit. That’s exactly what Solzhenitsyn was getting at in his Harvard address — that the spirit that unites communism and decadent materialism in the West is this secular fundamentalist materialism, this atheism at the root of politics and the root of society and how that leads ultimately to a culture of death.
Your book is a great introduction for someone who’s not read Solzhenitsyn. Where do you recommend one begins?
At the risk of sounding crassly like a salesman, I think that my own book is a good place to start because it gives the whole of the picture of his life in outline. It gives his life story. It discusses his major works in the context of when they were written and what they were about.
As regards Solzhenitsyn’s own works, I would probably recommend One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, just because it’s short, compact and powerful, and it’s a good introduction to the rest of his work.
John Burger is the Register’s news editor.