In the course of his research for Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile (Harper Collins Baker Books) Joseph Pearce traveled to Moscow to interview the Nobel Prize winning author.
Joseph Pearce: In your work as a whole would you say that the spiritual or the philosophical dimension is more important than the political?
Alexander Solzhenitsyn: Yes certainly. First would be the literary side, then the spiritual and philosophical. The political side is required principally because of the necessity of the current Russian position.
Pearce: Do you feel that many of the problems in the modern world are due to an inadequate grasp of spiritual and philosophical truth by the population as a whole?
Solzhenitsyn: This is certainly true. Man has set for himself the goal of conquering the world but in the processes loses his soul. That which is called humanism, but what would be more correctly called irreligious anthropocentrism, cannot yield answers to the most essential questions of our life. We have arrived at an intellectual chaos.
Pearce: In Russia In the Abyss you say that "our frenzied government is stabbing to death the future of Russia". Why did you chose to use such strong and provocative language?
Solzhenitsyn: We are exiting from communism in a most unfortunate and awkward way. It would have been difficult to design a path out of communism worse than the one that has been followed. Our government declared that it is conducting some kind of great reforms. In reality, no real reforms were begun and no one at any point has declared a coherent programme. The name of "reform" simply covers what is latently a process of the theft of the national heritage.
Pearce: You have also written that "Russia has entered a blind alley and has nowhere to go". What did you mean by this?
Solzhenitsyn: The central government possesses no plan of finding the way out of this blind alley. They have been pursuing a course of simply trying to stay in power by whichever means are possible. Across the country, Russians, whether political or otherwise, have some kind of ideas about how to save the country, about how to find the way out. There are a lot of clear thinkers everywhere. They may suggest some project, some plan for the future. I know this because a significant portion of these get mailed directly to me.
These people hope that I will be able to say something and move it upwards, but in these circumstances I cannot do this.
Pearce: Do you believe that the West is in the same blind alley and also has nowhere to go?
Solzhenitsyn: Over the last twelve years I have stopped viewing Russia as something very distinct from the West. Today when we say the West we are already referring to the West and to Russia. We could use the word "modernity" if we exclude Africa, and the Islamic world, and partially China. With the exception of those areas we should not use the words "the West" but the word "modernity". The modern world. And yes, then I would say that there are ills that are characteristic, that have plagued the West for a long time and now Russia has quickly adopted them also.
Pearce: You are often accused of "doom and gloom". How would you respond?
Solzhenitsyn: This is a consequence of the fact that people don't read, they just glance through. Let me give you an example: The Gulag Archipelago. There are horrific stories in that book but throughout, through it all, there is a spirit of catharsis. In Russia In the Abyss, I have not painted the dark reality in rose-tinted shades but I do include a clear way, a search for something brighter, some way out -- most importantly in the spiritual sense because I cannot suggest political ways out, that is the task of politicians, so it is simply that those who accuse me of this do not know how to read.
Pearce: A British journalist recently stated that you believe that Russia has overthrown the evils of communism only to replace them with the evils of capitalism, is that a fair statement of your position and, if so, what do you feel are the worst evils of capitalism?
Solzhenitsyn: In different places over the years I have had to prove that socialism, which to many western thinkers is a sort of kingdom of justice, was in fact full of coercion, of bureaucratic greed and corruption and avarice, and consistent within itself that socialism cannot be implemented without the aid of coercion. Communist propaganda would sometimes include statements such as "we include almost all the commandments of the Gospel in our ideology". The difference is that the Gospel asks all this to be achieved through love, through self-limitation, but socialism only uses coercion. This is one point.
Untouched by the breath of God, unrestricted by human conscience, both capitalism and socialism are repulsive.
Pearce: Does the fact that modernity makes a virtue out of selfishness constitute one of the keys to its enduring success?
Solzhenitsyn: That's very correct. It does make a virtue out of selfishness and Protestantism made a major contribution to this.
Pearce: Why Protestantism?
Solzhenitsyn: Of course, one cannot declare that only my faith is correct and all other faiths are not. Of course God is endlessly multi-dimensional so every religion that exists on earth represents some face, some side of God. One must not have any negative attitude to any religion but nonetheless the depth of understanding God and the depth of applying God's commandments is different in different religions. In this sense we have to admit that Protestantism has brought everything down only to faith.
Calvinism says that nothing depends on man, that faith is already predetermined. Also in its sharp protest against Catholicism, Protestantism rushed to discard together with ritual all the mysterious, the mythical and mystical aspects of the Faith. In that sense it has impoverished religion.
Pearce: Is the only hope a return to religion?
Solzhenitsyn: Not a return to religion but an elevation toward religion. The thing is that religion itself cannot but be dynamic which is why "return" is an incorrect term. A return to the forms of religion which perhaps existed a couple of centuries ago is absolutely impossible. On the contrary, in order to combat modern materialistic mores, as religion must, to fight nihilism and egotism, religion must also develop, must be flexible in its forms, and it must have a correlation with the cultural forms of the epoch. Religion always remains higher than everyday life. In order to make the elevation towards religion easier for people, religion must be able to alter its forms in relation to the consciousness of modern man.
Pearce: Related to this, there are two points of view amongst members of the Catholic Church about the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. One side says that it was good because it modernised the Church, the other side saw it as a surrender to the modern values with which the Church was essentially at war. What are your own views?
Solzhenitsyn: This question stands also now before the Russian Orthodox Church. It also has two currents within it. The one which is hierarchically dominated does not want to develop at all whereas the reformers seek change. For instance, a question peculiar to the Russian Orthodox Church is should we continue to use Old Church Slavonic or should we start to introduce more of the contemporary Russian language into the service. I understand the fears of both those in the Orthodox and in the Catholic Church, the wariness, the hesitation and the fear that this is lowering the Church to the modern condition, the modern surroundings. I understand this fear but alas I also fear that if religion does not allow itself to change it will be impossible to return the world to religion because the world is incapable on its own of rising as high as the old demands of religion. Religion needs to come to meet it somewhat.
Pearce: Does this pessimism, for want of a better word, apply to society's prospects of rediscovering, or rising to, religion?
Solzhenitsyn: I would have to say that the road is very difficult and the hope is very small but it is not excluded. History has in different questions laid out some tremendous turnabouts and curves.
Pearce: In that case do you see the likelihood that religion will continue much as it is at the moment as being practised only by a minority?
Solzhenitsyn: Yes I do. But that doesn't mean that believers should let their hands drop or that they should give up. I am deeply convinced that God is present both in the lives of every person and also in the lives of entire nations.
Pearce: What is the present position of Christianity in Russia?
Solzhenitsyn: After the permission was freely given for people to practise their faith the number of Christianity's adherents has grown. Many under an atheistic press, a vice grip, had forgotten their faith so there is now something of a return to Christianity yet simultaneously there is a decay of values which accompanies the rise of consumer society. It is a simultaneous process.
Pearce: Do you feel that the future of Russia is bound up with Christianity and, if so, is it bound up with the future of the Russian Orthodox Church?
Solzhenitsyn: The Orthodox Church is the central current of Christianity in this country. I would say that the Christian parts of Russia will not abandon this path but I would hesitate to predict to what extent this would influence the development of events for the whole country. For the entire future of Russia, I would say that the situation is in a balance and it is unclear which way this balance will go. As this is true for the whole of Russia, and all the issues to do with Russia, it is also unclear to what degree the development of Christianity will be intertwined in Russia and will influence the way the whole country goes. We cannot predict that now.
Pearce: If Christianity is the will of God and at the same time is destined to perform a minor role in the future of humanity, is this the will of God or is it the result of human free will turning to evil, which God permits?
Solzhenitsyn: It is a result of the free will of man and one must not detach that from the predictions of the end of the world in the Gospels. In the Scriptures let us note that which predicts the future always talks of the road toward the anti-Christ and not the triumph of God's will.
Pearce: In retrospect, what were the most important and defining moments in your life?
Solzhenitsyn: I will try to answer. Firstly, army and the front because I lived without a father. My father died before I was born and so I had lacked upbringing by men. In the army I went away from that. That's first. Second would be the arrest because it allowed me to understand Soviet reality in its entirety and not merely the one-sided view I had of it previous to the arrest.
Pearce: How would you like to be remembered to posterity?
Solzhenitsyn: That's a complex question. I would hope that all that has been said about me, slandered about me, in the course of decades, would, like mud, dry up and fall off. It is amazing how much gibberish has been talked about me, more so in the west than in the USSR. In the USSR it was all one-directional propaganda, and (laughs) everyone knew that it was just Communist propaganda.
Joseph Pearce. "An Interview with Alexander Solzhenitsyn."St. Austin Review 2 no. 2 (February, 2003).
This article reprinted with permission from St. Austin Review. From England's Catholic publisher, "The Saint Austin Press", the "Saint Austin Review" (StAR) is a magazine which brings together scholars, journalists, poets and spiritual leaders from around the English-speaking world. People such as Joseph Pearce, James Schall SJ, Robert Asch, Benedict Groeschel CFR, Janet Smith, Patrick Riley, and many more. Each month 12 pages of this 44-page magazine are devoted to a particular cultural or spiritual theme.
Joseph Pearce grew up in East London, England. He is co-editor of the new transatlantic Catholic cultural journal "St. Austin Review" and teaches at Ave Maria College in Ann Arbor, MI, where he resides with his wife Susannah. Joseph Pearce is a biographer and the author of:
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a Russian author and historian, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970. From 1945 to 1953 he was imprisoned for writing a letter in which he criticized Joseph Stalin -- "the man with the mustache." Solzhenitsyn served in the camps and prisons near Moscow, and in a camp in Ekibastuz, Kazakhstan (1945-53). In his work Solzhenitsyn continued the realistic tradition of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy and complemented it later with his views of the flaws of both East and West. He is the author of:
Copyright © 2003 St. Austin Review
Read this article on the Catholic Education Center Resource website. Reprinted with permission of the author.