The first time I ever saw my name in print, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who died last Sunday, was the subject. It was a letter to the editor of the campus newspaper during my second year at the University of Tennessee. In a strange way, the letter -- published 30 years ago -- prefigured much of my later writing: it attacked the machinations of a right-wing organization seeking to cloak its low agenda of greed and elitism with deceitful manipulations of reality -- a theme that has unfortunately been a dominant feature of American life for decades.
This was in the days of the American Right's latest re-birth, which began -- with heavy corporate sponsorship and direction -- in the early 1970s. It was also the beginning of the grubby coupling of corporate elitists and sex-obsessed religious extremists, an unholy union which has produced many grotesque offspring in the last few decades, including, of course, the monstrous abortion that is the Bush Administration and the modern Republican Party.
By the time I arrived in Knoxville in 1977, both the elitists and the religious extremists had made significant inroads, although still largely operating in separate spheres. The extremists preached a hard-core surrender of the will to an extremely narrow and brutally ignorant interpretation of Christianity. (So narrow that it made the Southern Baptist churching of my youth seem like laid-back Unitarianism.) My girlfriend, who had a troubled background, had fallen in with them for a brief time, before good sense -- and the natural desires of a healthy young body -- overrode the extremists' curdled proscriptions. So I got to know several of the adherents personally, and to see the ruinous effects of religious perversion on their lives. (Such as one young woman -- a gentle, trusting spirit, also from a troubled background -- who refused to study for her finals in her pre-law courses: "If Jesus wants me to be a lawyer, He'll give me the answers for the tests." Of course, He didn't; she failed, flunked out of school, and disappeared.)
But at that time, the local right-wing Christians were more intent on ruling the private lives of their flock; they had not yet moved on to seeking dominion over the state. The intense politicization of modern American Christianity -- its grotesque metamorphosis into a nationalist, militarist, hateful servant of Mammon -- was still slouching toward Washington to be born. When it came to politics, the corporate elitists held sway on campus in those days.
Most prominent among these were the weedy twerps of the Young Americans for Freedom, the rabidly anti-Communist -- and pro-segregation -- group founded by William Buckley in the early 1960s. After falling dormant in the days of detente, by 1978 it was reviving with new energy from the rising "neo-conservative" movement and the new infrastructure of right-wing welfare (think tanks, scholarships, publishing houses, etc.) now coming on line with corporate support.
As I said, the agenda was raw greed; the exaltation of corporate power; the rollback of the personal freedoms and expansions of civil rights won, at such cost, since the 1950s; and the destruction of the very idea of a common good, of the notion that the quality of life in a community -- justice, equality, culture, recreation, infrastructure (good schools, roads, parks, libraries, other amenities), meaningful labor, humane commerce, opportunity for personal growth, and productive participation in a genuinely responsive democratic process -- could ever outweigh the private profit of a powerful few. Any expression of these higher values -- either in principle or, god forbid, in actual policy -- was (and still is) equated with "communism," and denounced as a rank, alien evil to be eradicated at all costs.
At the same time, any expressions of opposition to communism, either in principle, or to the horrible abuses of particular communist regimes, were seized upon by the corporate elitists and put to the service of their rapacious agenda -- whether the opponent of communism agreed with that agenda or not. And this is where we came in.
Having been expelled from the USSR in 1974 after the tremendous, harrowing labor of writing a landmark history of the Soviet concentration camps, The Gulag Archipelago, and smuggling it out of the country for printing abroad, Solzhenitsyn soon moved to the United States. There he made waves with his uncompromising denunciations not only of communism but also of what he saw as the fatal decadence of the West: sexual license, vulgar music, degraded culture, political chaos (the fierce anti-Stalinist always preferred a strong hand at the helm of state; hence his later praise for Putin), and unrestrained materialism, the heedless pursuit of profit.
One could -- and did -- disagree with much of Solzhenitsyn's stance while also acknowledging that he had earned the moral authority to be heard with serious and respectful consideration. But it was also clear that the denunciation of materialism was an essential part of Solzhenitsyn's critique of the West. His preference seemed to be for a kind of modified capitalism under the direction of a benign, quasi-authoritarian regime with some democratic elements: something along the lines of what a few pre-Revolutionary officials, such as Count Sergey Witte and Pyotr Stolypin, tried vainly to introduce -- against much imperial opposition -- in the last years of Tsarist rule. In any case, his political ideas -- not to mention his artistic insights -- had nothing to do with the kind of ball-breaking corporatism and community-destroying elitism of the YAF and its ilk.
Yet in an audacious act of intellectual burglary -- of a type we were to see over and over in the years to come -- the YAF appropriated Solzhenitsyn's moral authority and tried to dress their tawdry program in these stolen robes. One of the organization's weedy Buckley wannabes (they all seemed to ape the faux-aristo mannerisms of their founder) wrote a column in the campus paper brandishing the Russian master as an emblem and exemplar of the right-wing cause. I wrote in to register my fierce protest against this intellectual thievery. I was a student in Russian at the time, and had been reading Solzhenitsyn for several years. I was no expert, but it didn't take any expertise to spot the duplicity in the YAF's partisan hackery.
Later of course, some of these local yokel cadres -- and countless others like them -- would go on to sinecures on the flanks of power in Washington, nuzzling on the public teat while denouncing "welfare queens" and other riff-raff. But of course their hypocrisy has a far more sinister side as well. For the products of the innumerable conservative organizations spawned by the corporate-sponsored "New Right" movement -- the YAF, the Young Republicans, the Federalist Society and others -- went on to help perpetrate and justify horrific abuses of power that echoed and replicated those that Solzhenitsyn denounced so bravely in the Soviet Union: torture, indefinite detention without charges, warrantless spying on the citizenry, deceitful propaganda campaigns, leaders beyond the law, and the construction of an American gulag of secret prisons and concentration camps across the world. Indeed, some of the torture techniques embraced and defended so avidly by the "movement conservatives" were taken directly from the KGB: the same agency that persecuted Solzhenitsyn.
These are the people who dared associate themselves, for decades, with Solzhenitsyn's remarkable moral courage in standing up for truth against a vast and brutal engine of state power. They were disgusting then; they are even more sickening now. For in those early days, they were just shallow, callow, second-rate fools, imitating their grown-up mentors in the boardroom; but soon enough they hatched from the serpent's egg that our corporate elite had nurtured with such care in the national bosom. They gained real power, and today stand with real blood dripping from their hands.
Again, one needn't agree with Solzhenitsyn's politics to admire him as a man and artist – as one does with, say, the even more problematical Dostoevsky – and to mourn his passing. Politics was forced upon him by historical circumstances, and were in some ways his ultimate undoing, killing off the artist in him. Certainly, after becoming a lightning rod of dissidence and then the exiled figure of conscience, he never wrote anything that even approached the level of his masterpieces of the 1960s, particularly the two great novels, The First Circle and Cancer Ward. But Solzhenitsyn was, for a time, a supreme literary artist, and in those two works particularly he fused his moral and political vision with the abiding wisdom and insight into our common human predicament that only great art can provide. It is for this that I will most warmly remember him.