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By Thomas Frank
Imprisoned in Stalin's GULAG prison camps under atrocious circumstances in 1945, at the hour of the Soviet Union's great victory over Nazi Germany for twenty-five years under the infamous article 58 of the Soviet criminal code for daring to criticize the anti-humanistic, anti-socialist actions of the dictator, Solzhenyitsyn was released only after Stalin's death, as N. S. Khruschev and his associates belatedly began to clean up the disaster caused by what was then the world's largest prison system.
After Khruschev denounced the dead dictator's horrible crimes in his famous speech of 1956, Solzhenyitsyn was allowed -- even encouraged -- to publish his famous novella, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch. This was strong stuff for his country. And his publication of the First Circle, a novel describing the forced labours of the imprisoned intelligentsia of his country added fuel to the fires.
Solzhenyitsyn then experienced renewed suppression as the Khruschev regime was weakened and finally replaced by the regressive regime of Brezhnev. His magnum opii; first the history of Stalin's purges, jails and camps, GULAG Archipelego, and then his great historical work on Russia's failed efforts in World War I, 1914, were published abroad. The latter after the writer's forced exile here in the USA.
In famous words, uttered right here, before their own indignant eyes, in my own country as our own misleaders sought his aid in demonizing their socialist opponent, Solzhenyitsyn did not hesitate to denounce just as fulsomely as he had exposed the crimes of Communism the misdeeds, the violence, the crass materialism of the West and its corporadoes.
But this rigourous and fearless intellectual honesty is what made him a great writer of world importance. His works mean something to us all in the world of ideas and of art because they do not speak to merely his time or his country or the crimes of the misleaders of his state. They possess a transcendent validity for all peoples, for all times and for all states.
For is it not so that autocracy is the default setting for human society? As people lose the strength to struggle for freedom, as age weakened the fighting spirit of this iconoclast he sought in the traditions, the orthodoxies, of his native land some key to the survival of the human spirit in an hostile world. And perhaps, like Socrates, nearing his end he placed a little too much confidence then in the "enlightened leader" -- even if that leader was something of an authoritarian. But let no one compare his friend Putin to Stalin, or even to the aggressors in charge today of the Western "democracies".
We see today in the supposed national home of justice and law the same evils against which the great writer always struggled. Today it is the land of the free and the home of the brave which boasts the world's largest prison system; arbitrary, racist and elitist, it is our land which sends its armies to the conquest of others.
Solzhenyitsyn will live forever because decency, love and honor will live forever. Even in the ice and mud of the Siberian camps, or in the damp fogs of the supermax at Pelican Bay or the burning sun of Guantanamo.
From the imperial capital