The house of the dead
In the long and protracted discussion of Solzhenitsyn's critique of Western society Much has been enthralling Spectator readers throughout the summer months, one vital element seems to be missing. This is an awareness of what hellish people the Russians are. Almost without exception and such exceptions as exist are mostly to be found in fiction, not in real life -the Russian character can be seen ,to vary only between subhuman stupidity and low cunning, between exaggerated exhibitionist idealism and total cruelty, between the bullies and the bullied. In the whole bloodstained histr3ryof this accursed nation the periods. of respite from deliberately inflated suffering tl not add up to more than a few decades. Lule most sensible attitude for us to take towards the Russian people is not admiration for their suffering -still less envy of it but contempt that they have been prered to put up with it for so long: horror at after sixty years they do not dare speak , stu each other as other human beings can hPeak to each other, for fear of being overthear. d by the secret police; and hatred that • elt cowardice allows them to go on inflictnig this cruelty on each other, generation after generation. After those emotions, there may be room for a little pity. 4ussia is not a totalitarian society, like Thnla, merely a viciously authoritarian one. hhe first requires the creation of a race of an puppets or performing animals, now raairr, °ts, now blinkered carthorses, without ali"uught of their own. The second requires se acceptance of evil on the part of the over„ ers, and a fatalistic acquiescence on the t'att of the majority. orlAt My school it was widely believed that of the monks ran a network of secret t7titiers. Possibly there was never any Lith in the rumour, but this did not stop czeuple h I._ elug accused. After a public e,.r1,.unciation and lower-deck trial, the hiiistortunate person would be beaten up by w accuser to general applause. Discipline toals3:airly harsh in my day, and justice liable gre summary in the extreme, but there was L,ater fear of being denounced asan 44101-iner than there was fear of retribution se0111 the authorities. Why are the Russians iii,T(3‘ved that they accept the presence of oners in their midst? h,t_t could be argued that the qualities I "e described stupidity and cunning, stibservie teris c and cruelty are also charactics of the working class in power. Cerlaird fro Y all the children at my school came • weduPPer-middle-class homes, and most L resPecti have 8.. been liquidated in any self
fig One has no reason to
ul3Pose that the British working 1 class
would be any less subservient or incompetent, or cruel, once its leaders had been removed, and a case might be made that the horrors of contemporary Soviet life are to be explained by the characteristics of any proletarian society rather than by any peculiarities of the Russian character. I have two answers to this. In the first place, I have been told that British prisons (whose population is still predominantly working-class) have exactly the same attitude to informers as applied at my public school. In the second place, I cannot accept that Soviet society, for all its repulsive characteristics, is a proletarian one. Although most of the liberal intelligentsia may have been killed off during the Revolution and the rest during the pre-war purges, in sixty years the system has bred its own hereditary elite -uglier and more brutal, no doubt, than the elite it replaced, but no less hereditary and no less of an elite than the sons of sweet manufacturers and garage owners with whom I romped as a boy.
But my chief reason for believing that the whole concept of freedom is alien not to say deeply repugnant -to the Russian mind, and that this is the most important clue to understanding Solzhenitsyn's critique of the West, would lie in the study of another, better Russian writer who flourished (if that is the word) long before Russian society had any claim to being proletarian. The obvious and amazing parallels between the lives of Solzhenitsyn and Dostoievsky may reflect no more than traditional Russian hatred of intellectuals, but the similarity of their response to official persecution in their own countries surely tells us something about the Russian character which it would be dangerous to ignore if we are considering Solzhenitsyn's future course of action. Dostoievsky, it will be remembered, was arrested in 1849 as a member of the Petrashevsky circle. This was a group of men who met together to read Fourier and Proudhon. He was accused of `taking part in conversations against the censorship, of reading a letter from Byelinsky to Gogol, and of knowing of the intention to set up a printing press'. For this, under Nicholas I (described by Maurice Baring as 'that stern and just man') he was sentenced to death. After eight months in prison, he was taken with twenty-one others to be shot in Semyonovsky Square. Let Constance Garnett's translation of a letter to his brother Michael take over the story: 'They snapped swords over our heads and they made us put on the white shirts worn by persons condemned to death. There upon we were bound in threes to stakes, to suffer execution. Being the third in the row, I concluded! had only a few minutes of life before me. I thought of you and your dear ones, and I continued fo kiss Plestcheiev and Dourov, who were next to me, and to bid them farewell. Suddenly the troops beat a tattoo, we were unbound, brought back upon the scaffold and informed that His Majesty had spared our lives.'
The whole thing had been an exercise in sadism. Instead, he served five years hard labour. One of the prisoners, Grigoryev, went permanently mad on being untied, and Dostoievsky suffered from violent epileptic fits for the rest of his life. The English taste may find it rather moving that his immediate reaction was to smother his neighbours, Plestcheiev and Dourov, with kisses, but if one forgets these pleasant emotions, is it not rather an inadequate response? Is there not something absurd and pathetic in the spectacle of twenty-one grown men agreeing to be tied up and shot for knowing of the intention to set up a printing press? A few years after being allowed to return to Moscow, he was driven into exile by debt. The experience made him bitterly antiEuropean. He took particular exception to the Swiss among whom, like Solzhenitsyn, he lived for a time, describing them (in David Magarshak's translation of his letters to Maykov) as 'dishonest, vile, incredibly stupid and intellectually backward'. During this period he renounced all his liberal opinions, came to be seen as a renegade by his former friends, and was worried only that his new conservative friends did not trust him.
The simple truth, I suspect, is that he was homesick. Need there be any more profound explanation for Solzhenitsyn's statement at Harvard: `Through intense suffering our country has now achieved a spiritual development of such intensity that the Western system in its present state of spiritual exhaustion does not look attractive'?
Never mind that this is piffle. Through intense suffering, his country has reached such a contemptible state of abject barbarism as has seldom been seen in Europe before. The whole concept of freedom, as I say, is alien, if not repugnant, to the Russian mind, but it is fruitless to speculate on whether his accursed country would be any better off under Solzhenitsyn than under Brezhnev. There is no such choice. Far more fruitful to speculate on what, in fact, will happen to Solzhenitsyn. Dostoievsky's end, it will be remembered, was a happy one. In June 1880 he made his famous speech in Moscow at the unveiling of Pushkin's monument and was treated as a national hero. His funeral, a few months later, was attended by extravagant demonstrations of love and honour. Solzhenitsyn, too, has had an opportunity to cornpare the decadent, liberal West with his ;own, spiritually intense country. Is it too much to suppose that he might have the same end?