Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, 1998..
(photo credit: Reuters)
With the death of Alexander Solzhenitsyn in 2008, the world lost the heroic
voice of a writer who dared to challenge the repression of an evil empire. The
Nobel Prize winning author, in both his novels and his masterwork, The Gulag
Archipelago, exposed the tyranny of the Soviet penal system and a dictatorship
that suppressed religious belief and freedom of conscience.
Solzhenitsyns, the Sakharovs and the Sharanskys played a significant role in the
toppling of the Soviet empire – the brutal political system under which they
lived never cowed them into submission or surrender.
Yet, there are
elements of Solzhenitsyn’s thought that are disturbing. The Russian
genius was an enemy not only of Soviet communism. He was also an
acid-penned critic of Western democracy and an opponent of freedom of the
Solzhenitsyn’s commitment to Russian Orthodox Christianity and his
Slavophile rhetoric marred his heroism in standing up to the Stalinists and
their successors. Solzhenitsyn was a religious fundamentalist who yearned to
overthrow the gains humanity made in modernity in the Renaissance, the
Reformation and the French Revolution. If he did not specifically want to return
Russia to the rule of the Czars, he did yearn for a pre-Bolshevik golden age in
which the anti-Jewish, conservative Russian Orthodox Church would dominate
politics, theology and morality.
Like his great predecessor Fyodor
Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn was no friend of democracy or the liberalism of
modernity. Solzhenitsyn censured the immorality of the West and condemned both
democracy and communism.
This sounds like the rhetoric of fundamentalists
in the Islamic world regarding the role of Islamic law in modern societies and
the condemnation of the West as decadent and immoral. But the parallels are not
precise. Perhaps there is something important we can learn from the celebrated
20th-century Russian author.
Solzhenitsyn made no secret of his beliefs.
Over 35 years ago, the Russian dissident addressed the commencement exercises at
Harvard University, telling an audience of 22,000 that America was declining
because of a “collapse of courage” brought on by capitalism and a spirit of
individualism that bred immorality and vice. Solzhenitsyn, in June of 1978, told
the Harvard audience that he “could not recommend today’s West as a model” and
that the Slavic world of Eastern Europe was spiritually far ahead of America. He
did not reject the humanistic heritage of the European Renaissance but argued
that the values of medieval life and theology must be a dominant part of modern
The commencement speech at Harvard drew much praise
and an equal amount of criticism. The ideas presented by Solzhenitsyn at Harvard
remained an essential core of his beliefs till the end of his long
Cold War America presented Solzhenitsyn as an anti-Soviet hero in
much the same way the United States supported the Muslim mujihadeen fighting the
Russians decades ago in Afghanistan. Neither Solzhenitsyn nor the Muslim
fighters turned out to be friends of the West in the end, despite their fierce
What concerns me most, as a Jew and a religious Zionist,
is the anti-modern rhetoric that permeates Solzhenitsyn’s life and work.
Zionism, while a movement that owes a great debt to traditional Jewish faith and
theology, is a modern movement that has fostered democracy and basic freedoms.
While Judaism should play a public role for Jews living in Israel, the Jewish
state should not be a theocracy ruled by Torah law.
The parallel to
Solzhenitsyn’s reactionary religious beliefs can be found in the Jewish world
today. Just as Solzhenitysn condemned Soviet communism and Western democracy,
Rabbi Moshe Joel Teitelbaum, the leader of the Satmar hassidic sect, condemned
Zionism as an “awful heresy.” Teitelbaum and his successors are foes of all that
is modern – not only the socialist component of Zionism but also the importance
of a democratic Israel. Solzhenitsyn’s yearning for a return of Russia to its
pre-Bolshevik and Czarist roots is a distant cousin to the Satmarers demonizing
the modern movement of Zionism with its roots in 19th-century liberal
Both Solzhenitsyn and Teitelbaum were reactionaries who
wanted to turn back the clock and reject the legacy of modern life, politics and
I will not deny that Western capitalism has sometimes created
societies driven by an empty consumerism that have bred vice and
We must hope that the State of Israel, having lost the
Socialist spirit and politics that drove the Zionist movement and the early
years of Jewish sovereignty, will not replace that outworn ideology with a
vacuous mimicking of the worst American culture and life has to offer. In that
way, Solzhenitsyn had an important statement to make relevant to Jews. However,
the West has always had more to offer than just crass materialism and
Beyond the fundamentalists’ caricature of a decadent and
declining America is the reality that freedom of speech, religion, expression
and economic activity has produced an American nation that remains a model for
the rest of the world. This reality was missing from Solzhenitsyn’s address at
Despite all my caveats regarding Solzhenitsyn, I learn an
important lesson from his stance on the world.
posed an intriguing challenge to Jews to look beyond the politics of the Left
and the Right and to find a political life and society rooted in 4,000 years of
Jewish history, rather than the modern revolutions in France and
Who are our role models: Burke and Marx, or Saadiah and
Maimonides? Perhaps the time has come for Jews to find political solutions not
within conventional liberal or conservative standpoints – these are foreign
imports from outside of Judaism – but within Jewish history itself.
can still be staunch defenders of democracy in Israel and America yet still
search for alternatives to the political movements of modernity. There
should be an alternative to Right and Left that taps into the riches of Judaism
and Jewish history.
Perhaps the Diaspora was not just a “dark hole” of
persecution and political passivity. We do not need to descend into the realm of
fundamentalism. We simply need to search for authentic Jewish voices from our
past that will allow us to shape ideologies and theologies beyond those limited
by the politics of our own day.
The author is rabbi of Beth Ami
Congregation in Boca Raton, Florida.