Over fifty years ago, reviewing Victor Serge’s newly published novel The Case of Comrade Tulayev, Regi Siriwardena commented that the novel was ‘free from the rancour, the uneasy conscience, the breast-beatings which distort most books by ex-Communists. Its study of human beings under terror is made all the more impressive by the lack of any forcing of tone in the novel. Serge even puts Stalin as a character into the novel and portrays him not as a political brigand but as a much more interesting, tragic and terrible figure – a lonely old man, isolated from everyone by the lying and fear he has engendered, a victim of his own fanaticism.’ Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Russian writer and Nobel laureate who died earlier this month, was another novelist like Serge who wrote about the terror under Stalinist Russia. But unlike Serge, he critiqued Stalinism with fervour, perhaps understandably because of his personal experience of Stalin’s labour camps.
Solzhenitsyn’s life is an example of the human cost involved in suppressing dissent and allowing expediency to supersede individual freedoms. Solzhenitsyn had had a hard childhood and early life. He had lost his father even before he was born and his mother brought him up in very difficult financial circumstances. But he was a clever student and later graduated from the local University in Mathematics and Physics. He had served in the Red Army for three years when he was arrested in 1945 for some letters which he had written to a friend and which were intercepted by the military censors. In those letters, he had criticised Stalin’s conduct of the war; he was therefore accused of anti-Soviet propaganda and founding a hostile organisation. He was tried by a tribunal of the secret police in his absence and sentenced to eight years hard labour.
Solzhenitsyn spent the eight years in various labour camps collectively known as the gulag. When he was released in 1953, Stalin had just died but the KGB still remained powerful. He was sent to Kazakhstan where he supported his writing by teaching mathematics in a school. In 1962, he published One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, an expose of the network of Soviet labour camps into which many of the Soviet citizens accused of being "enemies of the people" were incarcerated.
After the post-Stalin power struggles, Khrushchev had assumed power and denounced Stalin and his methods. In 1956 he rehabilitated Solzhenitsyn and personally authorised the publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. The book created a sensation because it was the first political novel published by a non-Party member since the Revolution. Khrushchev defended the book when he told the Politburo of the Communist Party: "There is a Stalinist in each of you; there is even a Stalinist in me. We must root out this evil." Indeed, the book was studied in schools in the Soviet Union, as also some other novellas published by Solzhenitsyn in 1963.
Call for abolition of censorship
In 1964, Khrushchev was ousted from power and Stalinist elements in the KGB and the party continued to remain powerful. But Solzhenitsyn continued to be a thorn in their flesh. In 1967, he wrote to the fourth National Congress of Soviet Writers demanding the abolition of censorship, the rehabilitation of many writers victimised during the Stalinist repression and for the restoration of his archives confiscated by the KGB in 1965. He continued his political and historical writings and speeches. Finally, in 1974, an exasperated KGB and Party stripped of his Soviet citizenship and exiled him to Germany. He spent time in Cologne, moved to Zurich and finally ended up in Vermont USA; he had become the darling of the West not for his literary talent but because he represented Soviet dissent in the Cold War. In 1978, the Harvard University awarded him an honorary doctorate in literature. In his convocation address, he roundly condemned both modern western culture and the repression in the Soviet Union. In a speech elsewhere, he said: "If today the Soviet Union has powerful military and police forces—in a country which is by contemporary standards poor—they are used to crush our movement for freedom in the Soviet Union—and we have western capital to thank for this also."
In 1990, Solzhenitsyn’s Soviet citizenship was restored by Mikhail Gorbachev and he returned to live in the Soviet Union in 1994. But his spirit had not been crushed and he refused a state award from Boris Yeltsin whom he blamed for the parlous state of the country’s economy. However, he later accepted one from Putin who he said was leading the country to recovery.
Stalinism in practice
In 1931, Stalin provided his own philosophy for his regime: "Those who fall behind get beaten. But we do not want to be beaten. No, we refuse to be beaten. One feature of the history of old Russia was the continual beatings she suffered for falling behind, for her backwardness. All beat her …… that is why we must no longer lag behind." It is true that Stalin modernised and industrialised the Soviet Union and laid the foundation for her rise as a super-power. Many of us watched with admiration the progress of the Five Year Plans as they provided economic recovery and internal reconstruction.
But all this was at a huge human price. The toll of the purges is reckoned in tens of millions; it included Trotsky murdered by Stalinist agents in Mexico in 1945. Solzhenitsyn has documented these in his The Gulag Archipelago. Yet, by Solzhenitsyn’s own testimony, the responsibility for the atrocities was not Stalin’s alone; the "wolfishness" of the terror flowed from Soviet life itself. Speaking of the torturers, the "Blue Caps" who interrogated and often killed innocent victims of the terror, Solzhenitsyn asks: "Where did this wolf-tribe appear from among our people? Does it really stem from our own roots? Our own blood? Sadly, Solzenitsyn answers, ‘It is our own’.
The collapse of Communism
We began this column with Regi Siriwardena and let us end it also with him, arguably the most perceptive political journalist of our time. At the end of 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev relinquished his role as head of state and with it came also the end of Communist Party’s hold on power. Regi Siriwardena wrote at that time: "Several times during the last few years I have toyed with the idea of writing a play about a young man in his early twenties during the last days of Stalin. The young man had made up his mind that the Soviet system doesn’t work, and he makes a personal decision – to dedicate his life to making his way up the political ladder to the very peak of power, so that he can then dismantle the system.
The young man in the play I imagined was to have been Mikhail Gorbachev. I still believe it would have made interesting drama, and today I can think of an effective coup-de-theatre on which to ring down the curtain. As Gorbachev leaves the Kremlin in December 1991, the hammer and sickle is being brought down, and he pauses on the threshold to whisper to Raisa (his wife): "Well, that’s what I dreamed of forty years ago."
Four years earlier, Regi Siriwardena had quoted with approval a comment by Guardian’s Martin Walker: "Even if the worst were to happen, and Gorbachev were toppled by an inner-party coup, there is no doubt that the reversal would be temporary, and the general direction of his changes would sooner or later re-assert themselves. For glasnost and perestroika are not simply the creation of one man; they are necessities called for by the development of Soviet society itself, and the Soviet Union cannot go forward today without democratisation." History has proved Martin Walker and Regi Siriwardena right and this columnist believes that this has lessons for us in Sri Lanka too. But that will have to await another column.