Solzhenitsyn, Russia, and America

When I was stationed in Germany years ago, some of my fellow soldiers would get bored and pick fights with young Russian men in the local clubs. The German locals never seemed to have the heart to duke it out, and the Russians were not only eager and willing to trade blows, they were an even match. On particularly debauched nights, the club floor would suddenly transition from dancing to punching, a roiling frenzy in the loud dark of Schweinfurt’s Rockfabrik club. What stood out the most to me in those moments wasn’t the violence itself — young soldiers abroad get restless, after all — but how similar the Americans and Russians appeared. Both “sides” were tattooed and weighted down by jewelry, with close-cropped hair and tank tops. Sometimes, you couldn’t tell who was who. In those moments, I couldn’t help but feel a resonance between our two cultures, deeply buried, perhaps, and difficult to articulate, but there all the same. I was convinced that the fighting was really a catalyst for some deeper communion.

Something of that affinity is captured in the recently published collection of essays Solzhenitsyn and American Culture: The Russian Soul in the West, edited by David Deavel and Jessica Wilson. Many will have heard of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the author of such works as One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago, but they may regard him as a relic of the Cold War, interesting merely as an example of a dissident victimized by Soviet brutality and censorship. If they know anything about him beyond a general sense that he opposed totalitarianism, they might cite his deep Orthodox Christian sensibility or his sharp criticisms of Western decadence. But this book complicates that understanding both by deepening our appreciation of Solzhenitsyn as an artist and by illuminating the cultural context in which we understand his art.

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