Saturday, February 11, 2006

"The Noblest Man Alive" Is A Prime-Time TV Smash

Probably the most formative book I ever read in my entire life was The Gulag Archipelago. I read all three massive volumes of it the summer before my senior year in high school. Of course I couldn't absorb it all at that age, but it stretched my spiritual horizons far beyond what they had been. It proved to be a political inoculation against the more egregious leftisms I would encounter in my otherwise rewarding and enriching time in college, too. As Solzhenitsyn himself said, it was not just a secret history of the Soviet prison camp system, but an intense meditation on the soul's suffering and warpage under the heel of socialism:

So let the reader who expects this book to be a political expose slam its covers shut right now. If only it were all so simple? If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

There had been plenty of other testimonies about the realities of the Soviet regime, of course. Even Stalin's personal assistant, one Boris Bazhanov, bolted to the West and published in the 1920s. But none of these ever made much of a dent in the aura of progressivism and inevitability that Soviet power enjoyed with such wide swathes of the Western Left. But Solzhenitsyn's work, from One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich to Gulag, was different in a couple of crucial respects. His books were published inside the Soviet Union, putting him and his family and friends at immediate risk of arrest at any time. Andrei Sinyavsky, Yuli Daniel, and Boris Pasternak all got into hot water for their work, but not even Dr. Zhivago was as explosive as the work Solzhenitsyn was surreptitiously working on throughout the Sixties. When The Gulag Archipelago was finally published, he was too big of a cause celebre to kill or imprison, so the Soviets exiled him. Having published everything while still inside Russia made his name a by-word for courage.

And also, Solzhenitsyn embraced the Russian Orthodox faith, costing him the support of Western progressives. So long as they could flatter themselves that he was just a dissident in the Soviet Union, just like they were dissidents in the Western democracies, then fine. But for him to embrace Christianity and Russian nationalism, to attribute the nation's catastrophes to the notion that "men have forgotten God", was just too much for them. He was denounced as a bigot, a chauvinist, and an anti-semite. He finally returned to Russia in 1994 amid some fanfare, but quickly became typed as an anachronism, a spent force. His books gathered dust, and his talk show was canceled with a message on his answering machine.

But in Russian culture as in American, everything old is new again. His novel The First Circle is now a hit TV mini-series in Russia. If it's true that a generation scorns its parents and makes friends with its grandparents, then a whole new audience is discovering Solzhenitsyn.

MOSCOW, Feb. 8 — A grandfatherly figure, his bearded face wrinkled into a smile, peers down from billboards around town.

In a scene from the televised version of Solzhenitsyn's "First Circle," an inmate in one of Stalin's "special prisons" is played by Aleksei Kolubkov, center. The work deals with some of the Soviet era's darkest episodes.
It is surprise enough that the man is Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, the once-exiled writer, Nobel Prize winner and, of late, octogenarian scold. It is even more so that the billboards advertise his adaptation — broadcast on state television, no less — of one of his fiercely anti-Soviet novels, "The First Circle."

Solzhenitsyn has been called the conscience of the nation, but his reputation has risen and fallen as tumultuously as Russia itself since the collapse of the Soviet Union. "First Circle" has once again placed him on the national stage, reaching an audience that would have been inconceivable to him four decades ago, when he smuggled the book out of the Soviet Union.

Now that's must-see TV! Wonder if there's a foreign category in the Emmy Awards?

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