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An Excerpt from “Solzhenitsyn and American Culture,” edited by David P. Deavel and Jessica Hooten Wilson

In Solzhenitsyn and American Culture: The Russian Soul in the West (October 2020), David P. Deavel and Jessica Hooten Wilson have collected essays from the foremost scholars and thinkers of comparative studies who have been tracking what Americans have borrowed and learned from Solzhenitsyn as well as his fellow Russians. The book offers a consideration of what we have in common—the truth, goodness, and beauty America has drawn from Russian culture and from masters such as Solzhenitsyn—and will suggest to readers what we can still learn and what we must preserve.

From the Introduction: “Missing the Deep Roots and Rich Soul

Yet though the harvest of Russian treasures is great, the workers have been few. An internet search for “Russian influence” or even “Russian cultural influence” yields only an endless number of stories about the possibilities that one or both presidential candidates sought help from the Russian government to win the election. The aforementioned Congress for Russian-Americans seems to have no interest in Russian influence on Americans. Yet there are notable exceptions, including a 2004 lecture series put on by the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center highlighting Russian influence on the arts. There is also the work done by a number of scholars, including one of the editors, on the Russian influence on Southern writers such as Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor.

It is perhaps strange that so little has been written on the influence that has been and the influence that could be if only more attention were paid.

The beginnings of Russian and American religion and culture have been judged similarly. Billington’s account of the origins of Russian culture in Kievan Rus includes the judgment by historians that the conversion to Orthodoxy in the tenth century was an optimistic and joy-filled affair that included the belief that “Orthodox Christianity had solved all the basic problems of belief and worship. . . . Changes in dogma or even sacred phraseology could not be tolerated, for there was but one answer to any controversy.” More broadly, “the complex philosophic traditions and literary conventions of Byzantium (let alone the classical and Hellenic foundations of Byzantine culture) were never properly assimilated.” With a few substitutions in the terminology, these accusations have been made of the — by Russian standards — young American country with its Protestant fundamentalism and its remarkable adoption of classical and European culture without nearly enough thought. As an English friend of one of the editors put it, “What’s the difference between yogurt and America? Yogurt has developed a culture.”

Yet both have developed cultures that are as grand in scale and diverse in production, for good and for ill, as their respective geographical territories. In Landmarks in Russian Literature, a volume that did much to introduce the great Russian writers to a Western audience, the English diplomat and writer Maurice Baring observed that the “Russian nature” has an abundance of seemingly contradictory elements: a “passive element,” “something unbridled, a spirit which breaks all bounds of self-control and runs riot,” and “a stubborn element, a tough obstinacy.” The “matter of fact” runs into “extravagance,” while Gogol’s “cheerfulness” is matched with other writers’ “inspissated gloom.” Like Whitman, the Russian soul has a depth and richness that contains multitudes. This breadth matches the breadth of the United States, where, it is said, one can make any generalization and find that it is true.

It is noteworthy that the nineteenth-century greats came from a Russia that, unlike its medieval past, had made connections culturally to the broader West and to other forms of religious and secular thought. It was a country and a culture that was working through the changes that were being wrought by modernity. Though its history took a tragic turn at the beginning of the twentieth century, nonetheless it had already produced and continued to produce thinkers, writers, and believers who both loved the Russian past and wanted to conserve what was best in it — while not rejecting out of hand the new things that were happening in the modern world, despite the turn that it had taken in the Soviet era.

We too would like to call all the characters of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky to the witness stand, along with their authors. But there are other names, too. First among them is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Since his friendly critique of American society in the 1978 Harvard address, Solzhenitsyn has been found suspect by a great many American thinkers. Richard Pipes, while acknowledging his deftness as a writer, represented well a standard critique of him as motivated by the “ideal” of “a benevolent theocratic autocracy which he believed to be rooted in Russian history but which existed only in his imagination.” Yet Solzhenitsyn was not simply a crank
rejecting modernity in favor of a mythical Russian past. He was a noteworthy thinker and artist who brought “together a measured critique of philosophical modernity, of what he has called ‘anthropocentric humanism,’ with an appreciation of the liberty that is the centerpiece of Western civic life.” Solzhenitsyn’s claim in the 1983 Templeton Prize Lecture that the devastating outcomes of the twentieth century derived from the fact that “men have forgotten God” is no simple appeal to a theocratic and autocratic past. It is a recognition that though human will and technique are powerful, they will tend toward destruction and violence if untethered to divine and natural law. Human freedom and ingenuity, if seen as autonomous, can easily be turned to slavery.

It is Solzhenitsyn’s, among others, witness to and example of rethinking liberty, patriotism, art, literature — and all the aspects of human culture —that, in a way, does not forget God and, consequently, treats man with the dignity he deserves. It is to the work of a variety of Solzhenitsyn scholars that we are in debt for beginning to retrieve and apply his thoughts to our context, but it is to one in particular that this volume is dedicated.

This blog post is part of the Enriching Scholarly Communication and Connections through Notre Dame Press project and has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this post do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Additional information about the National Endowment for the Humanities and its grant programs is available at www.neh.gov.

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