On Solzhenitsyn’s shoulders

The great writer’s intellectual heirs warn that collective rights obscure individual suffering


This article is taken from the November 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Speaking at the London Guildhall upon receipt of the Templeton Prize in 1983, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn dropped a heavy meme on the history of the twentieth century. When he was still a child, he said, he had heard older people saying that all the disasters befalling Russia were happening because “Men have forgotten God”. After nearly fifty years of reading, collecting testimonies, and writing about those disasters, “I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: ‘Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.’”

Solzhenitsyn’s speech came on the heels of Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech, in which the American president blamed Lenin’s abandonment of religious morals for Soviet totalitarianism. Jimmy Carter had mentioned atheism when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. Martin Luther King had cited it in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”. Senator Joseph McCarthy had used it to frighten Middle America. Franklin Roosevelt had pressured Stalin to abandon it at the outset of their wartime alliance. Pope Pius XI had led a “crusade of prayer” against it.

And yet, no one had made atheism as central to the traumas of the century as Solzhenitsyn, nor expanded the criticism so precipitously to encompass the foundations of western secular liberalism. Solzhenitsyn targeted not just Lenin, but all the works of the Enlightenment. Was it not thanks to Thomas Jefferson’s use of the words “the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence, he suggested, that the Washington Post had felt emboldened to publish a “shameless caricature” of the Virgin Mary, or that “a blasphemous film” (clearly Monty Python’s Life of Brian) had found success in America?

It is testament to Solzhenitsyn’s powers of rhetoric that his meme outlived the USSR. It re-emerged with some force after 9/11, when critics of a new, popular atheism levelled it at Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, among others. A version of it likely inspired Jordan Peterson when he suggested, more recently, that a genuine atheist would resemble Raskolnikov, the murderous utilitarian anti-hero of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. It hangs, now, over two recent volumes on Soviet atheism, both of which take their titles from Solzhenitsyn’s potent polemics against the Soviet regime.

A monk was subjected to phony psychiatric imprisonment for his faith

The next person to win the Templeton Prize was Michael Bourdeaux, a Cornish priest who, in 1969, had founded Keston College, a charity that documented the circumstances of religious believers under communism. The prize, set up by the investor John Templeton to reward “progress in religion”, was worth £140,000, and helped fund Keston’s work. Solzhenitsyn praised the award, saying it would draw further attention to “the barbaric persecution of religion in the communist countries”. Bourdeaux, who died in March this year, returned the honour by titling his memoir One Word of Truth, from a proverb Solzhenitsyn had used in his Nobel speech: “One word of truth shall outweigh the whole world”.

It was, Bourdeaux writes, “God’s choice for my life” that he should focus on religion under communism, since he stumbled into the topic via a trinity of extraordinary coincidences. The first was that, as a sporty choirboy just out of school, he was drafted into an RAF Russian language course for his national service from 1953-54. Thus it was that he trained in the “secret classrooms” of Cambridge (with Michael Frayn and Alan Bennett in the class ahead of him), and learned about the lives of the Soviet exiles who taught him. He went on to study modern languages at Oxford and then, experiencing a “late vocation”, returned to study theology.

In the second coincidence, he learned, just before graduation, of a new British Council exchange programme — the result of an agreement between Harold Macmillan and Nikita Khrushchev — that could take him to Russia. He arrived in Moscow in 1959, the year the Communist Party launched its first major anti-religious campaign since the 1930s. Officially in Russia to study mediaeval history, he set out to ascertain the state of the Russian church. He encountered anti-religious propaganda in the form of the new magazine Science and Religion, and the widely-promoted speaker Alexander Osipov — a former theology professor who lectured about “How I Lost My Faith in God”. He mapped the city’s 40 or so remaining churches and observed the nervous behaviour of Orthodox and Baptist clergy. He also described a bizarre run-in with the KGB.

He returned to Britain “the guardian of a truth which was a secret to the world” and, following ordination, wrote an exposé in The Observer. In 1964, Faber offered him a deal for his first book, Opium of the People, but asked him to return to Russia to research a final chapter.

Then, thanks to “the unseen hand of God”, he walked into a third coincidence: while visiting the ruins of a Moscow church that had been demolished to build a metro station, he met two women who had been documenting the harassment of monks and worshippers at the Pochaev monastery in Ukraine, where one monk — the son of one of the women — had been subjected to phony psychiatric imprisonment for his faith. They asked Bourdeaux to “be our voice” and convey their samizdat to the wider world.

Bourdeaux’s reports of religious persecution proved a tough sell back home, where conventional wisdom held that such mistreatment had ended with Stalin’s wartime rapprochement with the Orthodox Church, and the Foreign Office preferred “quiet diplomacy” with Khrushchev (though Bourdeaux doesn’t mention it, the unenforced secularisation of the West in the 1960s likely played a role, too). Bourdeaux was at pains to differentiate himself, in the wake of McCarthyism, from anti-communist populists, who also focused on religion. “In those days,” he writes, “holding openly anti-communist views in intellectual circles was considered to be virtually a crime.”

Official Soviet atheism was a theatre of illusions

The official Soviet atheism of the 1960s was, to a large extent, a theatre of illusions. The authorities broke up congregations, closed churches and often demolished them, but also used the crowds that packed into the remaining ones to convince tourists there was no persecution. Khrushchev’s decision to have the Russian Orthodox Church join the World Council of Churches in 1961 served a similar purpose: KGB-controlled clergy joined representatives of “third world” churches to amplify discussions of western racism and colonialism while burying such claims of Soviet religious persecution as emerged.

Bourdeaux, to his credit, did not become an anti-communist firebrand, but opted for “responsible publicity” based on accurate documentation of arrests and imprisonments. After establishing Keston as a religious but officially apolitical charity — and receiving initial donations from Aid to the Church in Need, Billy Graham, and the Ford Foundation — he and his colleagues offered measured, detailed information to media and policymakers (full disclosure: I once received a Keston scholarship). Keston published samizdat (notably, the prison diary of Russian Baptist leader Georgi Vins), issued a journal called Religion in Communist Lands, and built its reputation. By the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher was asking Bourdeaux to brief her about religious prisoners before she met her Soviet counterparts.

Yet Keston always kept one foot firmly in the secular world. Bourdeaux writes that it was “from the first day” committed to the ideals of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration on Human Rights. In that regard, Keston could be considered as much a child of the Enlightenment as of the Anglican Church. Indeed, what is most striking about Bourdeaux’s career is the frustration he experienced, less with secular critics than with other Christians (Billy Graham included), who took false consolation in Soviet obfuscations. “The Body of Christ needs no lies and compromise to ‘preserve’ it,” Bourdeaux said in his Templeton speech. “Yet equivocation flourishes and the influence of false concepts is pervasive.”

One of the “false concepts” Bourdeaux cited was the notion that “collective rights” were more important than individual ones. While the idea might have a humanitarian ring to it, he said, the Soviets used it “to baulk investigation of the cases of individual dissenters”.

Rod Dreher, an American conservative and convert to Eastern Orthodoxy, cites a similar trend in US politics today. “Elites and elite institutions,” he writes, “are abandoning old-fashioned liberalism, based on defending the rights of the individual, and replacing it with a progressive creed that regards justice in terms of groups.” Now, older immigrants from ex-communist countries, he writes, are sounding the alarm about America’s ideological turn.

Dreher’s title, Live Not by Lies, comes from a powerful essay Solzhenitsyn released on the eve of his forced exile from the USSR in 1974. Powerless though his compatriots might feel, Solzhenitsyn argued, the regime relied on lies; the key to liberation, for those too timid for civil disobedience, was non-participation: “Let us at least refuse to say what we do not think!”

In analogy to Soviet lies, Dreher places the following: “Men have periods. The woman standing in front of you is to be called ‘he’. Diversity and inclusion means excluding those who object to ideological uniformity. Equity means treating persons unequally, regardless of their skills and achievements, to achieve an ideologically correct result.”

Dreher contributes to an established American genre — The Coming Tyranny

Here, in other words, is a contribution to an established American genre — The Coming Tyranny. Some of Dreher’s critique of America’s “woke” scene is familiar enough; there are plenty of modish, ideological habits of mind trampling free thought in academia, big corporations, and big tech. But he sets out some catastrophising claims, too: social justice ideology “resembles Bolshevism”; “The history of Russia on the verge of left-wing revolution is more relevant to contemporary America than most of us realise”; American culture is “pre-totalitarian”.

His caveat is that America will not become the Soviet Union, but will instead face “soft totalitarianism”: a version of Brave New World wherein identity politics and big tech surveillance fuse to make demands incompatible with Christianity.

The premise of Live Not by Lies is that western Christians should prepare themselves on the model of Dreher’s hero, the Croatian Jesuit priest, Tomislav Kolaković.

Hiding out from Nazis in wartime Bratislava, Kolaković predicted Soviet occupation and, having lived in the USSR, began preparing groups of Catholics to resist Soviet ideology. Though Kolaković was deported in 1946, and many of his followers were imprisoned, Dreher credits him with laying the foundations for the underground church that led the 1988 Candle Demonstration in Bratislava, a precursor to Czechoslovakia’s 1989 Velvet Revolution. Christians who opposed communism, Dreher reasons, are “our own Kolakovićes”; he sets out to meet them on a high-speed tour of Prague, Bratislava, Warsaw, Budapest, and Moscow.

Dreher’s book compares unfavourably with Bourdeaux’s, insofar as Bourdeaux knew more about his subject than perhaps any other westerner and took great care not to overstate his case, whereas Dreher is a relative novice in eager pursuit of soundbites (or parables) to deploy in the US culture wars.

Even so, it will strike the secular reader that, as Christians, Bourdeaux and Dreher share a romantic attraction to the story of oppressed, underground believers. As Bourdeaux put it in his 1984 Templeton speech, “For three centuries the Early Church faced physical extinction almost daily. Yet it’s probably true that more Christians have suffered for their faith in this century than in any other.”

In Dreher’s case, this romanticism recalls the premise of his earlier book, The Benedict Option, which argued for communal conservative Christian entrenchment inspired by Saint Benedict of Nursia. In Live Not By Lies, Kolaković plays a similar role, and Dreher uses interviews with older Eastern European Christians to serve a similar vision.

The interviews are of value in themselves, since time for gathering testimony from people who suffered under communism is drawing short. Yet it is not clear that their accounts and memoirs serve his critique of the American scene. His chapter on Christians’ willingness to suffer contains horror stories from Warsaw Pact dungeons that torture his analogy; the chapters on truth, family and cultural memory might just as well be read as secular civics lessons.

Dreher writes that “religion is the bedrock of resistance”, and in this he is a plausible devotee of Solzhenitsyn, who wrote that people who entered the gulag “spiritually disarmed” were the most easily corrupted. He also channels Solzhenitsyn in his conviction that the abandonment of religion has weakened American society.

And yet he seems only foggily aware of his debt to secular thought. His critique of “wokeness” and “soft totalitarianism” is rooted less in the Gospels than in his free interpretations of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, Czeslaw Milosz’s The Captive Mind, Yuri Slezkine’s The House of Government, and Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.

Belatedly, this reality impinges. In a section called “Solidarity is Not Exclusively Christian”, Dreher hears his subjects’ case for the meaningful friendships that formed between Christians and secular liberals under communism. Dreher could have noted that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had such friendships; one of them was with Andrei Sakharov, father of the Soviet H-bomb turned human rights champion, who thought the great chronicler of the gulag expected too much of the Orthodox Church.

Yet, Dreher has recently been touring Eastern Europe, warming to the Christian identity politics of Hungary’s Viktor Orban, which — “anti-woke” though they may be — seem poor consolation for the erosion of Jeffersonian ideals.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover