“Solzhenitsyn, Literary giant Who Defied Soviets, Dies at 89,” ran the headline on the front page of the New York Times, which was then followed by two more full pages in its “A” section. And deservedly so. His work “gained the force of prophecy” as he wrote “some of the most powerful literary works of the 20th century” chronicling the “heavy afflictions” of Soviet Communism. “In almost half a century, more than 30 million of his books have been sold worldwide and translated into some 40 languages.” In 1970 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
The next day? A very different article.
“Reverence for Solzhenitsyn, but No National Mourning.”
While noting that national leaders expressed admiration, there was no great outpouring of grief or even recognition that one might imagine accompanying the death of such a figure. Without a doubt, Russians who grew up during the Soviet era continue to “speak passionately about the achievements of Mr. Solzhenitsyn,” comparing him to writers like Tolstoy, they know only too well how “he had forced the nation to confront the horrors wrought in the name of Communism.”
Yet Yuri V. Samodurov, director of the Sakharov Museum in Moscow, which is dedicated to another Soviet-era dissident, the physicist Andrei D. Sakharov, observes that “these days, most young people could not even recognize the names of Mr. Solzhenitsyn and Mr. Sakharov.”
Approached at a park in Moscow, Taisiya Gunicheva, 17, a college student, said she “had heard of Mr. Solzhenitsyn, but could not name any of his books.”
Anton Zimin, 26, an advertising copywriter, said he was quite familiar with Mr. Solzhenitsyn, but doubted that others of his generation were, offering that people of his age had seemingly “lost touch with the struggles of their parents and grandparents.”
“The problem is that now, it’s all about consumption – this spirit that has engulfed everybody,“ Mr. Zimin added. “People prefer to consume everything, the simplest things, and the faster, the better. Books are something that force you to think, reading books requires some effort. But they prefer entertainment.”
But perhaps the most telling observation was offered by Andrei V. Valilevsky, editor in chief of Novy Mir, the magazine that published Mr. Solzhenitsyn’s first major work, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, in 1962: “There is no demand for great people,” he said. “I can’t say why, but this fact is simply obvious to me. Famous, notable, popular – yes. But not great, in the fullest sense of the word.”
Perhaps we should remind ourselves. His name was Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
And he was a great man.
James Emery White
“Solzhenitsyn, Literary giant Who Defied Soviets, Dies at 89,” Michael T. Kaufman, The New York Times, Monday, August 4, 2008, p. A1, A16, and A17.
“Reverence for Solzhenitsyn, but No National Mourning,” Clifford J. Levy, The New York Times, Tuesday, August 5, 2008, p. A9.
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About Dr. James Emery White
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina; President of Serious Times, a ministry which explores the intersection of faith and culture (www.serioustimes.org); and ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture on the Charlotte campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Dr. White holds the B.S., M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees, along with additional work at Vanderbilt University and Oxford University. He is the author of over a dozen books.
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