Solzhenitsyn, Stalinism, and the Cold War

BY: Scott Hiley| January 31, 2017

 I am an English year 13 student, currently studying for my A level exams. I have the intention of studying Russian culture and language at university next year. For this reason I am doing an Extended Project on Solzhenitsyn’s books and the Gulags. My project has the title “To what extent can literature change the world?” and then use Solzhenitsyn as a case study. I plan to analyse parts of “A day in the life of Ivan Denisovich” and possibly “The Gulag Archipelago” and discuss the effect these quotes have had on people and currently still do have on people.

 I was wondering what effect these books had and have on communists living in the UK and whether what happened in Stalinist Russia affected your communist beliefs.

 I appreciate that this is a difficult question to answer but if there is anyone that could help, it would be greatly appreciated.

Thank you in advance.

Kind regards,

Cameron Manley


Thanks for your interest in the CPUSA, and for your question about Alexander Solzhenitsyn.  As I'm sure you realize, the history of Solzhenitsyn's reception in the West, and particularly in the United States, has to be understood in the context of the great ideological and political struggles of the Cold War.

Like much political writing of its time--whether Soviet or anti-Soviet, communist or anti-communist--Solzhenitsyn's work came to function as propaganda.  I don't use that term to impugn the literary quality of his work, which shows extraordinary rhetorical power and philosophical commitment.  However, in a world structured by the clash of two incompatible political and economic systems, the stories he tells could only be a weapon against the Soviet Union and the socialist project--just as criticisms of U.S. and NATO policy during the same period were treated as dangerous and anti-American, which led to blacklisting, government surveillance, and imprisonment for members and allies of CPUSA.

The propagandistic quality of Solzhenitsyn's work certainly shows in his reception in the United States.  What a gift for the most committed Cold Warriors: a Soviet writer deeply critical of his own government, with a compelling story of personal persecution and (most importantly) a conservative worldview that prized traditional values, moral nationalism, and limited government, not too distant from the mix of rigorous social conservatism and economic liberalism that would come to define the Republican Party under Ronald Reagan.  Solzhenitsyn's nostalgic, religious anti-communism was just the right kind to justify paranoia about 'big government', suspicion of programs that promote equality, and the rise of the religious right. In this sense, reception of Solzhenitsyn's work shows in miniature the ways in which anti-communism was used by the conservative movement to further its own reactionary political ends.

As regards your question about the impact of revelations about Stalinism, it's hard to take Solzhenitsyn as a credible source.  His version of events is a literary and philosophical dramatization crafted to articulate a conservative ideological program. In this sense, the reception of his books tells us more about the Cold War than his books tell us about the Soviet Union.

I can't speak personally about the impact in our Party of Solzhenitsyn's work, or Khruschev's "Secret Speech," or other denunciations of Stalin--I wasn't around then.  What I can say is that:

1.) in our evaluation of the Soviet Union's missteps and mistakes, we also take into account its role in fighting fascism and racism, promoting peace, and pioneering the construction of a society based on collective welfare rather than individual greed; and

 2.) the images conjured up by the term 'Stalinism'--the cult of personality, the artistic and ideological rigidity, and the use of fear as a political tactic--have no place in the thinking of the CPUSA.  We base our vision of socialism on the protection and expansion of democratic rights and on the diversity of our multinational, multiracial working class.

As you can see, I'm not an impartial reader of Solzhenitsyn, any more than he himself was an impartial writer about the Soviet Union.  But I hope I've given at least partial answers to some of your questions.  Best of luck with your project.

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