Monday, August 11, 2008

Hitch on Nitz; A Man Never So Happy Than When Interned.

There was an old joke I heard a couple of times in Israel from the newly arrived Russian immigrants. One man would meet another in the street and say 'Gulag.' The other would say 'Archipelago.' And they would pass by as if everything had been said that would ever need saying. I never knew whether this was a greeting from one Zek to another Zek, or a greeting between one Russian Intellectual to another, though the two groups undoubtedly overlapped.

This last week has, with Solzhenitsyn's passing, created, for me anyway, a revolting outpouring of obits that I have found vicarious, self-congratulatory, self-serving, exculpatory, and patronizing. You know who you are. This one,however, by Christopher Hitchens would seem to an essay apart. Few others would be able to put these two paragraphs in the same essay without worrying about contradicting himself, just as Solzhenitsyn contradicted himself.

His most recent book, Two Hundred Years Together, purported to be a candid examination of the fraught condition of Russian-Jewish relations—a theme that he had found it difficult to repress in some of his earlier work. He denied that this inquiry had anything in common with the ancient Russian-nationalist dislike of the cosmopolitan (and sometimes Bolshevik-inclined) Jew, and one must give him the benefit of any doubt here. However, when taken together with his partisanship for Slobodan Milosevic and the holy Serb cause, his exaltation of the reborn (and newly state-sponsored) Russian Orthodox Church, and his late-blooming admiration of the cold-eyed Vladimir Putin, the resulting mixture of attitudes and prejudices puts one in mind more of Dostoyevsky than of Tolstoy. Having denounced "cruel" NATO behavior in the Balkans, without ever saying one word about the behavior of Russian soldiers in Chechnya, Solzhenitsyn spent some of his final days in wasteful diatribes against those Ukrainian nationalists who were, rightly or wrongly, attempting to have their own Soviet-era horrors classified as "genocide."

Dostoyevsky even at his most chauvinistic was worth a hundred Mikhail Sholokhovs or Maxim Gorkys, and Solzhenitsyn set a new standard for the courage by which a Russian author could confront the permafrost of the Russian system. "A great writer," as he put it in The First Circle, "is, so to speak, a secret government in his country." The echo of Shelley's remark about poets being the "unacknowledged legislators of the world" may or may not be deliberate. But it serves to remind us that writers, however much they may disown the idea, are nonetheless ultimately responsible for the political influence that they do choose to exert. Therein lies the germ of tragedy.

The West may not be the model, but it's not so bad either.

Primo Levi, it must be noted, never took this turn.

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