Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr. Between Two Millstones Book 1: Sketches of Exile, 1974-1978. Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame Press, 2018.
This is a great book, but it is not a happy book. The eponymous millstones are the KGB/Soviet Dragon and Western liberalism. Let us not miss that point. It is easy to focus on Solzhenitsyn’s anti-communist narrative that we miss the other enemy, decadent liberalism.
He begins with an appreciation for German Culture. As hinted at in other works (August 1914 and In The First Circle) Solzhenitsyn admired high German culture. Take Hitler away and Germany could have been a noble leader of Europe. He notes: “But I did like Germany…Not for a moment did I connect Hitler with traditional Germany” (Solzhenitsyn 5, 6).
Although it goes without saying that the KGB (and Communism in general) is pure evil, Solzhenitsyn should be credited as one of the first heroes to demonstrate also how wicked and treacherous Western media is, even saying, “You are worse than the KGB!” Of course, the media isn’t worse in the sense that the media, perhaps with a bit of wistful longing, cannot put patriots in jail. Like the KGB, however, the media can erode the moral foundations of a society.
Solzhenitsyn explains the purpose of all his writing: to show the different Russias. At the time of his writing the book, there was the rich cultural Russia of the emigres and then there were the Communists. He laments the path that Russia did not take (92). We see something similar today in Putin’s Russia. For many years Russia was right to resist Soros and the globalists. Putin, though, descended into paranoia and forced Russia into an anticlimactic, if not doomed invasion of Ukraine.
Before he left for America, Solzhenitsyn took an idyllic tour of rural France. It “struck me as gentle, tender, and natural. If I were to live in Europe there would not have been a better country for me: not because of the formidable cathedrals of Reims, Chartres, Soissons, or the palaces of Versailles and Fontainebleau, but because of the placid flow of life in the forgotten little towns, the soft and noble contours of the fields, the woodlands overgrown with mistletoe, the long gray garden walls, and the simple French manner of using earth-gray stone in buildings (100-101). This is the moral vision that conservatives have always wanted, if not always articulated.
Solzhenitsyn’s sojourn in Switzerland allowed him to see the decentralized nature of the Swiss cantons. This might be the most virtuous style of republicanism there is. As he notes, alluding to a speech by the community leader, “Our community never gave itself over to the folly of total freedom…There cannot be a functioning state without a dash of aristocratic and even monarchic elements” (109).
Aside from dodging the KGB assassination teams, Solzhenitsyn spent most of his time responding to lies by the Western media. Complicating this, he had a rather incompetent lawyer, a Swiss man, who seemed as baffled by the Western legal system as Solzhenitsyn was.
Aside from the KGB and the media, his other opponents included Pope Pius VI and Henry Kissinger (187). His message to America was simply this: “stop aiding the oppressors” (189). He wasn’t asking the US to go to war with Russia, nor stop its supplies to Russia. That last sentence might confuse some readers. The USSR wouldn’t have continued existing for much of its history if it weren’t for American shipments of food and materiel to it.
He has a touching section on meeting Prince Franz Joseph II of Liechtenstein. Prince Franz had refused to deliver Russian soldiers to Stalin, who would have had them murdered. Britain and America, one must point out, did precisely that (194).
Concerning his later fiction, the book does explain the somewhat tortured side plots of the Red Wheel trilogy. Solzhenitsyn’s own understanding developed during the writing. He came to understand that the liberalizations didn’t achieve anything. The educated people who were “bitterly opposed to arbitrary rule, now turned cowardly and fell silent or lied” (226).
Even if the West didn’t have the Soviet terror, it was too weak to morally stop it in the long run. Communism fell because of the contradictions inherent in the system (and because Reagan forced the USSR to spend money it did not have). The West was drowning itself in commerce and litigation. They did not want to hear the words of a prophet: “When I called out ‘live not by lies’ in the Soviet Union, that was fair enough, but when I called out ‘live not by lies’ in the United States, I was told to take a hike” (287).
Solzhenitsyn also realized, however, that the America of the decadent academics and media was not the true America. The true America was “one that was small-town and robust, the heartland, the America I envisioned as I was writing my speech, and to which my speech was addressed” (291). This is the America one finds in a Travis Tritt song.
A social and moral vision emerges from Solzhenitsyn’s memoirs. The healthy society is one that eschews both Communist terror on one hand and decadent modernity on the other. Few modern conservatives would disagree. That analysis, though, might be too superficial. A life as a cog in the machine and always threatened by a ubiquitous legal system, is not much better. It might be more comfortable (what with no Gulags and all), but it doesn’t allow any human flourishing.
Important points to note:
~Solzhenitsyn supported American involvement in Vietnam (99).
~He correctly noted that General Franco of Spain saved his country from Communist enslavement (206ff).