by Revd Dr Michael Lloyd  |  18th Dec 2018

This week has seen another important centenary – of the birth of the great Russian novelist, Alexander Solzhenitsyn. He was born in December 1918, in the immediate aftermath of the Russian Revolution, which he chronicled in his massive, 6,000 page novel, The Red Wheel, which is now at last being translated into English.

If you were looking for an author who legitimised the saying that ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’, it would be difficult to find a better example than Solzhenitsyn. As Stephen Kotkin put it:

Earlier that year [1918], 300 miles north at Novocherkassk, the capital of the Don Cossacks, former tsarist officers had proclaimed the formation of a Volunteer Army to reverse the Bolshevik coup of 1917. The force, labelled Whites, would go down in defeat, its survivors compelled to disperse into emigration. But Solzhenitsyn – even though he, too, would be forced from his homeland – subsequently won the White movement’s fight with his pen. His novels One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, In the First Circle and Cancer Ward, as well as his nonpareil three-volume literary investigation The Gulag Archipelago, persuasively blackened the Soviet regime at its roots. [1]

Why did he have such an impact? For many reasons, no doubt, but I suggest that the primary one was that, in an age when relativism was becoming the prevalent intellectual ideology, Solzhenitsyn believed in truth – and had the moral courage to live accordingly. He saw through the lies of relativism sooner than almost anyone else. He saw that relativism is isolating and fragmenting:

When there are six, four or even two scales of values, there cannot be a single world, a single mankind; we shall be torn apart by this difference in rhythm, this difference in scale. Just as a man with two hearts is not long for this world, so we are unlikely to survive together on this planet. [2]

He saw that relativism can easily be a mask for self-interest, ‘tediously hammering home its message that there is no stable, universal human conception of goodness and justice, that all such concepts are fluid and changeable, so that you should always act to the advantage of your own party.’ [3] He saw what lengths that self-interest could reach to, in the actions of The Party.

And he saw that relativism is fundamentally unjust. Having survived the Gulag prison system, Solzhenitsyn felt forever burdened to tell the story of those who did not survive.

I have mounted this platform from which the Nobel Lecture is delivered … not by means of three or four well-carpeted steps, but by climbing up hundreds, even thousands of steps, unyielding, steep, slippery with frost, steps leading up from the darkness and cold where fate decreed that I should survive, while others – perhaps more gifted and stronger than I – perished. … Where a healthy forest might have grown, after all the felling nothing remains but a couple of trees overlooked by accident. And how am I today, accompanied as I am by the shadows of the fallen, bowing my head as I stand aside to let those other men who deserved this honour before me take their place on this platform – how am I today to guess and put into words what they would have wanted to say?’ [4]

The rest of his life was an attempt to do just that - in particular, his herculean attempt to chronicle the victims of the prison system in The Gulag Archipelago, at enormous risk to his own life. With such a life mission, how could he have subscribed to the belief that all views are equally valid? To have subscribed to relativism would have been a betrayal of those fellow prisoners for whom he felt he had to speak. For such a philosophy is an insult to all who are falsely accused, falsely imprisoned. Their story is simply not on an epistemological par with the propaganda of the Party. Their story must be told. And their story will prevail. It will prevail despite the fact that the vast majority of them were extinguished, and the vast majority of their stories have (despite Solzhenitsyn’s best efforts) been forgotten – because (as an Orthodox Christian, Solzhenitsyn passionately believed) there is One who has not forgotten them, One who will remake them, One who can recommence their stories, One who will vindicate them and establish Justice. 

The centenary of women’s suffrage challenges us to commit ourselves afresh to equality: the centenary of Alexander Solzhenitsyn challenges us to commit ourselves afresh to truth, whatever the cost.


[1] From ‘Untethered: The turbulent life, exile and writing of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’, in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 6036, December 7th, 2018, p. 3.

[2]  From his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, tellingly entitled, ‘One Word of Truth’ (after the Russian proverb, ‘One word of truth outweighs the whole world’), The Bodley Head, London, 1972.

[3] Ibid. p. 18.

[4] Ibid, pp. 7-8.