Solzhenitsyn and Jordan Peterson: Not so strange bedfellows
“The Gulag Archipelago” by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is the book credited with bringing down the Soviet Union. Setting aside the fact that the situation was by far more complicated, it is true that the book holds a special place in anti-communist history.
Part 1 of this series drew out the similarities between Solzhenitsyn and Jordan Peterson, a well-known figure on the alt-right who wrote the forward for the new edition of Solzhenitsyn’s book. Part 2 goes into the history of how Solzhenitsyn’s work has been used by right-wing forces in the past.
Nikita Khrushchev and Solzhenitsyn
Solzhenitsyn’s rise to international fame began with the political scheming of Nikita Khrushchev, who was First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union when Solzhenitsyn published his first book, “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” in 1962.
At the time, Khrushchev and his circle were trying to push through reforms that would open the Soviet Union to the capitalist world. Underlying these reforms was the belief that peaceful coexistence with the imperialists was possible and the dictatorship of the proletariat wasn’t needed.
The program was controversial, and in order to implement it, Khrushchev needed allies. One of the main ways he tried to build support was by attacking Stalin, who was still very popular in the Soviet Union at the time. In his “secret speech” of 1956, Khrushchev argued that all the repression of the previous 30 years was because of one man, Stalin, whose hunger for power and blood was enabled by a “cult of personality” that granted him impunity.
Whatever one thinks of Stalin and the privileged bureaucracy in the USSR, it is impossible to lay the blame for developments in the Soviet system on just one person. Khrushchev should know, since he played a big role in the purges of the 1930s. But that is beside the point.
What Solzhenitsyn’s first book offered Khrushchev was essentially the novelization of his “secret speech.” In fact, the author said as much in the preface to the first edition of his book.
As its title suggests, the book depicts the trials and tribulations of a day in the life of a political prisoner in the Soviet gulag system of political labor camps. The story is filled with cruel guards, innocent prisoners and degrading labor conditions. These conditions were certainly present in the gulag system, but Solzhenitsyn suggests at the end that this was universal.
Historians like Robert W. Thurston have shown that conditions in the camps varied, but Khrushchev wasn’t looking for a proper appraisal. He needed those who would join him in demonizing Stalin so that he could placate the Western imperialists. Solzhenitsyn was the man for the job, and Khrushchev personally approved the publication of the book. Overnight, Solzhenitsyn became a household name.
To make a long story short, Khrushchev’s campaign failed and ultimately he was removed from power in 1964. Solzhenitsyn’s reputation in the Soviet Union faltered as a result, but many forces outside the USSR were eager to promote his merciless attacks on the foundations of Soviet life.
Dick Cheney and Solzhenitsyn
When Solzhenitsyn published “Gulag Archipelago” in 1974, he was already well-known outside the Soviet Union. Through Praeger Publishing, the CIA had circulated Solzhenitsyn’s works in the West, and when he was kicked out of the Union of Writers of the USSR in 1969 because he refused to write one good word about the Soviet Union, the imperialists quickly awarded him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970 for his “ethical force.”
The book’s publication was his most scathing critique of the Soviet Union yet, and could not have come at a more opportune time for the imperialists.
For several years, the Soviet Union and the U.S. had agreed to a period of detente, but by 1974, the situation had changed rapidly — and not in Washington’s favor. By the time “Gulag Archipelago” was published, the U.S. had officially accepted defeat in Vietnam, the Cuban Revolution had stabilized and was now supporting liberation struggles in Africa, and the struggle of the Arab people against Israel and the U.S. had generated an oil embargo that shocked the U.S. economy. The U.S. leaned on the Soviet Union to tamp down the struggles in the Middle East, but it did not cooperate.
In short, the U.S. was losing ground to struggles for socialism and national liberation on a global scale. Most of the bourgeoisie were now of the opinion that a more aggressive stance was needed. Solzhenitsyn, who was known to be against detente, became a perfect ally in this period. Not only did he receive enormous praise in the imperialist press, he was even invited to the White House by two young warhawks named Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney.
As with Khrushchev, however, Solzhenitsyn soon outgrew his handlers in the U.S. In 1978, Solzhenitsyn was invited to give the commencement address at Harvard and was expected to praise Western values over communism and thank the U.S. for providing him refuge. This he did not do. Instead, he ridiculed the U.S. elite for their depression, passivity and lack of courage; declared that individual rights had been overextended; and called the West a failed model.
If he had not already been there, Solzhenitsyn now occupied a political position outside both communism and liberalism. As mentioned in Part 1, this was the year Solzhenitsyn offered his “Letter to the Soviet Leaders” recommending they dissolve the Soviet Union and form a patriarchal ethno-state of Russian nationals.
What this history shows is that if Solzhenitsyn’s works are again on the shelf, someone wants them there.
Part 3: Why we’re seeing a new edition today.