Archive for August 2008
(written August 1, 2007)
If Wolfmother is the crazed, hyper-active love child of Led Zeppelin, ACDC, Black Sabbath and Uriah Heep, then the Sunshine Coast 4-piece VEYA is the result of some serious sexy-time between the ‘Mother and, say, At The Drive-In.
It’s a sound that seems acknowledge the direction that the rock market is currently moving in, while at the same time longing for the riff-a-licious, solo-happy days of yore. It’s the sort of instantly marketable sound that makes you wonder if there is an astute producer or manager behind the scenes, steering the band towards the money.
But after one listen to Slanted City, any such thoughts are immediately banished. VEYA’s new 6-track EP smacks of independence and passion, ideologically reminiscent of the sheer fury of The Sex Pistols, with a Ramones-ian habit of being known only by their first names. This vitality, coupled with raw, unadorned recordings leaves you in no doubt that these boys are doing their own thing.
The music is remarkably tight and accomplished for a band of teenagers, with the drum and bass partnership of Skot and Leon seemingly telepathically linked, driving the songs with a furious energy. On top of this is Eddy’s seriously impressive guitar work. Each track could be an audition tape for Guitar Hero III, complete with classic riffs and blistering, perfectly-structured solos that recall a bygone era while still managing to sound fresh and interesting.
The one area where this album falls out is on the only soft track, Come Home. While the guitar part is very sweet, the lyrics doesn’t do it justice. The chorus “nothing can scare me/more than the army has already done” is not exactly Shakespeare, and the vocals during the bridge are strained, and slightly painful to listen to. And while Veya can hardly be accused of being the only band in the world singing with a fake American accent, it never sounds good.
Generally though, Dominic’s vocals match the urgency of the music, with a current, vaguely emo sound to it. This isn’t meant as a derogatory term, despite the current penchant for emo-bashing in music media. However, it must be said that Dom’s rock and roll wail needs a little bit of work. His upper register isn’t particularly strong, but for the most part this simply adds to the unrelenting energy of a band that seems desperate to speak their piece.
Just a quick note to all aspiring musicians: naming your album Hymns for Disco is a terrible idea. My first thoughts upon seeing this album were something along the lines of “Oh dear God, please don’t make me have to listen to this thing.”
However, my attitude changed from despair to intrigue when I opened up the case and saw the following inscription on the back of the booklet: “to the pantheon – Bo Diddley, Bob Dylan, Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, you left great maps…”
But, demonstrating that you can’t judge an album by its bizarre title or rock and roll dedications, Hymns for Disco turned out to be one of the more fascinating hip-hop albums I have ever heard.
k-os is the stage name of Kevin Brereton, a Canadian of Trinidadian descent who has achieved impressive sales in Canada over the fourteen years of his career. And after one listen to this album it is easy to see why. While always retaining its roots in hip-hop, it moves seamlessly through reggae, rap, soul, rock and funk, with moments of beat poetry and spoken word creeping in to “Ballad of Noah” (featuring Buck 65, a brilliant Canadian rapper/beat poet).
But even with these myriad styles the production never slips. From the Phil Spector Wall of Sound on soulful “The Rain”, to Jamaican dancehall on “Fly Paper” and the Kings of Leon-esque “Valhalla”, this is an album that will keep you guessing right to the end, and an album that is impossible to pin down in one style. It is a precocious album, with k-os showing off the sheer breadth of his abilities.
Also notable is the fact that the whole album is recorded with a live band and avoids all pimps, hoes and cop-killers, two things that are sadly uncommon in hip-hop. The way that k-os’ voice raps over the irresistible guitar riff in “AquaCity Boy”, coupled with a tight, funky drum-beat makes it one of my favourite tracks of the year. And it has been a damn good year for favourite tracks.
If you are in to hip-hop, buy this album. Hell, buy it even if you aren’t in to hip-hop. This is the sort of music that deserves to be supported. It’s the single most creative thing you are likely to hear for quite some time.
reposted from Sydney Morning Herald
August 25, 2008
We are living through one of those rare yet transforming events in history, a shift in the power in the world from West to East. For 500 years Europe dominated the world; now for all its wealth and population it is drifting into relative decline.
Will our understanding of this transformation, and our acceptance of its equity for the greater reaches of mankind, lead us to a position of general preparedness of its inevitability, or will we cavil at it in much the same way as Europe resisted the rise of Bismarck’s creation at the end of the 19th century?
We can see, with this the 29th Olympiad, the questioning of China and the resentment at its pretensions about being one of us. Even becoming one of us!
The Western liberal press featured, generally in critical terms, the world-long torch relay, juxtaposing all that it represents and is good about it with what it sees as China’s democratic defects, viewing it almost exclusively through the prism of Tibet.
Saying, almost, that the aspirations of this massive nation, a quarter of humanity, a legatee of a century of misery, dragging itself from poverty, is somehow of questionable legitimacy, because its Government’s attitude to political freedoms and in specific instances, human rights, are not up to scratch. Ignoring the massive leaps in progress, of income growth, of shelter, of the alleviation of poverty, of dwindling infant mortality, of education, of, by any measure, the much better life now being experienced by the great majority of Chinese.
The Western critic feeling the epicentre of the world changing but not at all liking it, seeks to put down these vast societies on the basis that their political and value systems don’t match up to theirs.
Henry Kissinger made the point recently when he said, “We cannot do in China in the 21st century what others thought to do in the 19th – prescribe their institutions for them and seek to organise Asia.”
And he went on to pose the question: do we split the world into a union of democracies and non-democracies, or must there be another approach key to regional and historic circumstance?
There is a view that should China become a democracy, a real one, many tensions in the global system would go; that democracies find peace with other democracies; that the former political-military state first turns itself into a trading state and as wealth and opportunity rise so, too, do democratic values.
But what we must remember is that even if all the states of the world became democratic, the structure of the international system would remain anarchic.
For two Clinton presidential terms and two George Bush terms, the world has been left without such a structure; certainly one able to accommodate Russia and the great states such as China and India.
Instead Clinton and Bush left us with the template of 1947; the template cut by the victorious powers of World War II, the one where Germany and Japan were left on the outside, and still are 60 years later, and in which China and India are tolerated and palely humoured.
Sixteen critical years have already been lost. And it is not as if we are dealing with a world where things are the same now as they were 16 years ago. The world is dynamic: 16 years ago China was not a world power; today it is. Sixteen years ago, Russia was collapsing; today it is growing and strongly.
We are now sitting through, witnessing, the eclipse of American power. Yet for those 16 critical years, two American presidents did nothing to better shape the institutions of world governance.
And there has been no help from the old powers; Tony Blair’s Britain and Jacques Chirac’s France. After all, they had box seats to the event, courtesy of being on top in 1947.
But Blair’s contribution was not anything new or free-thinking, rather he thought being an American acolyte was all that was required. Chirac was simply incapable of adding any strategic value to the equation.
The fact is we are again heading towards a bipolar world. Not one shaped by a balance of terror like the old one, but certainly not a multipolar one – in fact, one heavily influenced by two countries; the United States and China.
Russia’s economy, while growing in strength from the burnt-out wreck it was in 1990, will not be in the league of that of the US or of China.
But Russia will still be wealthy; wealthy enough to continue to field its massive arsenal of nuclear weapons. So whether you attribute to Russia full “pole” status or not, you can certainly attribute to it huge strategic standing.
It is more the pity then, that following that unexpected epiphany in 1989, the Clinton administration rashly decided to ring-fence Russia by inviting the former Warsaw Treaty states of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic to join NATO.
At some time the US will be obliged to treat Russia as a great sovereign power replete with a range of national interests of the kind that other major powers possess.
In the meantime, the great risk of this sort of adventurism is that with NATO’s border now right up to western Ukraine, the Russians will take the less costly military option of counter-weighing NATO’s power by keeping their nuclear arsenal on full operational alert.
This posture automatically carries with it the possibility of a Russian nuclear attack by mistake. The years of Russia’s economic poverty, certainly since the collapse of its economy in the first half of the 1990s, has meant the Russians have allowed their surveillance and early warning systems to ossify. To compensate, they are keeping their nuclear arsenal on full operational alert.
This leaves the rest of the world relying more on the generals, the battlefield commanders and intelligence assessors to restrain a nuclear response than it does the Russian President or his Government. This means that while the Cold War is over, the risk of a mistaken pre-emptory response has increased.
Many people will think and some will say that with communications and the globalisation of economic wealth being what it is, an outbreak of a major conflict seems more and more remote. That global interdependence and the shrinking of the world makes war a decidedly unproductive way of resolving foreign policy differences.
People should be reminded that that was said at the time of the last great intensification of trade between Britain, France and Germany along with the growing US economy before 1914.
The lesson is that when the strategic bits go wrong, the economic bits soon follow. Certainly not the obverse: when the trade goes well, the strategic wrinkles get ironed out.
The structure of the international system is anarchic. Was anarchic; remains anarchic. This condition cannot be remedied but structures to mitigate its most violent manifestations can be put into place.
Against this backdrop remains the open question about “the West” and its fibre. The question that was resoundingly answered by that generation who suffered the Depression and the Second World War and who delivered us into a new era of peace and prosperity.
Is our culture a culture made compliant by too much coming too easily; producing a state of intellectual and spiritual lassitude which can only be shaken by the gravest threats, be they economic, environmental or indeed, strategic?
As societies, have we taken our eye off public affairs for way too long?
Can we, all of us, assimilate, adjust ourselves to a constancy of peace and prosperity without lessening our regard for those enlivening impulses of truth and goodness?
A new international order based on truth and justice founded in the recognition of the rights of each of us to live out our lives in peace and harmony, can, I believe, provide the only plausible long-term template.
The old order of victorious powers, of a compromised United Nations, a moribund G8 with major powers hanging on to weapons of mass destruction, is a remnant of the violent 20th century. It cannot provide the basis for an equitable and effective system of world governance.
Just as world community concern has been ahead of the political system on issues such as global warming so, too, world community concern needs to galvanise international action to find a new template for a lasting peace, one embracing all the major powers and regions.
The philosopher Immanuel Kant said some day there will be a universal peace; the only question, he said, is will this come about by human insight or by catastrophe, leaving no other outcome possible.
Humankind demands that that proposition be settled in the former and not the latter.
Paul Keating was Australian prime minister from 1991 to 1996. This is an edited extract of a speech delivered to the Melbourne Writers’ Festival on Saturday.
I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For
U2 and The Sensitive New Age Cowpersons
As Jean-Jacques Nattiez says, no matter how a song appears to those who made it (poiesis), it is impossible to predict how it will translate esthetically to each and every potential listener. However, by focusing on what is immanent in the music we can perhaps hazard a guess at what was intended by its producers.
U2’s ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ is a giant of a song – instantly recognisable and usually featuring prominently on any “Greatest Songs Of All Time” list. Throughout the song, as with much of U2’s music, Bono’s voice is the primary instrument – straining, yearning – hungry for what he has searched so hard for but to no avail. Whatever he is searching and yearning for is clearly desperately personal – Bono has perhaps the most distinctive (and ubiquitous) voice of his generation, and given that the lyrics are written in the first person certainly brands this search as Bono’s own search. However, from the very first chorus more voices join in, softly singing with the same phrasing and the same timing as Bono –suggesting that Bono’s unattainable goal is shared by countless others. The Edge’s guitar line compliments, rather than dominates the mix (another U2 trademark), but it is the bass and drum combination that keeps a constant rhythm, rolling along without ever changing tempo, reinforcing the meaning inferred from Bono’s voice and the voices of the choir – that this song is about something that, perhaps, can never be definitively found.
The Sensitive New Age Cowpersons version, though clearly dripping with affectionate irony, actually manages to highlight certain aspects of U2’s original that have perhaps been lost due to its status as an iconic, canonical rock song. The banjo is an unavoidably “folk” instrument, and furthermore can come across as “hokey” and slightly backwards. However, in this instance, it plays a similar role to the choir of voices in the original: it clearly underlines that this is a song about both an individual longing and the longing of a much, much larger group. The banjo is “folky”, but this merely serves as a reminder of the community-based nature of country/bluegrass bands, playing standards at town dances in the early twentieth century. This sense of community is only reinforced by the backing vocals, which adopt a call and response style reminiscent of Southern churches. Hearing Bono’s lyrics in this new form means that the lyrics are listened to, not just heard, and thus both the lyrics and their religious content are brought to the fore.
However, it would be misleading to state that the SNAC version is simply U2, but Now With Added Religion. Indeed, this religiosity seems an entirely unintended consequence, given that SNAC are a comedy troupe from Australia, and have built a career out of self-proclaimed “wacky” cover versions of everyone from ABBA to Hendrix. The poiesis of this song is perhaps aimed at extracting the greatest comic value out of the juxtaposition between the original classic and the new, irreverent cover. However, there can perhaps be no better justification for Nattiez’s argument about esthetics than this analysis of the song – that a bluegrass comedy band can be interpreted as bringing religion back to one of the classic anthems of rock and roll.
INTERVIEW WITH DR. PETER MARKS
Sound Affects (SA): First of all, I wanted to ask what your first encounter with Solzhenitsyn was, when he first appeared on your radar.
Dr. Peter Marks (PM): I guess in the 70s, when The Gulag Archipelago was talked about. Solzhenitsyn has two great moments as an intellectual figure – one is with One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich (ODITLOID), which creates a storm within the Soviet Union and for which he wins a Nobel Prize; but The Gulag Archipelago was a development of his time in prison and the research about the prison system that he had done. And it was one of those texts that you heard about and it was being smuggled, or was going to be smuggled out, and the KGB was after him. And at that stage, of course, there was no sense that the Soviet Union was going to fold at all – Breshnev was the leader, and Solzhenitsyn was this figure whose work was potentially going to blow the gap on the Soviet Union. So he was an international figure because at that stage the Cold War was so cold, but obviously he had lots of supporters in the West who wanted this information out. And so that’s what it was for me, in my mid-teens, when he was this heroic international figure, under threat, with this huge book that was supposedly going to tell all, that was obviously a danger to a regime. And it’s very rarely that a regime – especially the second-largest regime in the world – will be fearful of a writer and the text that they have produced, are producing, or which might come out. So that’s the way that, for me at least, Solzhenitsyn appears – as a substantial and subversive figure, and a danger to an empire.
SA: Is that why you chose it for your Literature & Politics course last year?
PM: No, no – I mean, I think ODITLOID is a great piece of political literature anyway, for the fact that it survives as a piece of fiction that transcends its moment and its place. In totalitarian regimes, no matter where they are, we see the same sort of attempt to close down the individual and eradicate their individualism, and so the possibility of resistance within that is applicable outside the moment. So that’s the reason for choosing ODITLOID – that it talks about the possibility of resistance even in the most extreme regimes and the most extreme environments. And maybe that, in one sense, would have seemed a romantic idea, but the book isn’t romantic picture of that – it’s a very grim and realistic picture of just how you tough it out and the compromises that you have to make, and the small victories that you have. It’s not about busting free, tunnelling out and succeeding in bringing down the revolution, it’s about survival. And perhaps that’s as good as you can hope for in those circumstances.
And of course, the other thing is the book had a social impact. It wasn’t simply that our character survives, but that the real Solzhenitsyn could write this down. Its’ impact as a social text was immense; and even if the USSR closed up afterwards, once the text was out there it had to be dealt with. Which says something about the potential power of some political literature to open doors. And that fact that it spoke about a part of history that, perhaps, a factual text at that time wouldn’t have been able to deal with. This idea that ODITLOID was real but also fiction meant that it had a resonance beyond the individual circumstance of the characters – it spoke about a whole nation and had a metaphorical power, whereas The Gulag Archipelago was an attempt to write a history, a true document. And that was its power – you could write ODITLOID off as an interesting, quirky tale, whereas The Gulag Archipelago tried to present itself as a counter-history, presenting something that had been obliterated from the lives, minds and history of the whole Soviet Union.
And Solzhenitsyn was trying to say that it was true, and real, and didn’t only happen to him but to countless thousands, maybe even millions of people over a long period. So it had a different sort of power, but an immense power as well. And in the West, Solzhenitsyn was made into a hero because of that. Which, partly, saved him from a ghastly end – by making him a popular figure (and perhaps Nelson Mandela is another good example) it made it a tough thing for a regime to bump him off since he had so much celebrity.
So for me, it was The Gulag Archipelago as this mythical text that was going to tell all.
SA: So, given that idea of ‘alternative history’, do you consider Solzhenitsyn more a novelist or a historian? Or perhaps a hybrid of both?
PM: I think he is both. Although it’s not really history, it’s more a record, which is slightly different. But his novels are an attempt to trace a historical narrative for a nation through individuals. So in that sense he is a historical novelist. At other times you could argue he’s an archivist collecting information, and at still other times he is a pure novelist. But his work fits in to his conception of a Soviet Union that doesn’t otherwise exist except in the counter-history of his texts. I think that’s one of the interesting things about his a writer in that, initially, he assumed his work wasn’t going to be published because the circumstances wouldn’t allow it. So it says something about the power of art that it can survive even in the worst situations, and that, if it’s written down, a text can survive both the person who writes it and the regime that tries to eradicate it. There’s something about the text, as fragile as it can be and despite all the other texts saying the other thing, the unorthodox text can still have power.
So he’s a historical novelist. And I guess the thing is he wants to call the society to account. He’s not just recounting the history, he’s recounting the repressed history, and he wants to explore the repressed part of Soviet history and call present-day Soviet society into account. He doesn’t see that there are a few bad men ruining society from the top, but that it’s a systematic failure of society: not just a momentary aberration but that it’s built into the system.
SA: One of the things I’ve been reading up on is that there are two sides to a historical debate around Solzhenitsyn. One side, like Ronald Berman, say that it doesn’t really matter whether or not Solzhenitsyn’s work is 100% historically accurate but that it seems true, which spurred other people into investigating his claims. And I thought it interesting to contrast that with what Solzhenitsyn said in his Harvard speech, which was that “truth eludes us if we do not concentrate with total attention on its pursuit.” So I guess the question that I’m getting to, eventually, is: does Solzhenitsyn knowingly sacrifice and change the truth in order to elicit the reaction?
PM: I guess that depends on what you mean by truth. Did these things happen to this group of people? No. The characters in ODITLOID are archetypal and they’re meant to be archetypal. They’re not meant to be individual people Solzhenitsyn may have met, but instead to speak in broader terms about the reality as it was felt an perceived. So in that sense ODITLOID isn’t true in the same way that an actual historical document is true, but I also think because of that it has great emotional significance – not because it had universal themes, but because it had a broader appeal than simply an account of the life of a particular prisoner told in the first person. Solzhenitsyn creates a hero who is the everyman, no better and no worse, and is certainly not the person Solzhenitsyn himself was. So in that sense ODITLOID isn’t history, but it derives from real experiences, just filtered through a fictional mechanism, and I think it’s richer for that.
With The Gulag Archipelago I think there’s an attempt to try and record things rather than to fashion them. Obviously information has to be constructed in particular ways, but the pursuit of truth doesn’t necessarily mean you ever get to it, but it’s a necessary function that the attempt to do it – whether through fiction or through history – will move you forward, and others will come after and do more work. It’s impossible for one person to record everything – although Solzhenitsyn did as much as you can imagine anyone doing in those same circumstances. He’s just one of a variety of people, but his work pushes the door open, and even if he doesn’t join all the dots he allows other to come after him.
And I think again, because of his celebrity in the west his texts meant more and became global texts, in a way that maybe an internal Russian writer without his international celebrity would have found very difficult and would have been very easy to suppress. Again, like Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi and others, their hellish lives are protected enough so that they can survive at least for a while. But that doesn’t always happen.
SA: There’s just a couple of final questions that I wanted to ask. There’s a historian named Richard Pipes who says that Solzhenitsyn, while worthy and making a terrific contribution, is seriously flawed in some aspects, and especially that he paints a very romantic, superficial image of Russia, and never really asked why Marxism in Russia was such a different thing to social welfare in Europe. And at one point Solzhenitsyn was asked if he thought there was something specific in the Russian mindset that led to Stalinism and Leninsim, and he got quite angry in response.
PM: Well, I think it’s quite interesting to see that idea that a prophet has honour except in his own land. Solzhenitsyn was a man out of time when he was in the Soviet Union, but then he was expelled and went to America. And when he went to the US there were conservatives, including Pipes, who were excited at the presence of this man who had exposed the horrors of the Soviet system. And yet perhaps it was inevitable that Solzhenitsyn loathed the West, and didn’t do the things that conservatives expected him to do. Rejecting Stalinism wasn’t Solzhenitsyn rejecting Russia; rather you could see him as a reactionary nationalist, and that there was an essential Russia that had somehow lost its way, but that there was something about the Russian people that was redeemable.
So for him, American society was crass and awful, same with the West. Not that, I don’t think, he ever expected it to be any different. I think the people who gave him refuge assumed that he, being anti-Soviet would therefore be pro-West, but of course he never was. And so when the Soviet Union was weak enough he was keen to go back, whereas if he found something disgusting about the Russian people then he wouldn’t have gone back. But of course I think he had a romanticised view of Russians as a nation with a long and noble history that had somehow gone off the rails. And so he wanted to go back there, but he goes back to a nation that he doesn’t want it to be, and so again he’s the outsider in the new Soviet Union.
And he becomes a supporter of Putin, because he sees Putin as restoring Russia to its greatness – not to the greatness of the Soviet Union, but to the greatness that Russia had. And so here you have this person out of time in a variety of ways. And for his Western supporters the fact that he might support Putin is difficult to comprehend since he was seen as a throwback to Breshnev – a KGB chief in control. And that’s one of the wonderful paradoxes of Solzhenitsyn, is that he’s straight down a line the whole way through, but since we see him from a variety of historical perspectives he seems to change, and gets read by a number of people who want to read him in a particular way, but he’s none of those things. So while people recognise the important figure that he was, there’s exasperation that he wasn’t quite the ideal figure.
And there’s all this stuff about his anti-Semitism. He denied he was anti-Semitic but there were certain readings that suggested he was. And a number of the obituaries didn’t mention it at all because that wasn’t the way they wanted to read this historical figure. And whether he was or he wasn’t, I think the fact that some highlighted it and others covered it up again says something about the perspective from which the obituary writer comes from. And again, it says something about the import of Solzhenitsyn that people want to claim him as their own or reject him out of sight. And very few writers are like that, or have that social power, especially considering that for the last twenty years Solzhenitsyn wasn’t producing anything nearly as groundbreaking as his two major works were. But he’s significant enough for you to want him on your side if you can, or, if you don’t like him, to make sure you paint him as darkly as possible – he’s that important.
SA: What do you think, then, will be his legacy? How will he be remembered?
PM: Well, having just said all that I think it’s impossible to say. But I do think he will be remembered differently in different places. And I guess you could argue that he’s very much linked to the history of Russia as it now is, and we’ll just have to wait and see what his legacy will be. Certainly those two texts will be read and re-read, as I think they’re important social documents. And even if he’s not quite at that Dostoevsky level he’s certainly of that status that when you come to look at major writers in the Soviet Union/Russia in the 20th century, you can’t ignore Solzhenitsyn. He creates a narrative that’s difficult to ignore, but even if you want to you can’t not read it. You have to read it, even to destroy it, but you can’t ignore it.
So maybe that’s his legacy – that he becomes impossible to ignore, and that you have to read him even in order to destroy him in some way.
SA: Do you think he might be the last great nationalist author? The last who seems to embody his nation?
PM: You could argue, perhaps superficially, that in extreme regimes there’s a pressure-cooker mentality that tests out writers, and so only in those situations do you get writers who are quite as single-minded and focussed. But then again you’ve got Beckett, who didn’t undergo any of what Solzhenitsyn did but still enjoys a status. Perhaps not as a national writer – Joyce, I guess, would be the Irish equivalent to Solzhenitsyn, but that destroys my pressure-cooker idea. But I don’t like the idea of ‘last things’ because, no doubt, when Tolstoy died there were similar thoughts and then the ensuing century was packed with Russian writers. But certainly Solzhenitsyn is on the mountain peaks of writers, and compared to writers in the West that pressure-cooker did create something in him; some sense, not of destiny, but of some moral or spiritual requirement to write down the truth, and record it in some way, for posterity. The notion that these things needed to survive, not for their literary merit, but for their social importance for the future – that this story needs to be told about an entire nation It’s a sense of a vocation, linked with national identity.
SA: And that fits with the anecdote that Solzhenitsyn wrote ODITLOID on scraps of paper that he could find in the prison camp, and then ate the paper once he had memorised what he had written down.
PM: And there’s that great idea that he himself is the text in some way, and that idea that while the text lives then the idea can’t die, regardless of what happens to individual people, and can come back outside of its time and can come back and enrich, inform or expose. And Solzhenitsyn was the one who shone a light on the dark areas of Soviet history that no one had the experience and the strength to record. And there’s a great moral courage in that, but his writing itself is worth a Nobel Prize. There’s a sense that he’s not just a chronicler and collector of facts, but a creator as well, and he’s creating for a nation.
“He was one of the first to talk about the inhumane Stalinist regime and about the people who experienced it but were never broken.”
Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev
On August 3, at the age of 89, Alexander Solzhenitsyn died in his Moscow home. Although he hadn’t written anything of great substance in a decade, his death was front-page news all over the world.
When you’ve been pitched head-first into hell, you just write about it.
Solzhenitsyn’s life went hand in hand with the life of the Soviet Union. Born the year after the Russian Revolutions of 1917, he grew up in the long shadow of the Russian Civil War, and his family had perhaps the definitive rural Russian experience when their family owned farm was seized by the government and converted into a collective farm.
After university, World War II led Solzhenitsyn to the Russian Army, where he received two medals for bravery and rose to become a unit commander. But in 1945 he was arrested for insulting Stalin in a letter to a friend; his punishment was imprisonment in a labour camp followed by permanent internal exile. So, after eight years in prison camps in Kazakhstan he was exiled in the same country. However, by this stage he had developed cancer throughout much of his body, and was ‘permitted’ to receive treatment at Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Finally, after 11 years away, he regained both the strength and the permission to return home.
He was one of the greatest consciences of 20th-century Russia.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy
Throughout his career, Solzhenitsyn was unrelenting in his criticism of the USSR. His first major work, One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich, brought Soviet prison labour to international attention, but it caused as great a reaction in the Soviet Union as it did in the West. His three-volume work The Gulag Archipelago was a monumental, damning account of the Soviet prison camp system, based on the testimony of over 200 former prisoners, and directly attacking Lenin, who was still deified in the USSR. However, he also decried what he saw at the crass consumerism and “spiritual vapidity” of the West – much to the disappointment of those who sought to use him as anti-Soviet, pro-Western propaganda at the height of the Cold War.
So why give his obituary pride of place in a publication for Sydney University students? To answer that we turn to Dr. Peter Marks of our own English department.
“When you come to look at major writers in the Soviet Union/Russia in the 20th century, you can’t ignore Solzhenitsyn. He creates a narrative that’s difficult to ignore, but even if you want to you can’t not read it. You have to read it, even to destroy it, but you can’t ignore it…And it’s very rarely that a regime – especially the second-largest regime in the world – will be fearful of a writer and the text that they have produced, are producing, or which might come out. So that’s the way that, for me at least, Solzhenitsyn appears – as a substantial and subversive figure, and a danger to an empire.”
Solzhenitsyn had many flaws. But he was fierce and unrelenting in his pursuit of truth, and in his desire to restore Russia to the greatness he knew it deserved. For university students agonising about careers, seeking to make a difference doing what they love, Solzhenitsyn serves as a powerful example of perseverance and fighting for your beliefs.