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.