Solzhenitsyn: My Murdered Grandfather’s Voice

The truth that Alexander Solzhenitsyn told helped to make Russia free. Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, acknowledged a day after Solzhenitsyn's death at age 89 that the Nobel Prize-winning author and dissident had "helped people see the real nature of the regime"—and that his writings had helped to "make our country free and democratic." At a time when the Soviet system seemed impenetrable and frozen in place forever, Solzhenitsyn brought the terrible reality of the Gulag home not just to foreigners but to ordinary Russians too; in the bright, sanitized world of Soviet propaganda, Solzhenitsyn's writing held a mirror to the Soviet Union's darkest secrets. The State had tried to airbrush the Gulags, the Purges and the famines made by Stalin out of history. Solzhenitsyn spoke for the millions whose voices Stalin had silenced.

One of them was my grandfather, Boris Lvovich Bibikov, my mother's father. An enthusiastic Bolshevik, Bibikov had received the Order of Lenin for his part in building the Kharkov Tractor Factory, one of the giant projects of Stalin's industrialization drive of the early 1930s. But in the great Purge of 1937, which Stalin launched against his opponents in the Party, real and imagined, Bibikov found himself accused of crimes against the revolution. He was tried by a secret court on evidence obtained under torture and sentenced to death. The usual method was 'nine grams'—the weight of a pistol bullet—to the back of the head. His wife, my grandmother, was sent to the Gulag for fifteen years as the wife of an "enemy of the people" and his two daughters, my mother and aunt, were dispatched to an orphanage for re-education.

Some years ago I was given permission to read my grandfather's secret police file. It contained about three pounds of paper, the sheets carefully numbered and bound, with my grandfather's name entered on the crumbling brown cover in curiously elaborate, copperplate script. The file sat heavily in my lap, eerily malignant, a swollen tumor of paper, and since the careful bureaucrats who compiled the file neglected to say where he was buried, this stack of paper is the closest thing to Boris Bibikov's earthly remains. For the days that I sat in the former KGB headquarters in Kiev examining the file, Alexander Ponamaryev, a young officer of the Ukrainian Security Service sat with me, reading out passages of barely legible cursive script and explaining legal terms. "Your grandfather believed," said Ponamarev. "But do you not think that his accusers believed also? Or the men who shot him?"

Solzhenitsyn once posed the same, terrible question. "If my life had turned out differently, might I myself not have become just such an executioner?" he wrote in The Gulag Archipelago, his epic "literary investigation" of Stalin's terror. "If only it was so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good from evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of their own heart?"

All his life Solzhenitsyn was moved by a powerful, almost mystical, moral sense. He felt compelled to speak out against what he felt was wrong, regardless of the consequences—which in his case were eight years in the Gulag, decades of harassment and denunciation by the Soviet authorities and the craven "intellectuals" who served the regime, and finally twenty years of exile from the country which he loved with a passion.

His first crime against the system was to criticize Stalin in a private letter to a friend in 1945. When the military censor reported the letter to the secret police, Solzhenitsyn, then a young artillery captain twice decorated for valor, was given a perfunctory trial and sent to Stalin's nightmarish Gulags. Like 18 million of his fellow countrymen, he found himself plunged into a parallel world of unimaginable brutality, where prisoners slaved in the Siberian cold on madly futile projects like canals that no one needed and train lines to nowhere. Solzhenitsyn called it the Gulag Archipelago—like islands in a sea of frozen steppe, the Gulags were a state within the state. After his release he penned a short story which described, in simple but devastatingly telling detail, one day in the life of a Gulag inmate named Ivan Denisovich. When it was published in Moscow in 1962 during a brief post-Stalin thaw, Ivan Denisovich caused a sensation.

Solzhenitsyn's persecutors, like my grandfather's, were often driven by the same motivations as their victims. When people become the building- blocks of history, intelligent men can abdicate moral responsibility. Indeed the Purge—in Russian, 'chistka' or 'cleaning' —was something heroic to those who made it, just as the building of the great factory was heroic to Bibikov. The difference was that my grandfather made his personal Revolution in physical bricks and concrete, whereas the Secret Police's bricks were class enemies, every one sent to the execution chamber another building-block in the great edifice of socialism.

The men drawn to serve in the Soviet secret police, in the famous phrase of its founder Felix Dzerzhinsky, could either be saints or scoundrels—and clearly the service attracted more than its fair share of sadists and psychopaths. But they were not aliens, not foreigners, but men, Russian men, made of the same tissue and fed by the same blood as their victims. "Where did this wolf-tribe appear from among our own people?" asked Solzhenitsyn. "Does it really stem from our own roots? Our own blood? It is ours."

This was the true, dark genius behind Stalinism—a genius that Solzhenitsyn describes in devastating detail. Not simply to put two strangers into a room, one a victim, one an executioner, and convince the one to kill the other, but to convince both that this murder served some higher purpose. This can happen only when a man becomes a political commodity, a unit in a cold calculation, his life and death to be planned and disposed of just like a ton of steel or a truckload of bricks.

Yet Solzhenitsyn's moral compass, so steady in the black-and-white world of Stalin's Russia, began to waver after the collapse of Communism. He returned to Russia in 1994 after two decades in exile in America and was feted as a nearly messianic figure. But Solzhenitsyn had no love for capitalist Russia and refused to accept a State prize from Boris Yeltsin because he had brought "so much suffering on the Russian people." And when Vladimir Putin—a former KGB officer—began to prune away the anarchic freedoms which Yeltsin had won, Solzhenitsyn hailed his "strong leadership" and brushed aside Putin's KGB past, saying that "every country needs an intelligence service." Yesterday Putin returned the compliment, lamenting Solzhenitsyn's passing as a "heavy loss for Russia." Both Putin and Russia's new president Dmitry Medvedev are expected to attend Solzhenitsyn's funeral at Moscow's Donskoi Monastery on Wednesday.

The strangeness of a former KGB officer paying tribute to Russia's greatest dissident is a reflection of just how conflicted Russia remains about its recent past—and in particular the legacy of Stalin. He was the greatest mass murderer of the last century, starving millions in man-made famines and creating a prison system which claimed more lives than the Nazi death camps. Yet recent polls have shown that Stalin is one of Russians' most respected historical figures, and, with the Kremlin's blessing, school history books are being revised to show the 'Great Leader' in a more positive light. And Putin described the fall of the Soviet Union as "the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the century." Solzhenitsyn, for all his cordial relations with Putin, could not have disagreed more strongly.

For decades, the Soviet Communist Party claimed to be the "mind, honor and conscience of the people." But the truth was that the Party was the agent of unimaginable human suffering, lies and deception. The true conscience of Russia was Alexander Solzhenitsyn—the man who dared to speak out against the regime and chronicled its crimes in painstaking detail. And in insisting that the Russian people "live not by lies," Solzhenitsyn made a tiny but deep fissure in the wall of hypocrisy which in time was, in time, to crack the whole rotten system apart.

Yet for all his greatness and importance in bringing down the Soviet Union, Solzhenitsyn had become an irrelevance to the thrusting, new, oil-rich Russia of Vladimir Putin. In that lies a tragedy, because Russia has swung back from its infatuation with wild capitalism into what has proved to be a deeper longing for authority and order. Solzhenitsyn, once an idealistic Communist, understood better than most how power can pervert men and ideas. He saw himself as a prophet not just for Russia but for all mankind, and in his later years turned to denouncing the corruptions of capitalism and the dangers of liberalism. But for all his unfashionable conservatism, he believed adamantly in the value of human dignity—and that a State abdicated all moral authority to order society if it abused its citizens. Russia, for all its wealth, remains mired in corruption and injustice. With Solzhenitsyn's death it has lost its conscience, and is a poorer place for it.

Matthews is the author of "Stalin's Children" (available at Amazon.com).

Join the Discussion