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Solzhenitsyn and American Culture: The Russian Soul in the West

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These essays will interest readers familiar with the work of Nobel Prize–winner Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and are a great starting point for those eager for an introduction to the great Russian’s work.

When people think of Russia today, they tend to gravitate toward images of Soviet domination or more recently Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine. The reality, however, is that, despite Russia’s political failures, its rich history of culture, religion, and philosophical reflection—even during the darkest days of the Gulag—have been a deposit of wisdom for American artists, religious thinkers, and political philosophers probing what it means to be human in America. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn stands out as the key figure in this conversation, as both a Russian literary giant and an exile from Russia living in America for two decades. This anthology reconsiders Solzhenitsyn’s work from a variety of perspectives—his faith, his politics, and the influences and context of his literature—to provide a prophetic vision for our current national confusion over universal ideals.

In Solzhenitsyn and American Culture: The Russian Soul in the West, David P. Deavel and Jessica Hooten Wilson have collected essays from the foremost scholars and thinkers of comparative studies who have been tracking what Americans have borrowed and learned from Solzhenitsyn as well as his fellow Russians. The book offers a consideration of what we have in common—the truth, goodness, and beauty America has drawn from Russian culture and from masters such as Solzhenitsyn—and will suggest to readers what we can still learn and what we must preserve. The last section expands the book's theme and reach by examining the impact of other notable Russian authors, including Pushkin, Dostoevsky, and Gogol.

Contributors: David P. Deavel, Jessica Hooten Wilson, Nathan Nielson, Eugene Vodolazkin, David Walsh, Matthew Lee Miller, Ralph C. Wood, Gary Saul Morson, Edward E. Ericson, Jr., Micah Mattix, Joseph Pearce, James F. Pontuso, Daniel J. Mahoney, William Jason Wallace, Lee Trepanier, Peter Leithart, Dale Peterson, Julianna Leachman, Walter G. Moss, and Jacob Howland.

ISBN-13: 9780268108267

Media Type: Paperback

Publisher: University of Notre Dame Press

Publication Date: 07-15-2023

Pages: 392

Product Dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

Series: The Center for Ethics and Culture Solzhenitsyn Series

David P. Deavel is an associate professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas, Houston, and editor of LOGOS: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture.Jessica Hooten Wilson is the Seaver College Scholar of Liberal Arts at Pepperdine University. She is the author of a number of books, including The Scandal of Holiness.

Read an Excerpt

One individual who embodied much of this breadth and contradiction of the Russian character is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Like many other intellectuals, in his early years he believed in Marxism. But after spending years in Soviet labor camps, punished for criticizing Stalin’s conduct of the war, Solzhenitsyn abandoned that ideology and became an Orthodox Christian. He was a staunch defender of Russian national and ethnic interests. But he also addressed the aspirations toward freedom and dignity of all humankind. He grew disappointed in modern attempts to minimize the legacy of Russian literature. In a 1993 speech titled “The Relentless Cult of Novelty” he said: “And in one sweeping gesture of vexation, classical Russian literature—which never disdained reality and sought the truth—is dismissed as next to worthless. Denigrating the past is deemed to be the key to progress. And so it has once again become fashionable in Russia to ridicule, debunk, and toss overboard the great Russian literature, steeped as it is in love and compassion toward all human beings, and especially toward those who suffer.” Through his own suffering, he developed a softness for the downtrodden, the oppressed, the minority. The product of culture and learning, he said, should be a refinement of feeling and forbearance toward all our fellow human beings: “It’s a universal law—intolerance is the first sign of an inadequate education. An ill-educated person behaves with arrogant impatience, whereas truly profound education breeds humility.”

The Soviet Union was marked by unprecedented violence. The national cultures and identities of the various member countries became absorbed into the expansionist worldview and political space of communist ideology. It represented a form of universalism, but lacked the staying power of the deeper things of human existence—tradition, religion, poetry, love, and the other irrational values we treasure. These humane values may have subsided in the face of political pressure, but they never died out.

A poem written by Vladimir Orlov during the Soviet era was read by generations of children and students. It captures the Russian impulse to turn love of country into love of humanity. It goes as follows: “I have come to know that on this earth I have an enormous family—the pathway, the forest, and in the field every ear of corn! The brook, the blue sky—it is all mine, by birth. This is my homeland! I love everyone in the world!” This poem shows that celebrating the particular is somehow incomplete without paying homage to the universal.

This impulse still survives in today’s Russia. Even someone like Sergey Lavrov, a seasoned diplomat trained in the Soviet Foreign Ministry, can make overtures to universalism. In 2016 he urged the formation of a “partnership of civilizations” to combat the forces of terrorism and articulated the basis for such partnership: “We believe that universal human solidarity must have a moral basis resting on traditional values which are essentially common for all of the world’s leading religions.”

Table of Contents

Foreword by John Wilson Acknowledgments Introduction: Missing the Deep Roots and Rich Soul by David P. Deavel and Jessica Hooten Wilson

Part 1. Solzhenitsyn and Russian Culture 1. The Universal Russian Soul by Nathan Nielson 2. The New Middle Ages by Eugene Vodolazkin 3. The Age of Concentration by Eugene Vodolazkin 4. Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness in Solzhenitsyn by David P. Deavel

Part 2. Solzhenitsyn and Orthodoxy 5. Art and History in Solzhenitsyn’s The Red Wheel by David Walsh 6. The YMCA Press, Russian Orthodoxy, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn by Matthew Lee Miller 7. The Distinctively Orthodox Character of Solzhenitsyn’s Literary Imagination by Ralph C. Wood 8. How Fiction Defeats Lies: A Faithful Reading of Solzhenitsyn’s In the First Circle by Jessica Hooten Wilson
Part 3. Solzhenitsyn and the Writers 9. Solzhenitsyn’s Cathedrals by Gary Saul Morson 10. The Literature of Dissent in the Soviet Union by Edward E. Ericson Jr. 11. The Example of Prussian Nights by Micah Mattix 12. Kindred Spirits: Solzhenitsyn’s Western Literary Confréres by Joseph Pearce
Part 4. Solzhenitsyn and the Politicians 13. Inferno Dialogues: Why Americans Should Read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s In the First Circle by James F. Pontuso 14. Judging Communism and All Its Works: Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago Reconsidered by Daniel J. Mahoney 15. The Rage of Freedom: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s 1983 Templeton Prize Address by William Jason Wallace 16. What Americans Today Can Learn from the Russian Past: Lessons from Turgenev and Dostoevsky for American Hillbillies by Lee Trepanier
Part 5. Beyond Solzhenitsyn: Russian Writers and American Readers 17. City of Expiations: Ivan Karamazov and Orthodox Political Theology by Peter Leithart 18. Russia and the Mission of African American Literature by Dale E. Peterson 19. The Price of Restoration: Flannery O’Connor and the Nineteenth-Century Russian Realists by Julianna Leachman 20. Wisdom from Russia in the Thinking of Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton by Walter G. Moss 21. Totalitarian Physics and Moral Threshing by Jacob Howland
Contributors Index