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By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
Posted: August 13, 2008

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn late in life
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn late in life (Wikipedia)
London Independent described the last rites of Alexander Solzhenitsyn in a solemn manner: "The air was thick with the scent of incense and freshly cut flowers, as more than a dozen white-robbed Orthodox priests sang hymns and recited prayers in a three-hour service at the funeral of Alexandra Solzhenitsyn in Moscow." As his last remains descended into the earth, an elderly man intoned: "There goes Russia's last conscience" (August 7).

I did not meet Solzhenitsyn formally although I shared the stage with him when he delivered the Commencement Address at Harvard University in 1979. Many expected a conciliatory speech but he would have none of it. He castigated the West for its materialism and Russia for the callousness towards its citizens. In 1994, he returned to his beloved Moscow after having been exiled in the United States for twenty years.

The grief that poured out from around the world after Solzhenitsyn death on August 3 (Russians were notably restrained) reflected a well-lived life. D. M. Thomas, his biographer, captured Solzhenitsyn's uniqueness when he observed: "he was a writer, and he was given a great theme, nothing less than his country's most tragic century" (London Times August 5). His Nobel Prize citation praised "the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable tradition of Russian literature." Others within that tradition were Pushkin, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (hereafter One Day), the memoir that catapulted Solzhenitsyn into fame, re-captures men's unbelievable cruelty and the length to which some men go to prove the infallibility of their systems? In 1945, Solzhenitsyn criticized Stalin. He ended up in the Soviet labor camps for that indiscretion. In one gripping detail after another, Solzhenitsyn revealed the attempt to strip him (and the other prisoners) of every last vestige of humanity while they were imprisoned in that camp.

In One Day there is a notion that the free expression of speech and standing up for what one believes are indispensable pre-requisites of freedom especially in a state that became so stultified that "even the sun in the heavens must kow-tow to their [the Soviet's] decree." At least, that is what the authorities wanted its people to believe. Every action of the state, inside or outside of the prison, was destined to make citizens submit to its power. It was "better to growl and submit. If you were stubborn they broke you."

Stalin and his henchmen controlled every activity of the state and demanded that Russian citizens go against their conscience to survive. One Day pleaded with Russians to find a space to stand up for their truth before its walls of tyranny came tumbling down. In a gripping scene Solzhenitsyn differentiated between "an arse-licker, obeying a vile dog's order" and those who stood up against the system. "Geniuses," he said, "don't adjust their interpretations to suit the taste of tyrants."

Literature is more than the telling of a nice story. At its best it captures what is most noble about a people and adumbrates the soul of the nation. Nathaniel Cobham's Rupert Gray: A Tale in Black and White (1907), Ralph de Boissiere's Crown Jewels (1952), V. S. Naipaul's A House for Mr. Biswas (1961); Merle Hodge's Crick, Crack, Monkey (1970) , Earl Lovelace's The Dragon Can't Dance (1970) discern what is most courageous in our people and capture important emotional moments in our nation's history.

In Trinidad and Tobago, our educators are yet to understand that it is important to promote our intellectual culture. While we applaud our authors and intellectuals when they achieve success, we do not always value their efforts. We show our appreciation for what they do when we study what they have written. Our school curriculum needs to teach their work to our students.

The work of writers and scholars represent the uniqueness of a people. In One Day one of the oldest prisoners declares that to deny the contributions of their writers is to make "a mockery of the memory of three generations of Russian intelligentsia." The same holds true for us.

After laying roses on Solzhenitsyn's casket, Vladimir Putin, Russia's Prime Minister, called on his nation to include Solzhenitsyn works in the Russian school curriculum and observed: "By his works and his entire life, he inoculated our society against tyranny in all of its forms."

Our democracy cannot grow unless it cultivates an educated citizenry that is willing to criticize those who have the responsibility to guide our affairs. Nor, for that matter, can it hope to survive if it seeks to promote any ignoble cult of personality. That is one of the dangers against which Solzhenitsyn warned in One Day and The Gulag Archipelago.

A nation cannot be great unless it embraces its writers and thinkers nor can it know itself if it does not know the names of those who wrote the country into being. Our writers and thinkers must have the courage always to speak truth to power. They should always remember Solzhenitsyn's commandments: "DON'T LIE! DON'T PARTICIPATE IN LIES, DON'T SUPPORT A LIE!" It's the legacy that he left all of us.

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