The first trip I took to Russia was in December 1977 through January 1978. I was a college student, and my Russian history teacher took a group of us on a trip to what was then the U.S.S. R. At times over the years, I thought about–you could say fantasized about–getting a higher degree and specializing in Russian history. It was one of many interests, and as is the case with most of my interests, it led to lots of book buying and reading.
But I have never had the occasion to teach Russian history. Along the way, I have included aspects of Russia in teaching about Napoleon, World War I, revolutions (French, Russian, American, and British), World War II, and, of course, the Cold War. In my Modern World Humanities course, I have included several shorter writings of Leo Tolstoy (“Master and Man” and “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”) and have challenged my students through assigning Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky. (Somewhere, I have a picture of myself standing by Dostoevsky’s grave.)
But I have not had the occasion to give sustained attention to that vast, troubled, harsh, and beautiful land. Its history is fascinating and its literature is rich. I could have, at many points, diverted time and attention from the American South, the Reformation, England, Scotland, the Twentieth Century, Presidential Politics, the World Wars, and other vying interests and gotten lost on the vast steppes of Russian history and literature.
Without planning or intent, I have recently found myself detoured pleasantly into some Russian matters. I have several books I am reading or reviewing that have a common denominator–Russia.
The first book is the novel Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev. When I have mentioned this book and author, several people have said, “I have never heard of it (or him).” American knowledge of Russian literature is usually confined to Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Those are two great pillars, but they don’t encompass the whole story. It would be like assuming that Mark Twain and Herman Melville were the whole of American literature. There are many other Russian writers. I know, at least indirectly, because I often thought about how wonderful it would be to teach Russian literature. There are Anton Chekov, Nicolai Gogol, Alexander Pushkin, and Boris Pasternak, just to name a few. And there is Turgenev, a contemporary of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.
I first read this book about 30 years ago. I remember liking it then, and I am enjoying this long overdue second reading. The book deals with the clash of generations, of changing worldviews, of the young and the old, of philosophy and everyday life. As its title indicates, it deals with fathers and sons.
The conflict is captured in a reflection of Nikolai Petrovich, one of the fathers, or older generation. He is answering his brother who has ranted against the younger men and says, “Do you know what I am reminded of, brother? I once had a dispute with our poor mother; she stormed and wouldn’t listen to me. At last, I said to her, ‘Of course, you can’t understand me; we belong to two different generations.’ She was dreadfully offended, while I thought, ‘There’s no help for it. It’s a bitter pill, but she has to swallow it.’ You see, now, our turn has come, and our successors can say to us, ‘You are not of our generation’ swallow your pill.'”
Now one might think such a quote indicates a remarkably depressing book. But it was the new philosophy, the idea of the sons, which was Nihilism, a rejection of values and traditions, that turned out to be the failed way. The book affirms the older, more spiritual, more rooted ways.
Another book I have been looking into is Zhukov by Otto Preston Chaney. This book, recently published by the University of Oklahoma Press, is a revised edition of a biography originally published in 1971. It is a biography of a largely overlooked, but key general in World War II. Marshal Georgi Konstantinovich Zhukov was once proclaimed the hero of Leningrad and the defender of Moscow and Stalingrad, and was the commander of the victorious Red Army that captured Berlin. He was the most decorated soldier in Soviet history and then he fell in disfavor with the ruling authorities in the Soviet Union and became an “unperson.” For a time, he was erased out of Soviet history.
Survival was the key to success in Soviet Russia. Zhukov barely survived the waves of trials and executions that Stalin instigated in the 1930s. Then Zhukov survived the war itself. The Germans on the front were probably not as much threat as Stalin and his ways in the Soviet system. Then Zhukov fell afoul of the rulers, went into internal exile for years.
When I was in high school, I read a book by Marshal Zhukov. I think it must have been Marshal Zhukov’s Greatest Battles. The Russian front was an amazing and vast battlefront in and of itself. The vast scope of miles, the Russian landscape, the Russian climates (particularly the winters and the spring thaws), and the ferocity of the fighting all add to the incredible scope of that part of World War II.
A student of history has to give the affirmative nod to the pluck of the British holding out for so long, almost alone. The American involvement in that war, chronicled by such authors as Stephen Ambrose and Rick Atkinson, exhibits character, innovation, and success. But the Nazi war machine was truly broken on the steppes of Russia. The war was won by the Allies because of the endurance of Leningrad under siege, the counter-attack at Moscow in December 1941, the great and horrible defeat of the Germans at Stalingrad in December 1942, the great armored battle of Kursk, and the counter-attack that took the Russian army into Berlin.
Marshal Zhukov was there, organizing, leading, and directing the Soviet war machine that brought Russia from near defeat to its greatest era of triumph. In America, we know many of the key generals and leaders through biographies and movies. George Patton, perhaps overrated, is still a popular figure due to the many biographies and the George C. Scott rendition in the movie. British General Montgomery usually comes across a bit too stiff, too British, too arrogant in the American interpretations, but his boss, Winston Churchill is still a hero to many (of us). Generals MacArthur and Eisenhower, President Roosevelt, and many other great figures of World War II are known.
Zhukov is a vague figure. Large, stern, emotionless, and fogotten, Zhukov may have been the greatest general in World War II.
I hope Alexander Solzhenitsyn does not suffer the fate of Turgenev and Zhukov. I first learned of him in high school when he was under threat after a manuscript he had written had been discovered. After a few tense weeks, during which time I got extra points in Mrs. Rumsey’s English class for news articles about Solzhenitsyn, international pressure led the Soviets to exiling this Nobel Prize winning author.
In those years, I read his powerful short novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Then The Gulag Archipelago came out in English translation. I eagerly devoured it, and later discovered that it was the first of three volumes. Through the years, I read more of Solzhenitsyn and collected books by and about him.
I recently learned of this new book The Other Solzhenitsyn: Telling the Truth about a Misunderstood Writer and Thinker by Daniel J. Mahoney. This book is published by St. Augustine’s Press, which publishes a number of scholarly books from Christian perspectives.
At first, I thought this was another Solzhenitsyn biography. There are already some fine works on his life, including Michael Scammell’s Solzhenitsyn: A Biography and Joseph Pearce’s Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile. Instead, this book is a study of the man and his writings and a defense against his critics.
Solzhenitsyn fell afoul of the Soviet authorites back in the 1940s. He lived his years serving time in a Soviet Gulag, enduring internal exile in Siberia, and undergoing cancer, divorce, and censorship. He lived for a long while in Vermont after he was kicked out of his country. When Communism fell apart, he returned to the land he loved.
Solzhenitsyn never sought to please the crowds or the elites. One of Gerald Fords greatest blunders as President was his refusal to meet with the great Russian author in the White House. Because Solzhenitsyn was neither a modern liberal nor a Communist, he was attacked by both. He was also a Christian, and that has been a point of controversy and a cause of attacks and distortions.
Like many of the greater authors, Faulkner and Walter Scott for example, Solzehnitsyn believed in and alluded to what Faulkner called “the old verities,” that is, the old truths. The past was never perfect, and progressives are enamoured by the latest new thing, so those who find wisdom in the older ways are often under attack.
I have just begun reading this book, and it is not an easy read. I figure it will strongly reinforce all the reasons why I have long loved the life and work of Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
Side Note: I was pleased to find a really nice copy of The Russian Question At the End of the Twentieth Century by Solzhenitsyn at a cheap price at the local Friends of the Library Sale. This Russian detour may take a little longer than expected.