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SOLZHENITSYN AND ORTHODOXY

Does this imply doubt on Solzhenitsyn's part as to the value of belief in God, or of theology? The major theme of the Templeton Address, which Solzhenitsyn gave in 1984, is that the horrors that surround us derive from our loss of a sense of responsibility to something higher than ourselves - to God: 'If I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous Revolution that swallowed up some sixty millions of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: Men have forgotten God; that's why all this has happened.' And yet, and yet ... if ever there was a political figure who had a sense of his responsibility to God it was Nicholas II. And Solzhenitsyn stresses this in his account of Nicholas in the 'previous knots' section of August 1914. All Nicholas's decisions were accompanied by intense prayer. And one of the high points - perhaps the high point - of his life was the canonisation of Saint Seraphim of Sarov. Yet Nicholas's decisions are generally represented as catastrophic and they include leading Russia into the Russo-Japanese war and of course, however accidentally, the 1914 war - partly motivated by the specifically religious ambition of recovering Constantinople for Orthodoxy. One of the very few people Solzhenitsyn admires without reserve is Nicholas's minister, Peter Stolypin. But Stolypin is not represented as a particularly religious man - even if he makes the sign of the cross at the moment of his death - and his problems and achievements are presented in entirely secular political terms. As Solzhenitsyn comments, giving an account of Kotya's thoughts on the Battle of Skrobotovo: 'there's no use trying to put things right if your faults are the air you breathe, if your faults are you. Germans rely on heavy artillery, Russians on God ...'

Indeed, given the importance Solzhenitsyn attaches to religion, there is something a little odd about his attitude to the Orthodox Church. Father Severyan is, I believe, the only priest who appears as a distinct personality in any of Solzhenitsyn's writings, and he only appears in two among the many chapters of The Red Wheel. Although Solzhenitsyn often refers to the martyrdom of the priests, monks and nuns of the Orthodox Church under Bolshevism, there are very few priests mentioned in The Gulag Archipelago. The word 'thieves' appears in the indexes of the English translation of The Gulag Archipelago but not the word 'priests' (the thieves were of course a very special category of prisoner, but so surely were the priests). The Red Wheel seems to be an attempt to show the February revolution from all important points of view, yet very little is said about the huge trauma that was undergone by the church.

When he does mention the Orthodox Church he is often critical of it. One of his recurring themes is the sin which the Church committed in its persecution of the Old Believers - Orthodox Christians who refused to accept certain reforms of liturgical practice that were introduced in the seventeenth century. Without ever going into it very deeply Solzhenitsyn several times refers to the Old Believers as representing the genuine spirit of Old Russia. He sees the reforms of Peter the Great (when the supposedly independent patriarchate of Moscow was suppressed and the Church reduced to being a department of state after the manner of the Church of England) as an extension of the crime committed against the Old Believers. In the Templeton address he does evoke 'a time when the social ideal was not fame or riches, or material success, but a pious way of life. Russia was then steeped in Orthodox Christianity which remained true to the Church of the first centuries'. But he continues: 'The Orthodoxy of that time knew how to safeguard its people under the yoke of a foreign occupation that lasted more than two centuries while at the same time fending off iniquitous blows from the swords of Western crusaders.' So he is referring to the period when Russia was under the domination that lasted more than two centuries ...' So he is referring to the period when Russia was under the Muslim domination of the Tatars, the period of Alexander Nevsky (1218-63). No sooner is Russia freed from its shackles than we have Ivan the Terrible at the end of the sixteenth century, the 'Time of Troubles' (Polish support for a supposed son of Ivan as legitimate heir to the throne), the schism with the Old Believers and 'Peter's forcibly imposed transformation, which favoured the economy, the state and the military at the expense of the religious and national life.' Solzhenitsyn is often criticised as a 'Russian nationalist' - but he is an unusual sort of nationalist, not one who finds a great deal in the history of his country that is worthy of admiration. 

The names he evokes when talking about the development of religious thought tend to be the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century intellectuals following in the line of the philosopher, Vladimir Soloviev, whom we have seen mentioned by Sanya in his attempts to discuss theology with Kotya. Indeed, Father Severyan's theological-philosophical explanation of war seems to me to be derived from Soloviev - it closely resembles a discussion of war in Soloviev's Justification of the Good. One priest who is briefly discussed in The Gulag Archipelago is Father Paul Florensky but he, a very interesting mathematician and philosopher, falls into the category of intellectuals following in the line of Soloviev. Although stressing the admirable continuity of Orthodoxy among the people Solzhenitsyn rarely evokes more mainstream figures such as Paissius Velichkovsky in the eighteenth century or Metropolitan Philaret and the startsi of Optina in the nineteenth. Saint Serafim of Sarov is only evoked because of his importance to Nicholas II.

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