Back to article index


There is a certain irony that one of the chapters Solzhenitsyn would have liked least - the one on the Church - ends with a quotation from Solzhenitsyn himself:

'One can fully sympathise with the words of Alexander Solzhenitsyn that Russian history would have been "incomparably more humane and harmonious in the last few centuries if the church had not surrendered its independence and had continued to make its voice heard among the people, as it did, for example, in Poland."' (p.245).

The quotation comes from a "Lenten Letter" addressed by Solzhenitsyn while still in Russia to the then Patriarch of Moscow, Pimen, in March 1972.


[8]  The full text can be found on the Website of The Tablet at

I discussed Solzhenitsyn's somewhat ambiguous attitude to historic Orthodoxy in an article published in 2010 in the online Dublin Review of Books, and I feel I can't do better than to repeat what I wrote then:

'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 in November 1916, giving an account of Kotya's [one of his fictional characters] 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 ... Although he 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 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." In referring to "the period when Russia was under the domination that lasted more than two centuries ..." he is referring to the period when Russia was under the Muslim domination of the Tatars, the period of Alexander Nevsky (1218-63), who paid tribute to the Khans but fought against the incursions of the Teutonic Knights. 

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.

[I may add here in parenthesis that in stating or at least hinting that the best period of the Russian Orthodox Church was the period of the Tatars, Solzhenitsyn is in agreement with Pipes - "The Golden Age of the Orthodox Church in Russia coincided with Mongol domination" - p.226]

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 ... 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. [Again I might add in parenthesis the resemblance to Pipes and his failure, in Solzhenitsyn's eyes, to mention St Sergius of Radonezh].

Perhaps the most well-developed Christian personality in all Solzhenitsyn's writings is Dmitri Sologdin in In The First Circle. The original and complete version of In the First Circle has only recently (2009) been published (under that title) in an English translation. The First Circle, published as far back as 1968, is actually an abridged version Solzhenitsyn had, in his own view, mangled in the hopes of getting it published in the USSR. One of the great revelations of The Gulag Archipelago, losing him much of his left-wing support, was that Solzhenitsyn saw the Stalinist repression, not as a deviation in the course of Communist history, but as a logical continuation of the process initiated by Lenin. Until then, Solzhenitsyn was still keeping up a pretence of being willing to accept the Leninist foundation of the state. But that pretence is already dramatically exploded in the pages of the original In The First Circle.

The 1968 version - "Circle 87" - so called because of its 87 chapters, as opposed to the original "Circle 96" - maintains a sort of balance between Solzhenitsyn's two particular friends, Lev Kopelev ("Lev Rubin" in the novel), an atheist who still believes in the essentially progressive nature of the Soviet regime despite the abuses which he sees and denounces courageously, and the Christian, Dmitri Panin (Sologdin). In "Circle 96", however, the balance falls on the side of Panin/Sologdin - the more so if I am right in speculating that another figure, who plays a larger part in Circle 96 than in Circle 87, Ilarion Gerasimovich, may also have been based on Panin.'

But Sologdin/Panin's version of Christianity is not entirely Orthodox.

In the course of the ongoing quarrel between him [Panin/Sologdin] and the Bolshevik Lev Rubin, Rubin appeals to Nerzhin [the character based on Solzhenitsyn himself]:

"Tell him what a poseur he is! I'm fed up with his posturing! He's forever pretending to be Alexander Nevsky!"'

Sologdin surprises them by responding:

"Now that I don't find a bit flattering!"

"What do you mean?"

"Alexander Nevsky is no sort of hero as far as I am concerned. And no saint. So I don't take what you said as a compliment."

'Rubin was silenced. He and Nerzhin exchanged a baffled look.

"So what has Alexander Nevsky done to upset you?" Nerzhin asked.

"Kept chivalry out of Asia and Catholicism out of Russia. He was against Europe," said Sologdin, still breathless with indignation.

'Rubin returned to the attack, hoping to land a blow.

"Now this is something new! something quite new! ..."

"Why would catholicism have been good for Russia?" Nerzhin inquired, looking judicial.

"I'll tell you why!" the answer came like a flash of lightning. "Because all the people who had the misfortune to be Orthodox Christians paid for it with centuries of slavery! Because the Orthodox Church never could stand up to the state! A godless people was defenseless! The result was this cock-eyed country of ours! A country of slaves!"

Dmitri Panin, the model for Sologdin, left Russia in 1973 for France. According to [D.M.] Thomas: "Panin and his new Catholic-Jewish wife Issa had a cordial farewell with Sanya [Solzhenitsyn] before leaving for Paris: part of the limited Jewish exodus permitted as a contribution to détente with the West in the early 1970s." In France, Panin published a number of books, including his own account his time in prison, Notebooks of Sologdin (Solzhenitsyn apparently took offense at the title). But he also published a number of more theoretical works including The World is a Pendulum, published in French in 1974, Builders and Destroyers (1883) and Theory of Densities. As it happens, Theory of Densities was published in French in 1990 by a friend of mine, the late Henri Viaud, who ran a small publishing house, Editions Presence. 


Panin's Theory of Densities outlines a science-based philosophy which he claims is truly "materialist" and truly rational in opposition to the non-materialist and irrational "dialectical materialism" of Marxism - details of the argument find their way into the quarrel between Rubin and Sologdin. He then expounds the principle dogmas of the Church in terms of this overall theoretical framework and with the aid of an abundance of mathematical demonstrations. But of most immediate interest to us is a chapter on "the Church" which argues that only on the basis of the papacy can the church become a force capable of confronting the state and the forces of antichrist, of godlessness, in the world. And he suggests that a large part of the teachings of Christianity (notably "God is Love" and "resist not evil") is not suited to mass consumption and should be reserved to the élite.

The whole is strangely reminiscent of Dostoevsky and most obviously the famous Legend of the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov. The author of the Legend, Ivan Karamazov, was widely thought at the time to be modelled on Soloviev, who was a friend of Dostoevsky's and who eventually became a "Uniate" - a Roman Catholic who continued to use the offices of the Eastern Orthodox churches. Ivan uses the story (in the long conversation with his brother Alyosha that is among the most profound discussions in the whole history of Christian literature) to argue through the lips of the Inquisitor that the doctrine of Jesus is cruel because it allows a freedom of the soul that very few people are able to assume and that consequently can only open the way to Evil - terrible, absolute Evil. Only iron control by an élite, represented by the Inquisitor, can save the people from the consequences of its own anarchic passions. For Dostoevsky, standing on the opposite side of the fence to Panin, it is an allegory of the essential difference between the rational Roman Catholic Church and irrational - but Christian - Orthodoxy. Panin is quite clearly and, we must assume, knowingly, taking the side of Ivan Karamazov.

The Red Wheel argues that Russia was already lost by the time of the February Revolution - that the country was so totally demoralised by liberal and socialist ideas that it could only deliver itself tamely into the hands of the Bolsheviks. In The Seed fallen between millstones, Franco's Spain is held up as a model of a proper Christian response to the evil of Bolshevism. Thus Solzhenitsyn seems to approach the position argued by Panin. Evil must be confronted by force, and the centralised spiritually independent Roman Catholic Church is better placed to do it than Orthodoxy with its otherworldliness and tradition of subservience to the state.'

Solzhenitsyn's thinking is in general wider and more interesting in his novels (including The Red Wheel, if that can be called a novel) than in his discourses. He never seems to have been able quite to focus his mind on 'the West' and, being myself a Socialist, I naturally regret his determination to persuade the West that Communism was an Absolute Evil that had to be rooted out in all its manifestations. On this reading 'the West' is wearing the White Hat, only vitiated by the desire for an easy life and by the temptations of Socialism - in Solzhenitsyn's eyes only the antechamber to full fledged Communism. Solzhenitsyn as we have seen insisted that he wasn't calling for war against the Soviet Union nor for sanctions that would hurt the people of the Soviet Union but he did support the war in Vietnam and, so far as I can see, supported sanctions on Cuba. He was a keen supporter of Ronald Reagan but at the moment when the evil of Reagan's reign became evident to me (the mining of the ports of Nicaragua) Solzhenitsyn's mind was somewhat diverted from US politics by the beginnings of glasnost in the Soviet Union.

The greatness of Solzhenitsyn lies in his ability, in the novels, to enter into a wide variety of differing minds, including Socialist ones. And speaking to Russians about about how the transition from Communism should be handled his thinking became much better focussed. I hope to look at this in a further article and to draw comparisons and contrasts with the current bête noir of the Western anti-Russian establishment, Alexander Dugin.