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A Giant Departs

Prophets are too often scorned and unappreciated. Such was the case for Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a lion of a man who stood in front of the Soviet colossus, who refused to back down even to the murderous psycopath Stalin, and had a huge role in changing history.

Solzhenitsyn, more than perhaps anyone else, forced the world to acknowledge that the Soviet Union had quickly gone from idealism to barbarism.  Although his first novel was published in a Russia keen to discredit Stalin, his later works were passed around in samizdat versions, from hand to hand, at great risk, and he was eventually booted out of the U.S.S.R. in 1974, settling in Vermont.

There was a sense, when he began to criticize the West, that he was ungrateful.  That was mistaking honesty and gratitude.  Many of his criticisms, not least of all his comments at Harvard's commencement in 1978 that "a decline in courage may be the most striking feature that an outside observer notices in the West today," had more than a whiff of truth.

People like Solzhenitsyn are always appreciated more after they die because they challenge too much when they live.  The appreciation is actually relief, really:  good, he's finally shut up.

He was a towering figure of the 20th century, and for many, it's hard to understand how a mere writer could shake the pillars of a totalitarian society.  Well, he did, and he did it by himself, and he earned the right to criticize anyone else's courage, whether individually or collectively.

Solzhenitsyn is a man who deserves great honor, and the best honor anyone could give him would be to read his books and his works and consider what he had to say.  Much of what he held sounded odd and contrary to American ears, and so is challenging, but it's a worthwhile and important challenge.

There have been a great many writers who found greatness in themselves by standing up to harsh, abusive regimes.   When perspective on the 20th century is clear, one suspects Churchill, Hitler, Stalin, Gandhi, Mandela, and perhaps Deng Xiaoping will be heavily studied for centuries to come.  When people realize, though, that the overwhelming power of the Soviet state broke on the rock that was Solzhenitsyn, it will be hard to believe, just as it's hard to believe that a heart so great could be what finally killed him.   We will not soon see his likes again.