One of the greatest writers of the 20th century died this week. (OK, not as great as this guy, but great nonetheless.) Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was an author who really opened my eyes to the reality of communism and totalitarianism.
I don't remember why I picked up his book, The Gulag Archipelago, in the mid 1980's. It was based partly on his own experience of being a political prisoner in the Soviet prison system after World War 2. He told the story of what the Soviet Union was really like in a way that was beautiful, terrifying, inspiring, and sickening, all at the same time. Later I read The First Circle, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and a bunch of his speeches and essays.
Solzhenitsyn was a true intellectual heavyweight who understood the evil threat that communism presented to the world. But he also saw that the West was suffering from moral and spiritual decline, which he said were caused by our materialism, reckless individualism, and lack of courage.
I was a little disappointed by Solzhenitsyn's willingness in his later years to embrace Vladimir Putin. Solzhenitsyn's desire to see a strong Russia rise from the ashes of the Soviet Union blinded him somewhat to the excesses of Putin's regime. But that doesn't do anything to lessen Solzhenitsyn's impact on the 20th century. And his insight into the nature of evil still can instruct us today.
In fact, if you read his speeches, and replace "communism" and "Soviet Union" with "Islamic extremism", much of what he said then still applies to the threats we face today.
Solzhenitsyn was unafraid to call communism for what it is: evil. He also wasn't afraid to condemn the evils of secular Western culture.
The lesson I learn from his life? One person who dares to speak the truth with passion, and without compromise, really can make a difference in the world.
Thanks, Mr. Solzhenitsyn. R.I.P.