What is the duty of creative people who live under repressive regimes? The example of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who died this week, is a daunting one by any standards: his artistic, moral and physical courage in the face of the Soviet Union’s worst excesses was a shining light in a dark era.
There’s a curious correlation between creative ambition and dictators. Saddam Hussein was a failed novelist, Hitler a failed painter and Radovan Karadzic a failed poet: perhaps the best way to pre-empt future tyrants is surveillance of rejection letters. But whatever their own ambitions, it’s certain that most successful tyrants understand the power of creativity both to dramatise their own ideas and to transform the culture of their country. The question is: is it an artist’s duty to collaborate with the regime, to fight against it, or to hope to find a way between the two?
The difficulty was compounded in the late twentieth century, when a local artist could maintain a global voice. On the one hand this made things easier, providing access, funds and even freedom; on the other, it made the moral choices even tougher. Solzhenitsyn provided the perfect example of this: a hero in America and Europe for his denunciation of the Soviet system, he then found himself damned when he exposed, with equal candour, the different corruptions of the West. A further fall from grace came later in his life when he embraced Putin’s tough and unrepentant nationalism just as the West’s relations with him soured. All of which goes to show: if you embrace a man for his free speech, you have to accept that it cuts both ways, and that your support does not buy obligation.
It’s easy, too, to criticise people who accept the carrot of approval from regimes that we dislike, while ignoring the similar attractions of our own environment. Most Western media cultures comfortably encompass two contrasting but co-dependent viewpoints: the official, generally pragmatic line, and a morally more comfortable but simplistic opposition. Both are intellectually justifiable positions, neither is entirely exclusive of the other, and both fit within a broad church that embraces both morality and markets. The danger is that we have the illusion of debate while in reality the scope of the discussion grows ever narrower: to take just two examples, seven million British adults lack basic literacy skills and almost three million children live in poverty, yet these issues hardly register in the mainstream press.
The Russian historian Marietta Chudakova writes of the contemporary Russian media that “Nobody has been commanded to lie down — and everyone is already on the ground”. Solzhenitsyn, in his courage, his outspokenness and his refusal to toe any line, should be an example not just to his own countrymen but to the Western media as well.
For a fascinating insight into Russian intellectual life, read this article from The Economist, from which I’ve borrowed my headline and the Chudakova quote.