Why Teach About Solzhenitsyn in English Classrooms?

“Own only what you can always carry with you; know languages, know countries, know people. Let your memory be your travel bag.”

Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008), Russian writer and Nobel Prize winner

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, an exceptional writer of rare courage, died today. English teachers, lovers of literature, and people of conscience will find his long obituary in the International Herald Tribune worth reading. Solzhenitsyn, like so many other intellectual and artistic figures, found refuge in the United States when he was exiled from his homeland for his writings. ESL, especially EL/Civics students, will also find his biography of considerable interest.

While far too many western leftists preferred to close their eyes to the nature and brutality of the Soviet slave labor system, Solzhenitsyn wrote novels that detailed the misery and repression created by the communists. His writings also made it impossible for even the most naïve leftist intellectuals to deny Stalin’s gulags – and how millions looked away. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, but the Soviet authorities naturally prevented him from accepting his award. He spent 20 years in prison camps for his writings.

Do you have English language students from Russia? Do you know immigrants and refugees who spent their youth under the Soviet system? How did living under a communist dictatorship distort human relationships? Solzhenitsyn’s writings, once censored, may help you better understand some of the historical and cultural factors that have influenced your students and their worldviews.

Personally, I found working with Russian refugees and immigrants a very eye-opening experience. The more you learn about the old Soviet system, the more you appreciate the American tradition of individual rights and political freedom. Solzhenitsyn wrote in his 1967 novel, The Cancer Ward, about the consequences of silent conformity with Stalin’s crimes. “Suddenly all the professors and engineers turned out to be saboteurs — and they believed it? … Or all of Lenin’s old guard were vile renegades — and they believed it? Suddenly all their friends and acquaintances were enemies of the people — and they believed it?” Everyone, as in Nazi Germany, knew and didn’t want to know.

Free speech and free press remain under siege – in the United States, often from self-righteous idealists. Solzhenitsyn’s writings serve as a powerful rebuke to coercive utopians, and illuminate the power of personal choices under the most severe stress. ESL teachers, especially EL/Civics teachers in adult education, need to emphasize the beauty, rarity, and wisdom of the first amendment guaranteeing free speech and a free press.

English language learners might also find Solzhenitsyn’s strong nationalism of interest. He didn’t believe that western democracy worked everywhere, considered many parts of American culture to be corrupt, and advocated rebuilding a distinct Russian society. The tensions between universalism in American Bill of Rights and some versions of multiculturalism can and should be openly discussed in our English classrooms.

I chose Solzhenitsyn’s quote for the dedication page of Compelling Conversations: Questions and Quotations on Timeless Topics to remind myself – and others – to look beyond material possessions. We need to stay awake and remain sane – even if our society begins to sprout social cancers and asking simple questions becomes dangerous. Solzhenitsyn provides a model of courage and resistance to tyranny.

Ask more. Know more. Speak more.

Create Compelling Conversations.

Visit www.CompellingConversations.com

One comment

  1. Tatiana – Thank you for your comment. Let’s hope that the legacy of this great novelist is remembered.

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