Nikolas Gvosdev offers a caveat in the assessment of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s life and career:
. . .[A] critic of a totalitarian system is not ipso facto a supporter of American-style liberalism. Nor, in seeking to destroy the old system, will such a person automatically endorse everything that the successor regime does. Solzhenitsyn was a bold and prophetic critic to the evils of the Soviet system; he was horrified by what occurred in post-Soviet, 1990’s “free” Russia.
Solzhenitsyn’s trajectory is important to keep in mind as we expect and wait for Iranian and Chinese versions; critics of their own systems will not mean that they uncritically endorse us.
On a more general level, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the role of artists in establishing lines of communication between peoples and countries. Solzhenitsyn might not be the best example of what I’ve hand in mind since he was, as Gvosdev notes, very much an intellectual, and his literature was politically engaged.
I’m thinking more about artists who, because of their position as both cultural elite “insider” and unconventional “outsider,” have both an exposure to a country’s popular strivings and the ability to articulate them coherently, whether through their work or just through conversation. It’s a role perhaps most often found in the developing world; my first experience with the phenomenon was in Ecuador, and I recently talked with a painter who’d been in Haiti for an exposition, who described the same experience.
Solzhenitsyn’s death triggered the thought, which I’d been meaning to write about. It’s important to analyze policy and know the orientation of a country’s leaders.But if you want a real barometer of what a country is experiencing, talk to its artists.