Gandhi and Solzhenitsyn: Two Giants who blessed the 20th century – I
by Vladislav Krasnov on 13 Feb 2019 1 Comment

On October 2, 2018, the world honored Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th Birthday Anniversary. Few weeks later, on December 11, there was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s first Centenary. At about the time of Mahatma Gandhi’s martyrdom by a bullet of an overzealous Hindu nationalist in January 1948, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had just begun his Via Dolorosa going through all the circles of Soviet Hell. He started with the First Circle at a sharashka-style research lab for prisoners, and then went down to hard labor at lower circles. After he had graduated from the GULAG to internal exile in Kazakhstan, he also survived a bout with cancer. Only after his exile was cut short in 1956 by Nikita Khrushchev’s rehabilitation program for the unjustly sentenced, was he able to dedicate himself to healing Russia, from its own political cancer, by truthfully describing the affliction of totalitarian society.


He won. In 1991 the USSR collapsed, and in 1994 he was able to return - now from an external exile in the USA - to his beloved Russia where he continued to describe what has gone wrong since 1991. He died on August 3, 2008. Dmitry Medvedev, then president, and his predecessor and successor, Vladimir Putin, were among the mourners who joined the Nobel laureate’s family and friends for a funeral service held at Moscow’s historic Donskoi monastery. Thus one might say that Gandhi and Solzhenitsyn dominated the 20th century as two mighty spiritual powers for truth, justice, harmony, and Non-Violence in domestic and foreign affairs.


The name of Gandhi in Russia before the Bolshevik Revolution


The name of Mohandas Gandhi has been known in Russia since the time he had an exchange of letters with Leo Tolstoy, the world-famous novelist and the founder of “Non-Resistance to Evil by evil means” movement. Reading their correspondence one gets the definite impression that the two kindred souls found each other in 1909. However, the promising interchange was soon interrupted by Tolstoy’s death in 1910. The Bolshevik Revolution and the bloody Civil war followed (1917-1921).


The Soviet Union lost no time in cancelling the very idea of Non-Violence, be it in a Tolstoyan or Gandhian form. To add injury to the insult, many of Tolstoy’s followers found themselves behind bars and in the far away regions of the GULAG. While Soviet school programs included the study of Tolstoy the artist, the wisdom of his later years was dismissed as “counter-revolutionary” and his writings untoward were not published. Thus, in my school years, I was able to read some, but only via the risky samizdat distribution.


Khazrat Inayat Khan


Another great line of Indian-Russian spiritual connection that was cut off by the Bolshevik Revolution is embodied in Khazrat Inayat Khan (1882-1927). A Muslim-Sufi philosopher and musician, he came to Russia 1913 and stayed for several months. Inayat Khan gave several concerts in both Moscow and the Imperial capital Saint-Petersburg. He also befriended such important cultural figures as the composer Alexander Scriabin, the Symbolist poet Vyacheslav Ivanov, the composer Vladimir Pohl, and Leo Tolstoy’s son Sergei. As a result, Russian culture was enriched not just with Indian music, but first translations of Inayat Khan’s Sufi writings into Russian. Apparently, Gandhi and Inayat Khan were acquainted, at least knew and respected each other. Below is a short exchange between the two men.


Salaam and Greetings of Peace:

Keep your thoughts positive because your thoughts become your words. Keep your words positive because your words become your behaviors. Keep your behaviors positive because your behaviors become your habits. Keep your habits positive because your habits become your values. Keep your values positive because your values become your destiny. – Mahatma Gandhi


Our success or failure depends upon the harmony or disharmony of our individual will with the divine will. — Hazrat Inayat Khan


What is just as important is that Inayat’s daughter Noor Inayat Khan, the future heroine of World War Two, was born in Moscow. Both Noor and Inayat’s son Hidayat Inayat Khan were Gandhi’s followers. The latter, the founder of Sufi movement in Canada and a composer, composed the Gandhi Symphony which has been performed world-wide.


As for Russia, after 1921, all contacts with Inayat Khan were broken, and his name vanished until the collapse of the USSR. However, since 1991 Inayat Kyan’s books on Sufism have re-emerged to become a favorite reading of cosmopolitan Russians. Some of his music is also available now in Russia.


Gandhi in the USSR


The name of Gandhi reappeared in Russia when the USSR and India under Jawaharlal Nehru were forging mutual ties via the Non-Allied countries movement to counter both Communist China and “Imperialist” America. Those ties were further strengthened under Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi. She was not related to Mahatma Gandhi, but his heritage was fundamental to India, both domestically and in foreign affairs. To be sure, Soviet respect was officially paid to the founder of India’s independence from the British rule. Still, in spite of the official proclamations of Indian-Russian brotherhood - the slogan of “Hindi-Russi bhai bhai” was ubiquitous in the USSR - Soviet propaganda made it clear that Gandhi’s non-violent tactics were not just inferior but contrary to the Marxist-Leninist theory of violent world revolution of which the USSR was the first champion.


Helena Blavatsky, Nicolas Roerich, and Rabindranath Tagore


Of course, the range of Russian-Indian cultural interface was considerably wider than that of Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, and Inayat Khan. Helena Blavatsky (1831 –1891), thanks to her inroads into India, emerged a very significant conduit of cultural interchange with India on a global scale. Her creation of the Theosophical Society affected not just India and Russia, but also the United States, United Kingdom and other Western countries. According to Wikipedia, “in November 1889 she was visited by the Indian lawyer Mohandas Gandhi”. Having become an associate member of Blavatsky’s Lodge in March 1891, Gandhi emphasized “the close connection between Theosophy and Hinduism throughout his life”. However, her dabbling with theosophy, ancient religions, and esoteric science virtually excluded her from the attention of Soviet-born generations of Russia.


Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947), the famed Russian painter and cosmopolitan philosopher, was more fortunate in the USSR, in spite of his early opposition to the Communist revolution. Later, he was partially “rehabilitated” due to his staying close to the Indira Gandhi family which promoted better Soviet-Indian relations. A lover of peace, Roerich was thrice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. He worked for the creation of the Pax Cultura, a sort of “Red Cross” for art and culture. On April 15, 1935 the United States and twenty other nations of the Pan-American Union signed the Roerich Pact at the White House. It was an early international instrument protecting cultural property for the benefit of mankind. There is the Nicholas Roerich Museum in New York, as well as in a number of Russian towns.


Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), a poet, musician and artist, has also become not just an Indian cultural hero, but a pillar of universal culture. His opposition to racism, chauvinism and narrow nationalism made him friends with many world figures, including Albert Einstein (1879-1955), who was also a great admirer of Gandhi’s Non-Violence. (Einstein called Gandhi “a role model for the generations to come.”) In the USSR Tagore was regarded as a friend, and his works were published, however, selectively. Einstein, on the other hand, was proscribed because Communists viewed Marx’s “science” so absolute that it could not allow any “relativism.” However, for the purpose of this essay, I have to leave these three personalities aside precisely because their achievements require more space than what I can now offer.


Back to Russia’s National Identity


When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, it became necessary to find a new ideational, ethical and spiritual framework for Russia’s domestic as well as foreign policy. A general feeling was that the New Russia, in order to buttress its claim to sovereignty, had to fall back on its pre-Communist national past for inspiration, if not for the framework. It was not an easy task, for the early Lenin government and its successors left no stone unturned in their efforts to erase Russia’s national identity, especially its Eastern Orthodox Christian heritage, as well as its ancient customs, art, and literature, both in Russian language and the languages of national minorities who identified themselves with Russian civilization.


After the collapse of the USSR, the triumphant USA was not interested in the New Russia’s sovereignty, much less in the revival of Russian civilizational identity. As convincingly argued by professor Janine Wedel among other authors, during the 1990s the USA spared no efforts to establish in Russia an economic system fully compatible with and subordinated to the neoliberal brand of economics that garnered then currency in the West. Along with the shock therapy economic reforms the American cultural influence flooded Russia with mass advertisement, consumerism, “political correctness” in gender politics, drugs, cheap and sexy Hollywood products, etc.


Solzhenitsyn warned of trouble from the West


But the one man who had in advance warned the Russians against surrendering to Western cultural imperialism was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the foremost champion against Soviet totalitarianism, whom Soviet leaders kicked out of Russia. Of all countries, he chose the United States as a place of refuge from which he was best able to restore Russia’s true history from the sources unavailable in the USSR. Solzhenitsyn appreciated American liberties, but was also aware of the shallowness of its mass culture and lack of commitment to spiritual values. Above all, he knew that one cannot simply export a form of government, no matter how “good,” from one country to another as a kind of commodity. That’s why, before he returned to Russia in 1994, he had warned fellow Russians “not to lift the Iron Curtain in a hurry, for as soon as you do, you will get flooded by a flow of sewage”.


Repentance and Self-limitation in the Life of Nations


Solzhenitsyn was more prescient than that. In 1973 he wrote Repentance And Self-Limitation In The Life Of Nations, an essay in the collection of several Soviet dissident authors. Titled “From Under the Rubble” the collection was circulated in clandestine samizdat as it was aimed to explore how Russia could exit from what they felt was the dead-end of Communism. It was published by Russian émigré in the West in 1974 and then translated into English.


“The gift of repentance, which perhaps more than anything else distinguishes man from the animal world is particularly difficult for modern man to recover. We have, every last one of us, grown ashamed of this feeling; and its effect on social life anywhere on earth is less and less easy to discern. The habit of repentance is lost to our whole callous and chaotic age,” started the essay. Solzhenitsyn clearly aimed, first of all, at Soviet citizens who knew about the need to confess political mistakes to Party officials, but not about the need to clear one’s conscience for trespassing on a fellow next door.


Expanding his message beyond the USSR, Solzhenitsyn predicted that “true repentance and self-limitation will shortly reappear in the personal and the social sphere, that a hollow place in modern man is ready to receive them,” because it is a psychological need for healthy human relationships. Addressing his clandestine readers he argued that “…the time has come to consider this as a path for whole nations to follow.” Alarmed by the escalation of the Cold War he warned: “Add to this the white-hot tension between nations and races and we can say without suspicion of over-statement that without repentance it is in any case doubtful if we can survive”.


Clearly, Solzhenitsyn’s concern was not only with the survival of his homeland but mankind as a whole. “It is by now only too obvious how dearly mankind has paid for the fact that we have all throughout the ages preferred to censure, denounce and hate others, instead of censuring, denouncing and hating ourselves. But obvious though it may be, we are even now, with the twentieth century on its way out, reluctant to recognize that the universal dividing line between good and evil runs not between countries, not between nations … it cuts across nations and parties … It divides the heart of every man, and there too it is not a ditch dug once and for all, but fluctuates with the passage of time and according to a man’s behavior.”


Reading the above lines, one is bound to think that they could have been uttered by Mahatma Gandhi, the non-violent philosopher. Though he did not mention Gandhi in this instance, Solzhenitsyn’s essay reveals an uncanny affinity with Gandhi’s philosophy of Non-Violence. After all, do not great minds run in the same channels? As much as Solzhenitsyn was concerned with Russia, he knew that the virus of Marxist-Leninist violence had already affected a third of mankind and targeted the rest. He was intently looking for the antidotes and, ultimately, for the cure for this dangerous universal affliction.


Also remarkable is the fact that Solzhenitsyn was the initiator of this collection. It had been hand-copied and circulated in “samizdat” before it was published in the West. As early as the 1970s Solzhenitsyn was planning a peaceful evolutionary exit from the dead-end of Communism across the rubble left of pre-1917 Russia.


Letter to the Soviet Leaders


Not only did Solzhenitsyn initiate the dissident authors’ collection of 1973, but he also wrote his famous “Letter to the Soviet Leaders”. To make it difficult for “the leaders” to plead ignorance and thus avoid personal responsibility, he mailed copies to each of a dozen Party Politburo members. Thus, he followed one of the principles of Gandhi’s non-violence philosophy: to appeal to the conscience and good reason of your opponent in order to make a friend out of a perceived enemy.


Indeed, he did not offend the Soviet leaders by asking them to resign. He did not even insist on having an open national election. He did not insist on disbanding the ruling Communist party. He just asked them to be more pragmatic and less dogmatic rulers. Just stay in power, he told them, but allow patriotic Russians of non-Communist persuasion, especially Orthodox Christians, into the governing bodies. Stop insisting on the purity of your ideology. Or, even better, since Mao Zedong was then accusing Soviet leaders of revisionism, Solzhenitsyn advised giving away the whole ideological business to Communist China. As to the border republics, allow them to hold referenda to decide if they want to stay part of our country. Clearly, all of Solzhenitsyn’s suggestions were conciliatory as they aimed at a gradual and peaceful evolution of Soviet system away from its totalitarian dogmatism and inflexibility.


Alas, the “Soviet leaders” proved to be back-sitting bureaucrats. Even worse: soon they voted with Leonid Brezhnev and his Politburo to deprive Russia’s brave and wise son of his native land. A real chance for a gradual and peaceful evolution of the USSR into a Russian nation-state was missed.


(To be concluded….)

[For Notes, see]

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