Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, Hero of Freedom, RIP

I heard last night that Aleksander Solzhenitsyn had died late that on that day, August 3, 2008.
Like all of us, he had his flaws. But he had strong moral courage in standing up against the enslavement of the masses by the communist tyranny of the USSR. For that he paid a huge price, partly in the form of the years of forced labor in the prison camps that he carefully documented in his massive The Gulag Archipelago. (I must admit that I never read The Gulag, although I believe my father, to his credit, read every page.)
I remember my mentor Ben Rogge reading The First Circle and highly recommending it to us. The book’s title is based on Dante’s Inferno which describes the nine circles of hell, where each successive circle assigns increasingly horrendous eternal punishments, for those guilty of increasingly terrible sins. In the first circle, good people born before Jesus, are allowed to pursue their interests much as they had on earth. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, for instance, engage in eternal dialogue.
In Solzhenitsyn’s version, Stalin allows a group of scientists to have better living conditions, and somewhat more freedom than ordinary Soviet citizens, so long as the scientists make progress on projects that enable Stalin to extend his power.
One of the revelations in the book is that those who imposed the tyranny, had motives that were not always evil. One bureaucratic candidate for villainy, for instance, did bad things, in order to protect his family. At the top there is Stalin, but he is portrayed as insane.
The point is one that Rogge often made—people are pretty much the same everywhere. What mainly explains the differences in different societies are different institutions that provide differing incentives and constraints.
It is a fitting tribute to Solzhenitsyn that the first unabridged English translation of The First Circle will soon be published.
I salute Solzhenitsyn for his insights, and even more, for his courage at standing up against an evil system.

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