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Between Two Millstones: Interview with Daniel J. Mahoney

Between Two Millstones: Interview With Daniel J. Mahoney

The following is an interview with Daniel J. Mahoney, the Augustine Chair in Distinguished Scholarship at Assumption College, about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Between Two Millstones: Book 1: Sketches of Exile, 1974-1978 which was published by the University of Notre Dame Press in the fall of 2018.  Professor Mahoney wrote the “Foreword” to the aforementioned work. He has written widely on Solzhenitsyn and is a member of the board of advisors to VoegelinView. His latest work, The Idol of Our Age: How the Religion of Humanity Subverts Christianity, was released by Encounter Books in December 2018.  


The title of the book, “Between Two Millstones,” is reference to Solzhenitsyn’s experience in both the West and Soviet Union. What were these “millstones” for Solzhenitsyn?

The first “millstone” was the “Soviet dragon,” as Solzhenitsyn called it, a ferocious enemy of humankind and of the best and most humane Russian traditions. The enemy par excellence for Solzhenitsyn was Communist ideology, whose twin pillars were violence and lies (informed as it was by an aggressive atheism that had limitless contempt for God and man).  In his Letter to the Soviet Leaders (written in 1973 and published in the West in 1974) Solzhenitsyn pleaded with the Soviet leaders (without any real confidence that they would listen) to repudiate an “antiquated ideology,” Marxism-Leninism, that had held Russia—and much of the world—in subjugation since 1917. Solzhenitsyn fought the dragon of ideology to the day he died and never made his peace with the Bolsheviks who had nearly succeeded in destroying human liberty, true culture, the Christian faith, and his beloved Russia. Solzhenitsyn was the greatest anti-totalitarian thinker, writer, and moral witness of the twentieth century. His “cultured despisers,” to quote Schleiermacher’s famous phrase, conveniently ignored that fact.

The “millstones” in the West was more subtle and variegated. To begin with there was a press whose last concern, it seems, was discerning the truth. Journalists were the first to distort Solzhenitsyn’s positions beyond recognition (Mike Wallace’s “farewell” interview with Solzhenitsyn on “Sixty Minutes” in 1994 was perhaps the most shameless of all). It began with a disastrous interview in 1974 with Walter Cronkite whose parochialism and unreflective left-liberalism made it impossible for him to understand the breadth and depth of Solzhenitsyn’s reflection and concerns. Henry Kissinger and Winston Lord in the State Department saw in Solzhenitsyn a quasi-fascist even as they pursued a misguided “détente” with the Soviet Union. Solzhenitsyn’s Churchillian defense of human liberty—and fierce denunciations of Communist totalitarianism—In his speeches to the AFL-CIO in New York and Washington in the summer of 1975 were mistaken by many for an irresponsible call to war. The great Harvard Address of June 8, 1978, as we shall see, was distorted beyond recognition. The publication of Solzhenitsyn’s books in the West were mishandled by a series of unscrupulous agents and publishers (until the great Claude Durand at Editions Fayard in Paris came to the rescue). The KGB continued to spread its lies. And representatives of the “Third Russian Emigration,” that of the 1960s and 70s, such as Efim Etkind and Andrei Sinyavsky, fantastically compared the author of The Gulag Archipelago with the Ayatollah Khomenei and suggested he wanted new gulags and new forms of repression. Solzhenitsyn in exile confronted a second and most unwelcome “millstone,” indeed! It was not the West’s proudest moment.


Do you think Solzhenitsyn’s diagnosis of the West, especially in his 1978 Harvard Commencement Address, still holds today?

It remains remarkably relevant—and misunderstood. Solzhenitsyn’s discussion in Between Two Millstones of the Harvard Address (pp. 283-293)—and the fevered response to it in many elite circles—is one of the highlights of the book. Most critics attacked Solzhenitsyn for things he never said and ignored the fact that he spoke, quite openly and self-consciously, as a “friend” of the West. Solzhenitsyn was not wrong when he argued freedom needed to be rooted in “a sense of responsibility before God and society.” He saw that nihilism—and a diminution of the human spirit—could only flow from the misplaced view that “man is the center of all that exists, and that there is no Higher Power above him.” And the great Russian writer was right, indisputably right, that “irreligious humanism” had led many intellectuals and demi-intellectuals “to such strong and dogged sympathy for Communism”—the famous political pilgrims and apologists about which Paul Hollander has written so well and so damningly.

Solzhenitsyn did not call for a return to the past but rather for a fuller reconciliation of the spiritual and material dimensions of human nature and human existence. He spoke of balance, and measure, in the human soul. Solzhenitsyn rejected both theocratic or spiritualist despotism, and a materialism that forgot the higher needs and aspirations of the human soul. And he was that rare thinker who fully appreciated that materialism, on both the theoretical and practical planes, was the deadly enemy of both self-government and self-limitation.  Read carefully and respectfully, there is no hyperbole in this great and memorable speech. Perhaps its tone could be modulated, but that is another matter.


Some critics have argued that Solzhenitsyn, as an emigre, failed to understand the West? Do you think there is some merit in this criticism?

Not much, if any at all. In most respects, Solzhenitsyn knew us better than we knew ourselves. And his critics ignore the fact that he truly admired the energy, generosity, and magnanimity of the American people. They criticize a caricature of Solzhenitsyn that has little resemblance to the original. And they also ignore his profound respect for the local liberties, the decent expressions of self-government, that he saw at work in Switzerland and New England during his Western exile. The pages in Between Two Millstones dedicated to the admirable democracy he saw at work in the Catholic half-canton of Appenzell in Switzerland in 1975 (pp. 107-112) are truly remarkable. “This is the kind of democracy we could do with,” Solzhenitsyn most emphatically writes.  And he reminded his readers that political liberty of this sort “did not spring from the ideas of the Enlightenment, but directly from the ancient forms of communal life.” A point, by the way, that was also made by Tocqueville in Democracy in America, volume 1, in 1835. Liberty need not be rooted in the problematic assumptions of the radical Enlightenment, both Tocqueville and Solzhenitsyn agreed.


Solzhenitsyn speaks of another America that later emerges in voicing their support of his 1978 Harvard Address. How do you think Solzhenitsyn would diagnosis the split between the “heartland” and the “arrogant stance of America of New York and Washington” today?

That America (“the heartland”) still exists and Solzhenitsyn would undoubtedly continue to place some hope in it. But its good sense, its patriotism and religiosity, is eroding under the impact of a nihilism where rights know no internal or external limitations and where the natural moral law, the recognition of an enduring divide between good and evil in the human soul, is dismissed in the name of a facile and unthinking relativism (what Pope Benedict XVI so suggestively called “the dictatorship of relativism”). This relativism has become increasingly dogmatic, and coercive, since Solzhenitsyn spoke at Harvard, and has given rise to the ugly and dangerous phenomenon we now call “political correctness.” Such political correctness mocks God, morality, country, and standards of taste and judgment in art, literature, and culture more broadly. It is, alas, the “secular religion” of our godless elites. But Solzhenitsyn still has many admirers and devoted readers in America, and they largely come from the “heartland,” the America Solzhenitsyn spoke to as he wrote his 1978 Harvard Address. I am confident that Solzhenitsyn’s work, at its best, can help fortify the good sense of the American people.


One of the things that emerge in these memoirs is how important Orthodox Christianity is for Solzhenitsyn. Could you tell us more about the role of religion in Solzhenitsyn’s own life and work?

Solzhenitsyn came back to the faith of his fathers as a result of his experience in Soviet prisons and camps in the 1940s and 1950s. The story of that return is told with rare beauty and eloquence in “The Ascent” in the central section of The Gulag Archipelago (“The Soul and Barbed Wire”). He loved the Orthodox Church but was never doctrinaire or sectarian (for example he had profound respect for the Polish Pope John Paul II, a story told in volume two of Between Two Millstones). He admired the courage and fortitude of the Russian Old Believers (and lamented their persecution by the mainline Orthodox Church). But he did not share their refusal to come to terms with the requirements of living in the modern world (see his fascinating account of his visit with a community of Old Believers in Oregon in 1975, pp. 176-178 of Between Two Millstones). Solzhenitsyn also lamented the collaboration of important elements of the Orthodox Church (and the Moscow Patriarchate) with a vicious atheistic state (see p. 25 of Between Two Millstones).

But I should add that he was later impressed by the efforts of the same Orthodox Church in the post-Communist period to honor the “new martyrs” who suffered and died under Bolshevik oppression and persecution. In his July 23, 2007 interview with Der Spiegel , one of the last interviews of his life, Solzhenitsyn mentions the prayers for the victims of Communism at Solovki in the Arctic north and at the Butovo graveyard outside of Moscow that were carried out by Orthodox clergy twenty-four hours a day. I should also mention that Solzhenitsyn composed three great prayers in his lifetime, the third being “A Prayer for Russia,” dating from 1997, a moving appeal to to the Lord of Mercies to come to Russia’s aid during her “Third Time of Troubles” during the Russian 1990s.


Was there anything in the memoirs that you found surprising or revealing about Solzhenitsyn that you didn’t know before?

I was particularly impressed that Solzhenitsyn already saw in the mid-to-late 1970’s that many in America and the West hated “true Russia” more than they opposed its Bolshevik oppressors. His mission remained the same: he called “for a fight to the death against Communism, yet without in any way targeting Russia.” How little this position—and imperative—remains understood in America today! Even among those who admire Solzhenitsyn, there are many who are deeply suspicious of a Russia where patriotism and religion truly flourish (I am not speaking of imperialism or religious extremism).

For his part, Solzhenitsyn always remained committed to “a clean, loving, constructive Russian patriotism and not of a radical nationalist bent . . . ;not of the elevation of one’s nationality above our higher spiritual plank, above our humble stance before Heaven” (see Russia in Collapse, 1998, chapter 27, p. 475 in The Solzhenitsyn Reader, ISI Books, 2006). Solzhenitsyn despised the Red-Brown coalition, the coming together of unrepentant Bolsheviks and pagan nationalists who succumbed to the dream of unbounded empire, and who combined nostalgia for Bolshevism with aggressive nationalism. Solzhenitsyn was a moderate nationalist, a patriot who spoke of national self-limitation, and a foe of all forms of extremism. He also regretted the increasing animosity of the United States to the new Russia. He feared that America had succumbed to a new “democratic” imperialism that insisted that democratic relativism become a universal moral norm. In the 1970s Solzhenitsyn feared American weakness in standing up to Communist aggression, after 1991 he worried much more about the United States succumbing to the allure of empire, and of uncontested global dominance.

I was also impressed by the dramatic impact that Solzhenitsyn’s research at the Hoover Institution in Palo Alto, California had on the shape of The Red Wheel, his other masterwork besides The Gulag Archipelago. Solzhenitsyn came to see that the February Revolution of 1917 unleashed nothing but meanness, anarchy, and the incredibly disciplined partisans of extremism who would introduce totalitarianism to Russia in the fall of 1917. This not only effected Solzhenitsyn’s judgment about 1917 (he now appreciated that the disaster crucially began in February 1917) but his later sense that an immediate and disordered movement to democracy of the kind post-Communist Russia experienced in the 1990’s would undermine the prospects for true liberty in Russia. Once again, the great Solzhenitsyn was remarkably prophetic. As his publisher Nikita Struve once said, this man could see . . .


What was the Russian Social Fund? Why was it so important to Solzhenitsyn?

Aleksandr and Natalia Solzhenitsyn turned over all the international royalties from The Gulag Archipelago to the Russian Social Fund (the book has sold nearly 40 million copies in all languages). This was a truly generous act. The fund set up by the Solzhenitsyns aimed to provide support for the families of prisoners and the persecuted in the Soviet Union and to also aid in the revival of authentic Russian culture. Its admirable work is continued today by the Solzhenitsyn Fund  (which among many worthwhile activities, funds the Solzhenityn Literary Prize, the most distinguished literary prize in Russia).


What do you think will be the enduring value of this book for readers and scholars?

This book is an admirable sequel to The Oak and the Calf, the great memoir where Solzhenitsyn, the little calf, struggles against the “oak” which is the “Soviet dragon” or totalitarian state. That book covers the years 1960 to 1974. In the next volume of Between Two Millstones, covering the years 1979 to 1994, we will see Solzhenitsyn struggling with many of the same concerns, while traveling to Japan, Taiwan, and Britain, meeting such crucial figures at Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II, and, of course, completing The Red Wheel. The greatest writer and moral witness of our time, the scourge of ideological despotism, will continue to wrestle with the two “millstones.” These works are precious literary memoirs of the writer and fighter par excellence, Aleksandr Isaevich Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008). And thanks to the efforts of the Solzhenitsyn family, a fine team of translators, beginning with Peter Constantine, and the dedicated staff of the University of Notre Dame Press, they are now (or will soon be) available to the Anglophone world. Read in conjunction with The Red Wheel, whose continuing volumes are also being published by the University of Notre Dame Press, they illumine a great man and writer’s struggle for truth and liberty in the age of ideology. And it must be added, these series of autobiographical sketches are written with a clarity, energy, and frankness that will appeal to everyone who wishes to respond to the challenge posed by Solzhenitsyn’s life, writing, and moral witness.


Lee TrepanierLee Trepanier

Lee Trepanier

Lee Trepanier is a Professor of Political Science at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. He is author and editor of several books and also is the editor of VoegelinView (2016-present) and editor of Lexington Books series Politics, Literature, and Film (2013-present).

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