The Far-Right Reads Solzhenitsyn

Originally published in the October 2019 NewsNet. To veiw footnotes, please view NewsNet.


The Far-Right Reads Solzhenitsyn

by Lynne Viola, University of Toronto

The Gulag Archipelago, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, became an instant classic when it first appeared in a Harper and Row three-volume English translation in the first half of the 1970s. Although not the first book to “reveal” the Gulag, it was, beyond a doubt, the most literarily powerful, detailed, and morally outraged work on that cruel “archipelago” of the (mostly) Stalin-era forced labor camps and the individual and collective tragedies of the Stalin era. In 1985, Harvill, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, issued a onevolume abridged edition of The Gulag Archipelago, in order to expand readership in general, but also to enable teachers in secondary schools and universities to include the work in their reading lists. Although some of my colleagues were (and are) unhappy with aspects of the abridgement, its availability allowed, at the very least, for students to begin to understand this very difficult topic. And, according to the author of the volume’s new Foreword, the first abridged edition sold “some 30 million copies” (p. xiv), no doubt a huge step forward in bringing this work to the attention of a large audience.

If the 1985 abridged edition was not successful enough at bringing Solzhenitsyn to the public’s attention, the publication of Anne Applebaum’s 2003 Pulitzer Prizewinning book, Gulag: A History, re-vitalized the topic, bringing an inevitable renewed attention to Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. At around the same time, Soviet state and Communist Party archives began to open their doors, launching a generation of “Gulag scholars,” who have pioneered new understandings of Stalinist repression, highlighting the role of ideology, modernity, forced labor, geography, and a range of other topics essential for our understanding of the historical origins, policies, and realities of life in the Gulag. Although scholars have debated some aspects of Solzhenitsyn’s masterpiece, there is absolutely no doubt that Solzhenitsyn’s work has served as the foundation of Gulag studies.

In 2018, Vintage Classics republished the abridged edition of Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. Given its “classic” stature, scholars and teachers will surely welcome this reprint. However, there is an unforgiveable flaw in its presentation to new generations of readers, a flaw that does a disservice to the legacy of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. What is new in this edition is a “Foreword” by Jordan B. Peterson, an individual that Vintage Classics, interestingly, fails to identify anywhere in this new volume. Who is Jordan Peterson and why is he left with no identification? University and secondary school teachers should ask these questions before making use of this book in their classrooms.

Jordan Peterson is decidedly not a scholar of Solzhenitsyn, the Gulag, or Russian history. That lack of expertise is evident in the multiple factual errors made in the Foreword. It also seems likely that Peterson does not have a command of the Russian language, so has not had the opportunity to read the original and unabridged Russian version of Solzhenitsyn’s great work. He does, however, have a solid reputation in far-right circles, and has been profiled in a wide range of publications, including the Chronicle of Higher Education and The New York Times.

Jordan Peterson is a “public intellectual,” who has very successfully launched a second career as a popular lecturer and author. Peterson regularly packs the halls in his many lectures to largely young, white men, there to learn about responsibility and “traditional” gender norms. His performances draw thousands to hear his patriarchal wisdom, while his wardrobe bears a striking resemblance to that of Fred Waterford (played by Joseph Fiennes) in HBO’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

In his day job, Peterson is a controversial professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. (Full disclosure: I am Professor of History at the University of Toronto.) In late November 2017, hundreds of professors and students from Canada and the U.S. signed an open letter calling on senior University of Toronto administrators to terminate his appointment, arguing that Peterson’s political activity “provided grounds for termination according to the university policy.” The student newspaper, The Varsity, published the following reasoning for the petition:

Peterson’s proposed website, which was meant to identify “postmodern” and “neo-Marxist” university faculty members, courses, and disciplines, is targeted in the letter. Peterson recently announced the project has been put on hold, though the letter states that “the mere fact that such an aggressive and damaging initiative was proposed by a tenured University of Toronto professor is unacceptable.”

The letter also lists what it refers to as Peterson’s “previous efforts at agitation,” including his refusal to use preferred gender pronouns, “inflammatory denunciations of so-called ‘crazy women,’” and what it alleges as his “evident connections” to white supremacist and misogynistic groups. The letter references a BBC article about the cancellation of a free speech event where Peterson and former  Rebel Media writer Faith Goldy were to speak following the Charlottesville protests.

Three university policies are cited by the signees as evidence that Peterson’s termination is justified. The first is the Statement on Prohibited Discrimination and Discriminatory Harassment, which reads, “The University aspires to achieve an environment free of prohibited discrimination and harassment and to ensure respect for the core values of freedom of speech, academic freedom and freedom of research.” The letter alleges that Peterson’s conduct “constitutes an obstacle” to that aspiration.

Also noted is the Code of Behaviour on Academic Matters, which states that “seeking to disadvantage others by disruptive behaviour is unacceptable.” The third policy referenced is the Policy and Procedures on Academic Appointments, which states that grounds for termination include “gross misconduct.”


If Peterson sounds familiar, that may be because he is echoing much of the rhetoric of the 1990s cultural wars in the U.S. aimed at what I can only see as an imaginary “left,” dominated in right-wing nightmares by Marxist university deans (!) and women (!!).

Peterson is even opposed to the existence of certain academic disciplines, despite being an advocate of the right’s newfound interest in free speech. Speaking at a “Summit” held by the right-wing “Student in Support of Free Speech,” Peterson expressed both his anger and superiority:


At the Canadian Freedom Summit, Peterson identified courses and programs he sees as “corrupt,” including English literature, sociology, anthropology, education, and law. “Women’s studies, and all the ethnic studies and racial studies, studies groups, man, those things have to go and the faster they go the better,” said Peterson.


Had he been an expert in any aspect of Russian studies, he would have known that the study of Solzhenitsyn, the Gulag, and Russian history would have been impossible without what he derisively calls “ethnic” studies. However, all this would simply be another right-wing cliché, rehearsed repeatedly over the last fifty years, but for Peterson’s original (in the sense that he actually says this aloud) pronouncements on the problems of maintaining collegial relations with his female colleagues:

“Here’s the problem, I know how to stand up to a man who’s unfairly trespassed against me and the reason I know that is because the parameters for my resistance are quite well-defined, which is: we talk, we argue, we push, and then it becomes physical. If we move beyond the boundaries of civil discourse, we know what the next step is,” he claims. “That’s forbidden in discourse with women and so I don’t think that men can control crazy women. I really don’t believe it.”Regarding the necessity of the “underlying threat of physicality,” Peterson says, “If you’re talking to a man who wouldn’t fight with you under any circumstances whatsoever, then you’re talking to someone to whom you have absolutely no respect.”


It is clear, then, that Peterson is not a specialist on The Gulag Archipelago; nor does his reasoning on “physicality” (violence by any other name) follow the moral and ethical standards that Solzhenitsyn represents.

Why was this individual engaged to write the Foreword to the hallowed and esteemed The Gulag Archipelago? What was Vintage Classics editor, Nick Skidmore, thinking? Perhaps Jordan Peterson had something new and original to say about Solzhenitsyn’s masterpiece? He does draw renewed attention to the role of “utopian” ideologies and violence. Following Solzhenitsyn, he places his main causal emphasis upon what he calls “Marxist collectivist ideology” (p. xxiii) and the “pathological Communist doctrine” (p. xviii). This is hardly original. No scholar would deny the role of ideology in understanding the Gulag; however, many would rightly call attention to an array of other important historical factors that help us come to grips with the violence of those times. In fact, it does a disservice to what has been labeled “Gulag studies” to limit analysis and simplify historical causality. Yet Peterson is correct when he stresses Solzhenitsyn’s emphasis on the dangers of Marxism and “utopian thinking.”

In Jordan Peterson’s forthright dictum, “inequality is the iron rule,” we begin to see how he strays from Solzhenitsyn. Peterson writes:


The only systems that have produced some modicum of wealth, along with the inevitable inequality and its attendant suffering, are those that evolved in the West, with their roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition: precisely those systems that emphasize above all the essential dignity, divinity and ultimate responsibility of the individual [in what is] still accurately regarded as the Free World. (p. xxii)


One cannot help but wonder whether this kind of statement has more to do with winning over Peterson’s young acolytes rather than with Solzhenitsyn. One also wonders whether there is an element of right-wing utopian thinking at play here. The issue, for Peterson, is so urgent that he calls upon his readers to pray with him:


Perhaps we could come to remember and to learn from the intolerable trials by all those who passed through the fiery chambers of the Marxist collectivist ideology…We should all pray most devoutly to whatever deity guides us implicitly or explicitly for the desire and the will to learn from what we have been offered. May God Himself eternally fail to forgive us if in the painstakingly-revealed aftermath of such bloodshed, torture and anguish we remain stiff-necked, incautious, and unchanged.” (p. xxiii)


He also tells the readers of his Foreword that they must “state forthrightly” that,


I am indeed thrown arbitrarily into history. I therefore choose to voluntarily shoulder the responsibility of my advantages and the burden of my disadvantages…I will therefore strive not to descend into bitterness and then seek vengeance…” (p. xviii)


What relation this forthright statement has to Solzhenitsyn is likely clear only to his dedicated followers. It is a justification for Peterson’s “iron rule.” It is not surprising to see, then, that Jordan Peterson has an agenda and that, in an awkward fit, he is inserting Solzhenitsyn into that agenda.

Peterson’s warning to his acolytes concerns the danger of “today’s Marxists” (p. xx) and “the left” (pp. xvi-xvii), unidentified and nonexistent harbingers of the right’s nightmares. In an awkward call to action against the unidentified “left”, he writes:


Is it mere ignorance (albeit of the most inexcusable kind) that allows today’s Marxists to flaunt their continued allegiance—to present it as compassion and care? Or is it, instead, envy of the successful, in nearinfinite proportions? Or something akin to hatred for mankind itself? How much proof do we need? Why do we still avert our eyes from the truth?” (p. xx)


This is a tired argument. It is not from Solzhenitsyn per se, but from a cultural right-wing in the U.S. that has used “the left” as a bogeyman for decades. The question of “envy of the successful” perhaps returns readers back to Peterson’s “iron law.”

What is perhaps most disturbing about this Foreword, is that Solzhenitsyn’s own style of writing has somehow naively leaked into Jordan Peterson’s writing. I have my sympathies since this is a common problem for undergraduates who have been passionately struck by The Gulag Archipelago. However, neither Peterson nor my undergraduates have the right to an anger forged in testimony and painstaking work that Solzhenitsyn justly had. In a tired echo of Solzhenitsyn’s passion, Peterson declaims: “Members of the bourgeoisie? Beyond all redemption! They had to go, as a matter of course! What of their wives? Children? Even—their grandchildren? Off with their heads, too!” (p. xvi) Seeking to explain Stalin’s mass murder, he continues:


What values, what philosophical presumptions, truly dominated, under such circumstances? Was it desire for brotherhood, dignity, and freedom from want? Not in the least—not given the outcome. It was instead and obviously the murderous rage of hundreds of thousands of biblical Cains, each looking to torture, destroy and sacrifice their own private Abels. There is simply no other manner of accounting for the corpses. (p. xvi)


Not only is this dire rhetoric an insult to the original style of The Gulag Archipelago; it also throws out the last twenty years of Gulag studies.

Ignorance is the primary beneficiary of the “Foreword,” and, for this, Vintage Classics shares responsibility. We might begin by asking whether a public intellectual, regardless of status on the right or the left, has a right to espouse his own political vision at the expense of a classic work of history and literature. Perhaps the answer is yes, provided said public intellectual at least gets his facts right and follows his own chastisement of readers and others (presumably the unidentified “left”) about “unpardonable historical ignorance.” (p. xxiii) Peterson’s first example of his own “unpardonable historical ignorance” occurs on the very first page of the Foreword. In a clearly imaginary, perhaps late-night chat with Solzhenitsyn, Peterson writes:


Despite all this [Solzhenitsyn’s war service and suffering in the Gulag], you hold your head high. You refuse to turn against man or God, although you have every reason to do so. You write, instead, secretly, at night, documenting your terrible experiences. You craft a personal memoir—a single day in the labor camps—and, miracle of miracles! The clouds part! The sun shines through! Your book is published, and in your own country! It meets with unparalleled acclaim, nationally and internationally. But the sky darkens, once again, and the sun disappears. (p. xiii)


Solzhenitsyn’s “memoir” was nothing of the kind. Here Peterson incorrectly refers to Solzhenitsyn’s novella, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a novel centered on the work and life of a peasant in the Gulag. This was not a “personal memoir” by any definition of the term. Nor was Solzhenitsyn a peasant. Neither of these points detract from the novella’s significance. They do, however, help to explain why Khrushchev, a Communist with his own supposed sympathy for the Soviet Union’s suffering peasantry, was drawn to this work and permitted its publication. The “facts” also help us to understand why and how Khrushchev could so easily turn on Solzhenitsyn later. We do not want our undergraduates to be fed factual errors like this one.

This lack of context does not bother Peterson—or, clearly for that matter, Vintage Classics. Peterson also takes the breath away when he writes that, “It is a matter of pure historical fact that The Gulag Archipelago played a primary role in bringing the Soviet Empire to its knees.” (p. xiv) Does Peterson need to be reminded of the original publication dates of The Gulag Archipelago, the fact that The Gulag Archipelago was not published in the Soviet Union until 1989, or of the larger, surrounding context of intellectual and cultural factors that played into new critical assessments of Soviet history by its citizens? Perhaps, he needs to be reminded of the profound social, economic, and military factors that (to use a cliché) “brought the Soviet Union to its knees”? Although this kind of “great man” approach to history seems native to Peterson’s thinking, most of the educated public in North America would be more likely to assign Ronald Reagan the hero role, which would, incidentally, be no more accurate. Both groups would benefit from a more expansive understanding of modern Russian history.

I would be remiss if I neglected to mention Peterson’s reference to “one Martin Latsis” and his citation of one of Latsis’ editorials. Latsis expounds upon the notion of October 2019 • NewsNet 5 class-based justice in language typical of the Cheka (Soviet Russia’s first secret police) and the period of the civil war. Peterson writes that, “It is necessary to think when you read such a thing, to meditate long and hard on the message.” (p. xvi) Unless he is writing directly for his young acolytes, this statement can only elicit scorn given Peterson’s “unpardonable historical ignorance” about the identity of this “one Martin Latsis.” One would imagine that Vintage Classics would want the author of a new “Foreword” to have some empirical understanding about what he writes. Certainly, teachers would want Latsis to be identified for his role in the Cheka and the Red Terror, not insignificant historical markers to the background of the Gulag.

Readers might still be asking why Vintage Classics published this classic study of the Gulag with the unneeded and unwelcome Foreword by Jordan Peterson. It is hard not to conclude that financial motivations swayed Vintage Classics, unless either the press or its editor was attempting to make a conservative political statement. However, I urge colleagues who might wish to assign this book in their classrooms to think twice about whether this Foreword will actually do more harm than good in introducing the invaluable work of Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago to their students. I also urge Vintage Classics to re-examine their purpose in including Peterson’s crass and poorlyinformed Foreword to this classic work of history and literature. Personally, I respect Solzhenitsyn far too much to see him paired with the likes of Peterson.

Lynne Viola is Professor of History at the University of Toronto and a Senior Research Fellow at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. She is the author or coeditor of multiple works, including The Unknown Gulag and Stalinist Perpetrators under Stalin, and 14 volumes of archival documents.