Champions of Freedom: Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Jesse Helms, Heroes in the War against Communism
To most observers it would appear that the phrase “worlds apart” could not have any better application than when applied to Alexander Solzhenitsyn and US Senator Jesse Helms. They spoke different languages. They were raised in diverse cultures. They had dissimilar life experiences. They were separated by an ocean and an Iron Curtain for more than half a century.
In fact, an examination of commonalities in their lives and their seemingly unlikely friendship goes beyond that supposition. A closer study reveals how their lives paralleled and how much they were alike, especially in their antipathy to the political and social philosophy embodied in Communism. It is their similarities that made it possible for them to establish and maintain a personal relationship that enhanced their ability to work effectively in fostering change in US policy that helped facilitate the end of Soviet Communist rule.
It may be argued that their mutual battle against Communism was significantly advanced when they became allies in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Their actions and interactions are worthy of review today because the battle they waged did not end with their deaths. Their words will remain contemporary as long as nations around the world come under the control of Communist governments. 1
They were born just three years apart, Solzhenitsyn, the Russian, on December 11 in 1918; Helms, the American, on October 18 in 1921. They were raised almost 6000 miles from each other. The Russian was raised in Kislovodsk, located between the Black Sea and the Caspian, by a young mother who had buried her husband the summer before his son’s birth. The American grew up in a small, southern town, the second born in a family whose ancestors had helped settle their part of North Carolina in the years before the American Revolution. Both the Russian and the American lived in deep poverty, but each had the advantage of knowing they were secure within their family and the immediate community.
Both knew from their earliest years that they had a love of words. The Russian longed to study literature and to write books. The American swept floors at the local paper by the time he was nine and saw his first by-line on a local sports story before he was in his mid-teens. The Russian made the most of the only option he had, to study mathematics at the college closest to his home. 2 The American started college near his home with the help of a scholarship then transferred for a year to a school that taught journalism. He paid his bills by working four jobs at once until he found work at the daily newspaper. By the end of his second year in college the American decided that the best place for him to learn the newspaper business was from the inside of one. 3 The Russian stayed in school and earned his degree in physics and mathematics. But, he could not ignore his gift. As he could, he found ways to pursue his writing through essays and in correspondence. 4
Each served his country during World War II. The American was refused a battle assignment because of his hearing limitations. He was assigned to the Navy recruiting command and used his skills in communication to encourage enlistments. During his off duty hours he wrote for the local papers in the towns where he was stationed. The Russian was first assigned to drive a horse drawn carriage because of his poor health, but when his superiors became aware of his skill in mathematics he was quickly trained for an artillery unit and put at the front lines. 5 When the Russian had the time he kept in touch with an old school friend and wrote out some of his personal reflections which included guarded but negative comments about Joseph Stalin, to whom he did not refer by name, calling him only “the whiskered one.” 6
In 1945 the American completed his time in the U.S. Navy, went home to his wife and family in North Carolina and resumed his career in communications. 7 During the war years he and his wife had talked about their dream of one day owning their own weekly newspaper. Now, at age twenty-four, the American’s future was full of hope and he had a deepened appreciation of the freedom that had once again been secured for his country.
In 1945 the Russian was tried in secret and sentenced to eight years in a detention camp. This “light sentence” was to punish the disrespect found by the censors who seized his letters and personal papers and examined them for signs of anti-government sentiment. 8 For most of those who were sentenced to the Soviet detention camps this would have been the end of the story. In a political system where millions were swept into these camps for whatever the government declared illegal, including any form of criticism, the fate of one young soldier would not have been of interest to anyone beyond his family and friends. At age twenty-seven, the Russian’s future was put in the hands of jailers who were determined to punish him.
With such radically different trajectories carrying them into the future there would seem to be no rational explanation for the paths of these two men to ever have crossed, let alone to be intertwined in the timeline of the history of the modern world. But, despite their geographic distance, their differences in language, the circumstances of their life, the governments controlling their countries, their inability to communicate and their unawareness of each other’s personal existence, they would find a way to meet. These two men shared in common a clear goal in their desire to enjoy the freedom to pursue their own dreams, a determination to see that goal reached, the gift of knowing how to communicate well, and faith in God were determined to defeat a common enemy. In their pursuit of that goal, the Russian and the American became powerful allies long before they met. Looking back, it should not have been a surprise that the ripples of change created by bringing them together pushed them toward their goal.
The American took up his job at the Raleigh Times and got the politics and government beat, a top assignment in North Carolina’s capital city. By the late 1940’s he had moved to radio news but he continued to cover political news, lugging a recorder through the halls of the State House and into interviews. He got to know Willis Smith, former president of the American Bar Association and former president of Duke University. Smith, a conservative Democrat, won a tight race for his party’s nomination as candidate for the US Senate, and then won the general election in November of 1950.
Recognizing the young reporter’s understanding of government and his tenacity as a fact finder, Smith tapped the American to run his Washington office. Smith died after just two years in office. After helping his successor settle into office, the American and his family returned to Raleigh where the American took up a new challenge as the director of the state’s association of bankers. His writing and communication skills once again drew attention, this time turning the Tar Heel Banker into the most widely read association newsletter in the nation. 9
In 1960 the American took on a new challenge in television. As the executive Vice President for WRAL-TV in Raleigh his responsibilities included the development of an editorial board and daily commentaries. 10 This was new territory in television but the station’s ownership believed that his television station had an obligation to present all sides of an issue to viewers, especially in a community where the newspaper advocated for just one side of the debate. The commentaries proved far more popular than either the station’s owner or his plain-spoken commentator anticipated. Before long “Viewpoint” was syndicated and rebroadcast by radio on North Carolina’s “Tobacco Network.” 11 The commentator lost his anonymity forever. Whether they had ever seen him or not, by 1970 it seemed that most of the people in North Carolina had heard of Jesse Helms.
During those same years the Russian lived the anonymous life of a prisoner and an exile. His ability as a mathematician made him valuable to his captors. After he had spent a year inside the prison correctional work camps, he was reassigned to what was known as a “special prison” to work in the scientific research facilities of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Ministry of State Security. In 1950 he was transferred again, this time to one of the “special camps” for political prisoners. Once again he was put to work as a forced laborer in the foundries and mines and as a brick layer. One month after the official end of his eight year sentence, the Russian was denied his freedom and was sentenced to “Exile for Life” in southern Kazakhstan. 12
Aware that his every movement was observed and his life depended on the appearance of full cooperation the Russian did as he was told and outwardly led a quiet life as a mathematics teacher in the primary school. But he could not stop writing. Knowing that the world must someday know the details of the Gulags, the violence and deprivation at the hands of the very government that proclaimed its concern for its people, he wrote whenever he was able. Even though he realized that his words might never be published – or, worse, that they might be found and read by the authorities, he was determined to see that the details of this abuse would not be a hidden part of his nation’s history.
By 1961, the Russian could no longer wait for his work to be read. Following the bold and risky public speech of A.T. Tvardovsky, editor of the literary journal Novy Mir at the 22nd Congress of the USSR Communist Party, the Russian dared to take the personal risk of sharing the manuscript of a novel he had written titled One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. 13
This powerful story about life in the Soviet prison camps of the 1950s was published in Novy Mir in 1962. Government authorities moved at once to halt publication of the magazine and the novel itself. Then they stopped production of two plays that the Russian had also authored and seized the manuscript to a second novel and as many of his earlier papers as they could find. The Russian was denounced as an anti-Stalinist and an enemy of the state. 14 But he was no longer anonymous. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich may have been kept from readers in the USSR, but it could not be repressed elsewhere. As translations spread around the world, millions became aware of the author, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and the truth he dared to tell.
Without intending to do so, both the Russian and the American were now poised to take their places on the world stage. In 1970 Alexander Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Solzhenitsyn was under intense pressure from the Soviet government. They would not guarantee his freedom to travel to and from Stockholm for the award ceremony, nor would they cooperate with a plan to present his prize separately at the Swedish Embassy in Moscow. The Prize was presented in absentia in Stockholm.
Explaining their choice of Solzhenitsyn for the Prize, the Swedish Academy said,
“… the words that fly round the world are those which appeal to, and help us, all. Such are the words of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. They speak to us of matters that we need to hear more than ever before, of the individual's indestructible dignity. Wherever that dignity is violated, whatever the reason or the means, his message is not only an accusation but also an assurance: those who commit such a violation are the only ones to be degraded by it.” 15
Realizing the danger he was now in, Solzhenitsyn took the risk of smuggling more manuscripts out of the USSR. One of those was the undertaking of a lifetime, a comprehensive history that had taken him ten years to complete, The Gulag Archipelago. Published in three volumes and filled with eye-witness accounts that made it impossible to dismiss the truth of his words, the book details the brutal prison system of forced labor camps established under Lenin and expanded under Stalin that had become critical to the economic success of the Soviet system. 16 This expose’ of a government that had taken pride in its claims of superiority could not be dismissed, nor could Solzhenitsyn’s claim that the structure of the prison system remained intact even if the number of prisoners had declined.
While Solzhenitsyn came under increasingly intense pressure from his government, Jesse Helms was coming under a different kind of pressure in North Carolina. For many listeners around the state Helms’s commentaries represented their own views on government policy and the rights of individuals. The more they heard from Jesse Helms, the more dissatisfied they became with their conventional political leaders. These voters believed that too many of their Senators and Representatives were in the habit of saying one thing back home when they were running for office but doing exactly the opposite when they got to Washington. By 1970 many of these listeners were moving from wishing they could find someone like Jesse Helms to support, to wishing that Jesse Helms himself would run for office.
For his own part Jesse Helms was content with the career he had built. He had fallen into the comfortable routine of spending his day handling his responsibilities as station manager and a part of each evening in his home office working on “Viewpoint.” He had seen the inside of government as Senator Smith’s chief of staff and he had chosen a different path. But the interest in his candidacy continued to grow, finally including the one person whose opinion he valued most, his wife Dorothy.
One evening as they were getting ready to go out for the evening, Dot expressed her personal frustration at never having found a candidate who truly followed the conservative principles they claimed to support. Then she asked, “What do you suppose would happen if you did run for the Senate and gave the people a clear-cut choice?” 17 Much to his surprise, the answer to that question came in November of 1972 when Jesse Helms became the first Republican in the 20th century to be elected to the US Senate. 18
It has been said that Jesse Helms did not go to Washington “to be somebody, but to do something.” At the top of his agenda was foreign policy. Senator Helms was convinced that America had an obligation to both be a good neighbor and to “protect our people and all we hold dear.” 19 In his view the spread of Communist influence presented a genuine threat. He saw Communism as the philosophical antithesis of the democratic principles defined in the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. In spite of years of denials, and repeated efforts to build stronger ties between the US and USSR, Senator Helms was convinced that the stability of Communist governments came through coercion and the power of the bullet. He believed that “detente” was the wrong path for the US government because the Soviet régime’s actions rarely matched their diplomatic promises.
In September of 1973 Senator Helms traveled to London where he was asked to be one of the speakers at the International Peace and Freedom Rally. The Senator’s speech on “The Survival of Freedom in an Era of Negotiation” warned of the pitfalls of agreements with the Soviets that were not contingent on an opening of their borders to the principles of free enterprise and personal freedom. He challenged “free nations” to stand together and negotiate boldly, even in the face of Soviet military power, and take advantage of their mutual support to assure peace. 20 He closed his speech with this message on behalf people of the United States,
“Only the free world has the creativity and resiliency to cope with changing situations. Let us never forget that each individual free citizen has the power which no state, no matter how monolithic and oppressive, can ever have; and that is the power to create a life that suits himself. Some people who tire of freedom and who crave security flock to the planned society, but they won’t find security in the planned society. Only freedom has the dynamic element which struggles to reach out to every man. Let our negotiations capture this dynamic struggle and freedom will not only survive, but constantly expand.” 21
Following his return from London, on September 10, 1973 Senator Helms presented to his colleagues the text of a speech presented at the closing session of the World anti-Communist League Conference, by Geoffrey Stewart-Smith, then a member of the British Parliament. That speech was titled “A Reply to Solzhenitsyn.” Quoting extensively from the Russian, Stewart-Smith challenged the nations represented at the conference to listen to Solzhenitsyn’s plea that they avoid the easy path appeasement and choose instead to be motivated by a desire to see captives set free. Senator Helms told his fellow Senators that in his judgment “Stewart-Smith has offered advice that the free world will ignore at its peril.” 22
Senator Helms was moved by Solzhenitsyn’s boldness in exposing the brutal truth about Communism that Helms had suspected and warned against for decades. It did not surprise him at all to learn that the Soviet government was intent on discrediting both Solzhenitsyn’s work and his personal integrity. He recognized the courage that Solzhenitsyn had shown in first daring to tell his story and then to risk re-imprisonment or worse by first making the decision to publish and now to speak out publically calling for his country to put aside their repression of personal freedom.
Senator Helms wrote Solzhenitsyn to express his admiration and appreciation for the author’s commitment to the pursuit of liberty in spite of the personal cost to himself and his family. 23 Soon the two men had established a friendship through their regular correspondence that was fueled by their mutual commitment to the principle that every human being should be free from the control of tyrants.
Just five months after he had first offered the words of Alexander Solzhenitsyn for his colleagues to consider, Senator Helms came before them again to introduce a bill requesting a Joint Resolution with the U.S. House of Representatives to grant Alexander Solzhenitsyn honorary citizenship. 24 This request, first presented on February 18, 1974 came just four days after the Soviet government had Solzhenitsyn removed by force from his home, stripped of his Soviet citizenship, put on a plane and sent into exile in West Germany. It is a measure of the extraordinary nature of this proposed joint resolution to note that previous to 1974 only one person, Winston Churchill, had been accorded this honor by the United States Congress.
In a personal letter dated March 1, 1974, Senator Helms wrote to tell Solzhenitsyn that he had tried to reach him by phone in order to greet him in the free world in his own name and in the name of his friends in the US Senate. Senator Helms relates his decision to offer the resolution and says that it has gained twenty-four co-sponsors. In this letter, the Senator went on to declare that Solzhenitsyn was now a citizen of the world who would soon feel at home in any country because millions of people had read his books and respected him as a great writer who had also become a symbol of freedom. 25
Senator Helms then extended his invitation for Solzhenitsyn to come to the United States, beginning with a stop in the mountains of North Carolina where he could rest for a few days before coming to Washington. 26
Solzhenitsyn responded on March 5th, expressing his gratitude for Helms’s support and his regret that he was unable travel to the United States because he needed to concentrate on his literary work. 27
Helms quickly replied by explaining that his invitation wasn’t merely social. It was Helms’s hope that the two of them could work together in helping people around the world find an orderly transition to freedom within their own cultural traditions. Since a personal visit was not possible at that time, the Senator asked if he might send Dr. Victor Fediay to meet with Solzhenitsyn in his new residence in Zurich. 28
Dr. Fediay spoke fluent Russian and had served as the translator for Helms previous correspondence with Solzhenitsyn. Now, he was authorized by Senator Helms to offer assistance to Solzhenitsyn in the form of providing resources for his writing research and to discuss areas of common concern that both the Senator and the author shared. Fediay’s personal background included two decades of service as a staff researcher for the Library of Congress, specializing in Russian and Eastern European affairs. 29
In June Helms wrote to thank Solzhenitsyn for receiving Dr. Fediay, and to relate the impact that The Gulag Archipelago was having on the American public. 30 This letter was hand delivered by Dr. Fediay. It was followed by correspondence in August in which Helms’ offered assistance in pursuit of Solzhenitsyn’s interest in making a movie based on his script about the 1954 uprising in Soviet concentration camps. Senator Helms closed that letter by expressing his appreciation for the autographed copy of The Gulag Archipelago which Solzhenitsyn had sent for him. 31
Work on the Joint Resolution for Honorary Citizenship continued into 1975 with Senator Helms once again introducing it, without co-sponsors, as S.J. Resolution 36 on February 24th and bringing it before the Senate on March 20 with the reminder that the Senate passed an identical bill in October of 1974. 32 This time the resolution was accompanied by a letter from Solzhenitsyn to the Senate thanking the Senators for their previous support in voting for the resolution and expressing his hope to visit the United States. This letter closed with a personal story from World War II. Solzhenitsyn told the Senators that the Russian soldiers with whom he served had a great curiosity about Americans and he personally almost had the opportunity to meet an American serving along the Elbe River. But the meeting never happened because the Communist authorities had separated him from his fellow soldiers and taken him away to face his first arrest. “Now,” Solzhenitsyn wrote,” thirty years later, it is as if I am given another opportunity for such a meeting (with Americans). I will be happy to make this meeting a reality.” 33
Representative Howard James of New Jersey offered the companion resolution, also without cosponsors, to the House of Representatives on March 13th. The bill, H.J.Res. 322, was referred to the House Judiciary Committee, as the 1974 version had been, and never brought to a vote by the full House. 34 An editorial in the Reading, Pennsylvania Eagle in November of 1974 spoke for many who respected Solzhenitsyn but believed that it was “premature if not presumptive” to put him in the company of Churchill, who was named an honorary citizen in 1963 and Lafayette who had been declared a citizen of Maryland in 1785, three years before Maryland officially became a state. 35 In 2002 the 107th Congress passed Public Law 107-209 to assure that Lafayette would always be recognized as an honorary citizen of the United States.
Solzhenitsyn’s opportunity to meet with Americans and the US Senate came in the summer of 1975 when he accepted an invitation from George Meany and the AFL-CIO to speak in Washington, DC on June 30th and in New York City on July 9th. When his plane from Zurich landed in Albany, New York on June 27th Solzhenitsyn was welcomed by Dr. Fediay, who took on the responsibility of translator and aide for much of the time Solzhenitsyn was in the United States. Because Solzhenitsyn did not like to fly that assistance included acting as personal chauffer.
Their first destination was the Virginia home of Senator Jesse Helms. This visit was not anticipated by the Senator, or by his wife Dorothy who had already left for North Carolina to be with family and await Senator Helms’ arrival for the 4th of July holiday. The surprise of seeing Solzhenitsyn did not dampen the welcome as the two men who had built a friendship through their letters and phone calls finally had the opportunity to simply sit and talk. The two men were joined that evening by Dr. Fediay and by George S Dunlop, Senator Helms’ next door neighbor and close associate. In speeches given shortly after this visit Senator Helms recalled some of his personal conversation with Solzhenitsyn, including his guest’s great concern that the US could not see the great danger of the advance of Communism.
Helms found Solzhenitsyn to be a man of remarkable intellect and great courage. They found much common ground around their mutual opposition to Communist rule in any nation. Their conversation touched on many topics including personal rights. Both of them felt that the freedom to worship was as basic as the freedom to speak openly without fear of reprisal. As they talked they recognized their shared faith as Christians. Their worship traditions, Russian Orthodox and Southern Baptist, were markedly different, but their trust in the power of God was identical.
That night, in the comfort of Senator Helms’ living room, Solzhenitsyn recounted a prison experience that he had previously shared with only those who were closest to him. The story so moved Senator Helms that he retold it many times, beginning with a speech he gave on July 25, 1975 where the guest of honor was Ronald Reagan. Others who heard or read the story, including author Charles Colson and evangelist Billy Graham have also retold it over the years. George S Dunlop, who was present as Solzhenitsyn spoke with Helms, says that this account from Senator Helms’ speech just weeks after he hosted Solzhenitsyn is completely accurate and reflects Senator Helms’ training and skill as a reporter. 36
Here is what Senator Helms said in that speech:
“The news accounts have failed, I fear, to emphasize the real source of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s courage and strength, which is his faith in God. He is, as Billy Graham discovered during a visit with Mr. Solzhenitsyn, a dedicated Christian.
Solzhenitsyn has told some of his closest friends of his personal renewal of faith on what he described as his darkest day of imprisonment in the concentration camp. “I was sitting that day,” he said, “wondering how this ordeal could be concluded with the finality of death.” It was then that a fellow prisoner, whose name he will never know, sat down beside Solzhenitsyn. Not a syllable was spoken by either of them – conversation was forbidden. But the fellow prisoner clutched a small stick which he had picked up along the road. And as the two sat together in silence, the fellow prisoner carefully scratched into the earth the symbol of the cross of salvation – the reminder that Jesus Christ of Nazareth died to give hope to mankind.
That simple little episode, Solzhenitsyn makes clear, restored his perspective. It gave him the renewed will to survive, to continue to try, to do his best to stand up – in whatever way he could—for freedom. His testimony, I would reiterate, is that no man is inadequate if he has true faith in God.” 37
A story like Solzhenitsyn’s is an encouragement to people of faith because such encounters are recognized and recounted as a sign of God’s presence at moments of crisis and danger, even imprisonment, throughout all of human history. For Helms, this story was an affirmation of his personal conviction that any attempt by Communists or any other tyrants to outlaw religion was doomed to failure, because God refused to be silenced.
While Solzhenitsyn was warmly welcomed at the Helms residence, gaining an invitation to the White House proved to quite a different matter. In a letter to President Gerald Ford on June 23rd Senator Helms and South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond explained that they had previously spoke with members of the President’s staff to let them know that Solzhenitsyn would be arriving in Washington for his speech on June 30th. The Senators wrote that in view of the Senate’s unanimous vote to accord Solzhenitsyn the tribute of honorary citizenship it would be fitting that he come to the White House to pay his respects to the President of the United States before addressing the American people in his first speech before the AFL-CIO which would also be his first major appearance in the US. 38
At the urging of Secretary of State Kissinger, President Ford opted against extending an invitation. 39 This snub of a public figure, a Nobel Prize winner whose words had been read by millions and whose courage was revered by many more millions who knew his story was widely criticized. It was widely reported that Kissinger believed that acknowledging Solzhenitsyn would anger the Soviets, likely setting back efforts at détente and creating a negative issue during Ford’s planned meeting with Premier Brezhnev in Moscow.
Helms took his concern to the floor of the Senate on July 7th, saying that he hoped the President himself was not personally involved in the decision and “the slap in the face to all freedom-loving people throughout the world who understand the nature of Communism.” 40 The next day he was back again to note the growing national dissatisfaction with the White House’s actions as evidenced in editorials and commentary. Helms then entered the full text of Solzhenitsyn’s Washington speech to the AFL-CIO into the Congressional Record along with an editorial from the Charlotte Observer saying “surely the spirit of détente is not so frail that it cannot survive a meeting of the American President with a man who symbolizes man kind’s highest yearnings for freedom.” 41
The White House excuses seemed to grow with the public criticism of the President’s decision. The staff scrambled for a rationale to explain the refusal. Ron Nessen, The President’s press secretary, carefully ignored the fact that the President’s door had been open to both the 1975 Cotton Queen and famed soccer player Pele among many others, explained that the President’s schedule was crowded. Then he said the President didn’t want to appear to be helping Solzhenitsyn sell his books. Next, he stated, “For image reasons the President likes to have some substance to his meetings. It is not clear what he would gain in a meeting with Solzhenitsyn.” 42
Historian Douglas Brinkley unwittingly added yet another excuse for the President’s decision in his biography of Gerald Ford, published in 2007. Apparently unaware that Senators Helms and Thurmond had jointly written to President Ford on June 23, after they had already spoken to White House staff members, Brinkley refers only to a 2nd letter from the Senators, written to the President after the Solzhenitsyn speech, to argue, “Unfortunately the White House failed to firmly enough cite the outrage against protocol of making demands on the President’s time with less than a half-week’s notice. Instead, as Ford himself would admit in his memoir, “I decided to subordinate political gains to foreign policy considerations.” 43
Solzhenitsyn’s supporters were not silenced by any of the excuses offered. They knew that the real issue was Kissinger’s insistence an invitation for Solzhenitsyn would scuttle a closer relationship with the writer’s former captors. After two weeks of growing criticism, The White House issued a statement saying that if Solzhenitsyn would ask for an appointment, the President would see him. Solzhenitsyn refused, just as he refused to be slipped into the White House in the company of a few Senators for an “unannounced” meeting with the President. 44
Recognizing the opinion of the majority of Americans who considered Solzhenitsyn a hero, a bi-partisan group of Senators, led by Henry “Scoop” Jackson, the Democratic Senator from Washington, hosted a reception for the author in the Russell Office Building. Addressing his audience of Senators, Representatives and private citizens Solzhenitsyn thanked the Senate for twice endeavoring to make him an honorary US citizen and saying he interpreted their efforts as a way to recognize the millions who had been deprived of their rights under Communist rule, including all those who had never been able to express their opinions in the press, in parliament or in international conferences. 45 The photo of Alexander Solzhenitsyn being warmly greeted as he arrived at the US Capitol was carried in newspapers across the county.
The following day the Secretary of State was quoted as saying that “Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s militant views are a threat to peace.” Kissinger went on to say that he had recommended that President Ford not meet with the author. 46 Kissinger charged that Solzhenitsyn advocated an aggressive policy to overthrow the Soviet system and added “I believe that if his views become the national policy of the United States we would be confronted with considerable threat of military conflict … I believe the consequences of his views would not be acceptable to the American people or the world. 47
Helms once again took to the Senate floor to challenge Kissinger’s version of Solzhenitsyn’s advocacy of aggression. Helms said Kissinger’s words revealed his “complete ignorance” of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s philosophy, adding, “Here is a Nobel Prize winner … a man who literally was willing to lay down his life in defense of freedom, who was oppressed in a concentration camp and our Secretary of State does not know enough about him to even characterize Mr. Solzhenitsyn accurately, fairly or properly.”
On August 2, 1975 President Ford and Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev met at the Soviet Embassy, Helsinki, Finland and signed an agreement that came to be known as the Helsinki Accords. Supporters of the agreement hailed it as a major step on the path to détente.
By this time Solzhenitsyn had returned to Zurich where he remained until he accepted an invitation from Stanford University to continue his work in Palo Alto, California. He took up residence on the Stanford campus in 1975. In 1976 he and his family relocated to Cavendish, Vermont where they remained for almost two decades. During his years in the United States, Solzhenitsyn continued to speak out against Communism, but he also warned the West about the danger he saw in a weakening moral fiber. These warnings drew him criticism, but just as he could not ignore what he had witnessed in the concentration camps decades earlier, he continued his campaign against materialism and pop culture. Solzhenitsyn felt that settling for that which was base and of no lasting value was a tragic waste of freedom that opened the way for an easy submission to the lies of Socialism and Communism. Addressing the members of the Class of 1978 at Harvard, Solzhenitsyn said, “After the suffering of decades of violence and oppression, the human soul longs for things higher, warmer and purer than those offered by today's mass living habits, introduced by the revolting invasion of publicity, by TV stupor and by intolerable music.” 48
Like Solzhenitsyn, Senator Helms continued to speak out against the threat of Communism in every part of the world. He remained in touch with his friend and ally and cited his words often in speeches of his own. While Solzhenitsyn for the most part took up the quiet life of a writer, Helms’ reputation as a US Senator continued to grow. He was recognized as a leading force in the growing conservative movement that was instrumental in the elections of Ronald Reagan and in gaining GOP majorities in the House and US Senate. In 1995 Senator Helms became Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In this role he was able to significantly influence US policy and appointments for US State Department positions. He was unfailingly cautious about those who advocated the kind of accommodations with Communist –led governments that were embodied in the failed détente agreements the US had signed during the Ford Administration.
In 1989 Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev established the policy of Glasnost or “openness.” In 1990 he restored Solzhenitsyn’s Soviet citizenship. The following year all of the treason charges made against Solzhenitsyn were dropped. With the Communist hold on the USSR officially ended in 1991, Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Russian homeland embarked at last on the path of freedom. After twenty years of exile, Solzhenitsyn and his family returned to their native Russia in 1994.
For both Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Senator Helms the collapse of the Communist government in the USSR in 1991, followed by the demise of the Communist governments in its European satellites was a great triumph. But both men recognized that this victory, while truly historic, was one more battle in an on-going contest being waged in every part of the world. While others moved on to other issues, both men remained steadfast in warning all who would listen to them that the war against the crimes of Communism could never be over as long as Communists sought to control the government of any nation.
Senator Jesse Helms served in the United States Senate for thirty years. Following his death on July 4, 2008, the United States Senate passed a unanimous resolution expressing their sorrow at his passing. That resolution noted among his many accomplishments the fact that he was “a leader against Communism and the first legislator of any nation to address the United Nations Security Council.” 49 News accounts around the world highlighted his fight against Communism and his friendship with those who stood against it, including Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The southern boy from Monroe, North Carolina had become a powerful force for the spread of freedom around the world and one of the most important political figures of his time.
One month later, on August 3, 2008, Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s life ended also. Lauded for his personal courage and his great body of literary works, the former prisoner who had been reviled by the Soviet government and forced into exile was now mourned by the Russian people and the Russian government along with admirers everywhere who recognized the power of his writing and his courage. Honored in 2007 with the State Prize of the Russian Federation for his humanitarian work, Solzhenitsyn was honored posthumously in 2009 when The Gulag Archipelago became required reading for all Russian high school students. This action would have pleased its author who once said, “I am of course confident that I will fulfill my tasks as a writer in all circumstances -- from my grave even more successfully and more irrefutably than in my lifetime. No one can bar the road to truth, and to advance its cause I am prepared to accept even death. But may it be that repeated lessons will finally teach us not to stop the writer's pen during his lifetime? At no time has this ennobled our history.” 50
At the close of his personal memoir, Senator Helms reflected on his lifelong battle against Communism and said, “… this much is sure: It was never a mistake to give our support to the person or group who did not embrace Communism rather than a person or faction who did. Communism has been tried and found wanting in countries around the world. In every case, the rule of Communism brought the death of dissidents, the banning of religion, the destruction of revered cultures and the devaluation of human life. … Communism is not truly dead.” 51
Current events have shown that Senator Helms and Alexander Solzhenitsyn knew exactly what they were talking about when they challenged those who value democratic freedoms to protect them at all costs. In the 21st century Communism is far from dead and the cruelty of Communist governments has not lessened. On February 24, 2010 reports of the death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, 42, came out of Cuba, where Fidel Castro officially declared his government Communist in 1965. Tamayo was arrested in 2003 for the crime of disrespecting the Communist Cuban government by daring to disagree with Castro’s policy and Communist philosophy. At the time of his death Tamayo, who had already been locked away for seven years, was in the 84th day of a hunger strike to protest brutal prison conditions. This one man, arrested for disrespect, the same charge used to send Alexander Solzhenitsyn to prison in 1945, represented many hundreds of thousands of political prisoners who remain in captivity in China, North Korea, Viet Nam and North Korea.
Knowing the depth of Solzhenitsyn and Helms’ concern for those who were oppressed, we can safely assume that if they could speak to us now they would urge the citizens of the free nations of the world to come together now as they did then to do all possible to eliminate the oppressive power of Communism.
1. The archives of the Jesse Helms Center in Wingate, North Carolina provide a rich resource of previously unavailable correspondence, writing, speeches, Senatorial papers and news clips from which historians and political scientists will benefit for decades to come. It is from those archives that we are now able find information that allows us to understand both why Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Jesse Helms are solidly linked in the political history of the 20th Century.
2. From Nobel Lectures, Literature 1968-1980, Editor-in-Charge Tore Frängsmyr, Editor Sture Allén, World Scientific Publishing Co., Singapore, 1993.
3. Helms, Jesse, Here’s Where I Stand (New York: Random House, 2005) pgs.14-18.
4. Nobel Lectures.
5. Nobel Lectures.
6. Moritz, Charles, ed., Current Biography Yearbook 1961-1969 (New York: H.W. Wilson, 1969) pg. 410.
7. Helms, pg. 26.
8. Nobel Lectures.
9. Link, William, Righteous Warrior (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2008) pg. 47.
10. Helms, pg. 45.
11. Helms, pg. 51.
12. Nobel Lectures.
13. Nobel Lectures.
14. Nobel Lectures.
15. From Les Prix Nobel en 1970, Editor Wilhelm Odelberg, [Nobel Foundation], Stockholm, 1971.
16. Solzhenitsyn, Alekandr, The Gulag Archipelago (New York: Harper, 1985) Foreword pg. xvii.
17. Helms, pg. 50.
18. Helms, pg.58.
19. Helms, pg.85.
20. Helms, Jesse Alexander Papers, Speeches, September 1, 1973, Jesse Helms Center Archives, Wingate, North Carolina.
22. Congressional Record, 93rd Congress, 10 September, 1973 E5641-E5642.
23. Helms, Jesse Alexander Papers, Correspondence, March 1, 1974, Jesse Helms Center Archives, Wingate, North Carolina.
24. Congressional Record, 93rd Congress, 2 February, 1974 S1656-S1659.
25. Helms, Jesse Alexander Papers, Personal Correspondence, March 1, 1974, Jesse Helms Center Archives, Wingate, North Carolina.
26. Helms, Jesse Alexander Papers, Personal Correspondence, March 5, 1974, Jesse Helms Center Archives, Wingate, North Carolina.
27. Helms, Jesse Alexander Papers, Personal Correspondence, March 15, 1974, Jesse Helms Center Archives, Wingate, North Carolina.
29. “Victor Fediay, Researcher, Lobbyist Dies, Washington Post, July 22, 1993.
30. Helms, Jesse Alexander Papers, Personal Correspondence, June 21, 1974, Jesse Helms Center Archives, Wingate, North Carolina.
31. Helms, Jesse Alexander Papers, Personal Correspondence, August 15, 1974, Jesse Helms Center Archives, Wingate, North Carolina.
32. Library of Congress, Bill Status and Summaries, 94th Congress (1975-76).
33. Congressional Record, 94rd Congress, 20 March, 1975 S4176.
34. Library of Congress, Bill Status and Summaries, 94th Congress (1975-76).
35. US Citizenship is Cherished Prize, Reading Eagle, November 23, 1974, pg.4.
36. George S Dunlop, telephone interview with the author, September, 2009; email correspondence, February 26, 2010.
37. Helms, Jesse Alexander Papers, Speech, July 25, 1975, Jesse Helms Center Archives, Wingate, North Carolina.
38. Helms, Jesse Alexander Papers, Personal Correspondence, June 23, 1975, Jesse Helms Center Archives, Wingate, North Carolina.
39.“Ford Not Planning to Meet Solzhenitsyn” Los Angeles Times, July 2, 1975, pg B19.
40. Congressional Record, 94th Congress, 7 July, 1975.
41. Congressional Record, 94th Congress, 8 July, 1975.
42. “Solzhenitsyn Visit Rejected by Ford, White House Says”, The Palm Beach Post, July 3, 1975, pg A2.
43. Brinkley, Douglas, Gerald R. Ford, (New York: Times Books 2007) Pg. 108.
44. Link, pg. 143.
45. Congressional Record, 94th Congress, 15 July, 1975.
46. Congressional Record, 94th Congress, 16 July, 1975 S12853.
47. “Kissinger Sees Perils in Solzhenitsyn's Views; Secretary Says Meeting with President Would Have Been 'Disadvantageous' to Détente” New York Times, July 17, 1975, pg. 10.
48. Solzhenitsyn, Alexander “A World Split Apart” speech delivered 8 June 1978, Harvard University.
49. Congressional Record, 111th Congress, 31 July, 2008 S7884.
50. Solzhenitsyn, Alexander, Open Letter to the 4th Soviet Writers’ Congress, 16 May, 1967.
51. Helms, pg. 266.
By Estelle Snyder,
See Also:Related Categories: Religion, Modern Era, Political History