by Bradley W. Anderson
When the Russian writer and dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn at long last decided to allow his reclusive privacy in Vermont to be invaded by theNew York Timesfor a 1980 interview, he did so under one condition: he would speak only to one man at theTimes: Hilton Kramer, their chief art critic. It was an unusual request, since there were any number of literary or foreign-affairs experts who would have been more logical choices from the perspective of theTimes. Solzhenitsyn was perhaps the most famous and unapologetic Russian Orthodox Christian in the world, and yet he chose, as the one man he trusted at theNew York Times, a not particularly religious man.
What mattered was that Kramer’s reputation for honesty had preceded him, making him someone Solzhenitsyn could depend on to tell the truth—something Solzhenitsyn, too, valued above all other qualities. Sealing the deal was perhaps Kramer’s review ofThe Gulag Archipelagoin theTimesa couple of years prior. From that essay alone, Solzhenitsyn would have known that Kramer believed what was told in theGulag—a story of systematic and decades-long terror in the Soviet Union going back to the earliest days of the Bolshevik revolution.
Perhaps just as importantly, Solzhenitsyn knew from Kramer’s other writings on art and culture that he was no jingoistic booster of whatever America and the West happened to be up to at the moment. Kramer rather shared the Russian author’s skeptical view of where Western culture was headed—deep into a world of nihilism, unbelief, and cultural decadence. While each was coming from a different vantage point—Solzhenitsyn from without, Kramer from within—both were observing the phenomenon and critiquing it with tools fashioned from the flotsam and jetsam of a disintegrating culture