EconTalk host Russ Roberts continues to share his Solzhenitsyn journey with us in this episode, welcoming Princeton University historian Stephen Kotkin to talk about his recent essay in the Times Literary Supplement. Kotkin, known as a biographer of Stalin, examines the influence of individuals in history versus larger, impersonal forces. That is, how would Soviet history be different had Solzhenitsyn’s work not reached the audiences it did?

The conversation ends with a moving exchange about the complexities of such larger than life historical figures- some of them our heroes. Kotkin’s reflections on “being in Stalin’s head” and Russ’s willingness to accept Solzhenitsyn’s apparent personal flaws both gave me pause to reflect. I hope they will for you, too.


1- Why did The Gulag Archipeligo have a greater worldwide influence than the novels for which Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel, according to Kotkin? (Have you read Solzhenitsyn? Which work(s)? Which had the greatest impact on you?)


2- Kotkin describes Solzhenitsyn’s interactions with the Soviet regime, and Roberts asks, “Why didn’t they kill him?” How does Kotkin respond? In retrospect, do you think Stalin and his peers regretted that decision? Why?


3- Why does Kotkin believe there has been a renewal of interest in Solzhenitsyn? Kotkin and Roberts note that what Solzhenitsyn seemed to want for post-Soviet Russia made many Westerners uncomfortable. How do you think this might be related to Solzhenitsyn’s resurgence today?


4- Roberts ask Kotkin about the extent to which Stalin’s reputation is on the rise today, particularly in Russia. Is Stalin having a “comeback,” and if so, to what extent should we find this concerning?


Bonus question for those who have read In the First Circle and seen The Death of Stalin… How does Solzhenitsyn’s portrait of Stalin in the novel compare to that of the film? To what extent are you bothered by these portrayals, and why? To what extent do you find them humorous?