When Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn died 10 years ago (in 2008) at age 89, men and women of conscience in every country mourned the passing of a towering figure. His unending courage in the face of brutal tyranny was astonishing. His prolific contributions to Russian literature earned him a Nobel Prize, while his bravery on behalf of freedom gained him the gratitude of oppressed peoples everywhere.
At great risk to themselves, some people muster the courage to speak truth to power. In a world teeming and cursed with the corrupt and power-besotted, that’s a supremely admirable quality. We should hope and pray for a lot more of it. Solzhenitsyn confronted power with truth until that power literally dissolved.
His revelations gave President Ronald Reagan all the ammunition he needed to brand the Soviet regime an “Evil Empire.” Another Nobel laureate in Literature, Peru’s Mario Vargas Llosa, declared,
The extraordinary political and intellectual feat of Solzhenitsyn was to emerge from the hell of a concentration camp to tell the story in books whose moral and documentary force has no parallel in modern history.
December 11, 2018, will mark the centennial of Solzhenitsyn’s birth—a perfect occasion to once again celebrate his remarkable legacy.
"So Were We Any Better?"
Soviet communism had just marked its first birthday when Solzhenitsyn was born. He grew up knowing nothing else. During World War II, while in his mid-20s, he fought in the Red Army against the Nazi German invasion—for which he was twice decorated. His war-time service, when he witnessed Soviet atrocities against both soldiers and civilians, led him to start questioning the moral legitimacy of the Soviet regime and the Marxist ideology upon which it rested. Recalling this time many years later, he wrote:
There is nothing that so assists the awakening of omniscience within us as insistent thoughts about one’s own transgressions, errors, mistakes. After the difficult cycles of such ponderings over many years, whenever I mentioned the heartlessness of our highest-ranking bureaucrats, the cruelty of our executioners, I remember myself in my Captain’s shoulder boards and the forward march of my battery through East Prussia, enshrouded in fire, and I say: So were we any better?
Being a very thoughtful and introspective intellectual, Solzhenitsyn could not dismiss what he saw as simply the failure of a few bad people. He sensed something rotten in the system itself. And of course, he was right. Bad people are everywhere, but nothing brings them forth and licenses them to do evil more thoroughly than concentrated power and the subordination of morality to the service of a statist ideology.
Even before the war ended, he ventured a few critical comments about the system in letters to a friend, which fell into the hands of the authorities and led to his arrest. For his thoughts, he was incarcerated. He endured nearly a decade in the hard-labor camps he later christened The Gulag Archipelago in the title of his most famous work.
Beating Labor Camps, Cancer, Ricin, and Exile
In an October 2017 essay noting the centennial of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, I wrote about a particularly notable experience that deeply affected Solzhenitsyn. A fellow inmate at the Ekibastuz prison camp, a recent convert to Christianity named Boris Kornfeld, imparted a few kind words and personal attention. Solzhenitsyn would later credit Kornfeld with giving him enormous mental and spiritual strength.
After his release in 1953, Solzhenitsyn was forced into three years of internal exile. He endured (and recovered from) a deadly cancer. Quietly, he spurned Marxism and its progeny, communism and socialism. He became a convert to Eastern Orthodox Christianity. He reflected on his wartime and prison experiences. And he began to write, though only one of his many full-length books was ever allowed to be printed in the Soviet Union, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, though Soviet authorities would not permit him to leave the country to accept it.
The secret police raided his living quarters, seized his papers, and interrogated his associates, one of whom hanged herself afterward.
All of his books, short stories, and poems are literary gems and/or historical masterpieces, but none surpasses The Gulag Archipelago in importance to the world. It remains a gripping account of life in the vast network of Soviet prison camps where people were enslaved, overworked, tortured, and killed for—in many cases—nothing more than opposing socialism, communism, Stalin, the Party, or some other aspect of the vaunted “workers’ paradise.” It’s been described as “an unrelenting indictment of communist ideology.” Terror was the modus operandi from its founding philosophical father Karl Marx to his acolytes in Russia, Lenin and Stalin.
Solzhenitsyn secretly labored on the manuscript for ten years, from 1958 to 1968. Then he had to solve the problem of how to get it smuggled out of the country for publication. Soviet authorities were keeping an eye on him 24/7. In August 1971, he was poisoned with the deadly toxin ricin, but he survived. More than once, the secret police raided his living quarters, seized his papers, and interrogated his associates, one of whom hanged herself afterward. Fortunately, he had produced more than one copy, so even after the police had confiscated one, he was eventually able to get another spirited to Paris, where it was published in 1973.
Much credit is due to the famous cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who sheltered Solzhenitsyn in the early 1970s and was later expelled from Russia because of it. Every so often, I watch the YouTube video of Rostropovich playing Bach’s cello suites to remind myself of what a great man he was, too.
In His Own Words
The book was an instant sensation, and the rest is great history. The Soviet Union would never be the same. It disappeared less than 20 years later under the weight of its own inherent evil, from the challenge of domestic opposition emboldened in part by Solzhenitsyn and because of international pressure from Westerners including Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II.
"Is it permissible merely to carry out orders and commit one’s conscience to someone else’s keeping?"
Solzhenitsyn was arrested and expelled from the Soviet Union in early 1974. He settled in the US (in Vermont), where he resided for almost 20 years. In 1994, he returned to a post-communist Russia, where he lived out his remaining days until his death in 2008. Since 2009, Gulag has been mandatory reading as part of the curriculum in Russian schools.
In his honor, I devote the balance of this essay to some of my favorite words of Solzhenitsyn himself.
From a February 2003 Interview with Joseph Pearce, Sr., published in the St. Austin Review:
In different places over the years I have had to prove that socialism, which to many western thinkers is a sort of kingdom of justice, was in fact full of coercion, of bureaucratic greed and corruption and avarice, and consistent within itself that socialism cannot be implemented without the aid of coercion.
Communist propaganda would sometimes include statements such as "we include almost all the commandments of the Gospel in our ideology." The difference is that the Gospel asks all this to be achieved through love, through self-limitation, but socialism only uses coercion.
From The Gulag Archipelago:
If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?....
This is surely the main problem of the twentieth century: Is it permissible merely to carry out orders and commit one’s conscience to someone else’s keeping? Can a man do without ideas of his own about good and evil, and merely derive them from the printed instructions and verbal orders of his superiors? Oaths! Those solemn pledges pronounced with a tremor in the voice and intended to defend the people against evildoers: see how easily they can be misdirected to the service of evildoers and against the people!
From The First Circle (1968):
For a country to have a great writer is like having a second government. That is why no regime has ever loved great writers, only minor ones.
From his Nobel lecture (printed version, since it was not personally delivered for reasons explained above):
Woe to that nation whose literature is disturbed by the intervention of power. Because that is not just a violation against "freedom of print," it is the closing down of the heart of the nation, a slashing to pieces of its memory. The nation ceases to be mindful of itself, it is deprived of its spiritual unity, and despite a supposedly common language, compatriots suddenly cease to understand one another.
And finally, this profound warning from The Gulag Archipelago:
Oh, Western freedom-loving “left-wing” thinkers! Oh, left-wing laborists! Oh, American, German and French progressive students! All of this is still not enough for you. The whole book has been useless for you. You will understand everything immediately, when you yourself — "hands behind the back"—toddle into our Archipelago.