ALEXANDER SOLZHENITSYN AND THE GULAG
12 Δεκεμβρίου 2009
I will speak first of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. His is a typical Soviet life. Born one year after the Revolution, he lost his father in World War I, studied mathematics in order to get a job, served as a soldier in World War II, was with the Soviet army in Germany, then was arrested in 1945 for writing disrespectful remarks about Stalin in private letters and received a “mild” sentence for this—eight years. At the end of his sentence in 1953 he was further sentenced to exile for life in southern Kazakhstan, at the edge of the desert. He contracted cancer there and nearly died from it, but was healed in a cancer clinic. In exile he taught math and physics in primary school and wrote prose in secret. He was rehabilitated in the de-Stalinization era and his first book was published in Russia in 1961. His other books were not published in Russia, but their publication outside Russia made him a troublesome celebrity for the Soviet authorities. In 1970 he received the Nobel Prize for literature, and in 1975 was forcibly exiled to the West, where until now he has continued to write novels and speak to the West about the meaning of the Soviet experience in Russia. In the course of his sufferings and imprisonment he came to Christian faith and is an Orthodox believer.
Now living outside of Russia (in Vermont), Solzhenitsyn in one sense is almost a symbol of the contemporary Orthodox revival in Russia. Born with the Revolution, he underwent the sixty years of suffering of the Russian people and emerged a victor, with a strong Christian faith and a message for the world based on his experience. Most of what Russia has to tell s today in the free world can be seen in Solzhenitsyn. Here I will try to speak of the main points of this message, drawn not from his fiction, but from his public addresses and articles.
First of all, Solzhenitsyn has told us about Gulag.
Of course, many spoke of the Soviet slave system before Solzhenitsyn, but the world did not listen. Only in recent years has the world been ready to hear of this frightful reality which Solzhenitsyn has described with tremendous power.
He speaks of Gulag not merely as the prison system of one modern country, but as the logical end of the whole of modern history once God has been removed from men’s lives. This is not merely a “Russian” experiment—it is the end of all peoples who remove God from the center of life. And Gulag is an essential part of atheist society—if you remove it, the Soviet system itself will crumble. Atheism is based on the evil in man’s nature, and Gulag is only the natural expression of this. Russia’s experience with Gulag is for the whole of humanity, and no one should presume to comment on the nature and meaning of modern history until he has read this book.
But most of all I want to speak about an almost paradoxical second aspect of Gulag: it reveals the evil of man’s nature and the folly of the modern dream of earthly happiness—but at the same time it is also a starting place for man’s spiritual rebirth, the condition which makes the spiritual rebirth of Russia so much more profound than the various “spiritual revivals” of the free world. Solzhenitsyn himself describes this in Part II of The Gulag Archipelago:
“It has granted me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience: how a human being becomes evil and how good. In the intoxication of my youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer, and an oppressor. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. And it was only wen I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first strivings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and then all human hearts… And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains… an unuprooted small corner of evil.”3
How much deeper is this observation than anything we in the West could say based on our own experience. And why is it deeper? —Because it is based on suffering, and that is the reality of the human condition and the beginning of true spiritual life. Christ came to a life of suffering and the Cross, and the experience in Russia enables those who undergo it to see this profoundly. That is why the Christian revival in Russia is so deep.
And what of us in the West, and particularly in America? Do we have any image that explains our situation as well as Gulag does that of Russia? I am afraid there is an image, most unflattering to us, which is almost our equivalent of Gulag. It is “Disneyland”—an image which exemplifies our carefree love of “fun” (a most un-Christian word!), our lack of seriousness, our living in a literal fool’s paradise, unaware or barely aware of the real meaning and seriousness of life.
Anyone who has met or read the writings of people who come from the USSR and other Communist countries, cannot but notice how serious—sometimes to the point of grimness—these people are. I am not saying that we should be grim like that—that would be fakery on our part—but only that we should realize that our experience in freedom and prosperity has to a great extent crippled us spiritually, and that therefore we must expose ourselves to and take deeply to heart the message of men like Solzhenitsyn. We must study the Gulag and make it, to the extent we can, a part of our own experience.
Don’t Live by Lies!
Another part of Solzhenitsyn’s message to us is contained in the title of one of his essays written in the Soviet Union: “Don’t Live by Lies!” This is his answer to the Gulag and to the dead-end of Soviet society in general: a new revolution will not save Russia—only a spiritual change now in each person can hope to do this. The single most difficult thing to bear in the Soviet State, as many have testified, is the lie of it all—not just the daily propaganda or the constant falsification of history, but the daily dishonesty and lack of sincerity produced by fear of the all-powerful State and by cooperation (willing or unwilling) with the lie (the working for a socialist “paradise”) that is the basis of the whole Soviet system.
In the West we also have some experience of this phenomenon of the daily lie, when our relationships with others are governed more by our need to get ahead or put something over on someone. This is a product of the growing cold of Christianity. For us also a big part of our Christian life is the restoration of truthfulness in daily life. But probably we do not love the truth as much as people do in Russia—because w have not experienced the enormity of the lie which is the Soviet system.
Back to the Earth
Still another part of Solzhenitsyn’s message is often interpreted by his critics as “romanticism,” and it is probably the least understood of all that he has to say. He wishes to restore a human element to modern life, which has produced inhuman cities in the name of “progress.” In his Letter to the Soviet Leaders he speaks eloquently against the “poisoned zone of asphalt and gasoline” in Russian cities, the imitation Western skyscrapers, the “contaminated belts of wasteland around our industrial centers,” and urges a return to a “non-progressive economy,” to old-fashioned “towns made for people, horses, dogs,” and a return to the “supreme asset of all peoples”—the earth.
Of course, all this is not romanticism at all, but common sense which becomes more evident with each day, as the exhaustion of the world’s resources and the contamination of the environment with industrial wastes becomes ever more disastrous. Many sensitive people in the West, including small communities of Orthodox Christians, have already seen the necessity for a slower-paced, more human life outside the big cities with their artificial atmosphere which is a hindrance to Christian warmheartedness and truthfulness. The situation of our own American farmers—who also feed many people abroad—with the declining number of farmers and the fact that farms are becoming less and less humanly attractive, could well give us cause to worry that we also are not using wisely the resources of our own American earth.
Gulag is Coming Here
And a final part of Solzhenitsyn’s message to us: What has happened in Russia is coming to the West. America and the free West must also face this universal anti-Christian phenomenon of state atheism and its Gulag. This is the message Solzhenitsyn has given in his American addresses, such as that at the Harvard commencement in 1978, where he castigated America for its loss of will, its love of pleasure, its satisfaction with legalism in human relations. Let me quote here a few passages from another address he gave in 1975, before the meeting of the AFL-CIO in New York City:
“Is it possible or impossible to transmit the experience of those who have suffered to those who have yet to suffer? Can one part of humanity learn from the bitter experience of another or can it not? Is it possible or impossible to warn someone of danger?… The proud skyscrapers stand on, point to the sky and say: it will never happen here. This will never come to us. It’s not possible here… Humanity acts in such a way is if it didn’t understand what Communism is, and doesn’t want to understand, is not capable of understanding… The essence of Communism is quite beyond the limits of human understanding. Its hard to believe that people could actually plan such things and carry them out…
“Communism has infected the whole world with the belief in the relativity of good and evil… Among enlightened people it is considered rather awkward to use seriously such words as ‘good’ and ‘evil.’ Communism has managed to instill in all of us that these concepts are old-fashioned concepts and laughable. But if we are to be deprived of the concepts of good and evil, what will be left? Nothing but the manipulation of one another. We will decline to the status of animals.
“That which is against Communism is for humanity. To reject this inhuman Communist ideology is simply to be a human being… It’s a protest of our souls against those who tell us to forget the concepts of good a evil…
“I understand that you love freedom, but in our crowded world you have to pay a tax for freedom. You cannot love freedom just for yourself and quietly agree to a situation where the majority of humanity over the greater part of the globe is being subjected to violence and oppression.
“Yet when one travels in your country and sees your free and independent life, all the dangers which I talked about today indeed seem imaginary. I’ve come a talked to people, and I see this is so. In your wide open spaces even I get a little infected. The dangers seem a little imaginary. On this continent it is hard to believe all the things that are happening in the world. But gentlemen, this carefree life cannot continue in your country or in ours. The fates of our two countries are going to be extremely difficult, and it is better to prepare for this beforehand…
“Two processes are occurring in the world today. One is a process of spiritual liberation in the USSR and the other Communist countries. The second is the assistance being extended by the West to the Communist rulers, a process of concessions, of détente, of yielding whole countries.
“We are slaves there from birth, but we are striving for freedom. You however, were born free. If so, then why do you help our slave owners?”4
The message of Solzhenitsyn, then, is addressed directly to America: wake up, learn from those who have suffered, return to the religious and moral roots of humanity, stand firmly in the good and against evil. This is all very correct and very important, but it is not yet the heart of what contemporary Orthodox Russia has to say to the Orthodox of America and the West. To get to this heart of the matter, I will now turn to another central figure of Russia’s Orthodox revival.