Reflections on the Gulag Archipelago

Life is filled with suffering, and suffering is magnified and multiplied by the endless stream of malevolence. I am discovering this first hand as my mother lies in a hospital bed beside me, a victim of a violent assault. It’s the act of evil committed upon the innocent that shatters us the most. No one is immune. The arbitrary nature of evil cannot be denied. It is self evident as there is no shortage of examples. Having acknowledged this fact, the question that each and everyone of us should ask ourselves is: how should one walk in the face of such evil?

While I sat beside my unconscious mother, I read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, a mammoth Nobel prize-winning book written by a Russian dissident who suffered at the hands of a brutal Communist regime. Solzhenitsyn was a soldier who had served in the Second World War. While fighting against the German army, he witnessed first hand the atrocities committed by the Red Army against German and east European civilians. The looting and raping of civilians by his comrades were the first cracks in Solzhenitsyn’s long held illusion about the rulers of his motherland. Very soon he would be sent to a series of labor camps. He was convicted for his criticism of Stalin in a private letter to a classmate; the sentence was eleven years. For eleven years he would suffer like the lowest form of animal, working away like a beast without limits, and scratching away at every crumb he received whilst barely able to keep himself warm in the coldest hell on earth.

Solzhenitsyn had every reason to hate his captors. He had every reason to feel victimized and plot revenge. After all, he was an innocent man wrongly convicted for speaking the truth. But he did something that would go beyond victimism and scapegoating. He looked within himself. He searched his life and looked for how he might have contributed to the creation of such a regime that had imprisoned him.

It took him time spent inside a series of labor camps to realize that the degradation of the society and state goes hand in hand with the degradation of the individual. When the Russian Revolution erupted, many innocent lives were lost at the hands of furious mobs acting at the behest of the ‘oppressed’ people. This coincided with the massive loss of lives on the battlefields of the First World War. Before the revolution, and before the hypnotic frenzy of the crowd, Russia had been a flawed but thoroughly-devout and traditional country. She was soon to be fed from Europe an overwhelming amount of socialist and utopian ideas. The import of radical socialist ideology came after a combination of liberalism and nihilism supplanted the traditional axiom of Orthodoxy that had held the country together. Fyodor Dostoevsky would write about this era of nihilistic movements in its embryonic form in his novel Demons.

Dostoevsky argued that for a morally-upright society (or a society striving for moral uprightness) to sustain itself, it must have a foundation that is not only firm, but also transcendent (“transcendent” meaning that even Kings and Queens must subject themselves to it). For Dostoevsky, that foundation had to be God. Once that foundation is removed, the ground becomes ripe for artificial religion, i.e. hateful ideologies, to grow and spread like wildfire. Man is an innately religious animal, and he must have an axiom by which to live and exist, either devouringly or fruitfully.

That is why Solzhenitsyn echoed Dostoevsky when he said the following:

“…But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous revolution that swallowed up some 60 million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.”

What does it mean to not forget God? What does it mean to follow God? That is an interesting question, and it is closely tied to the first question about walking in the face of evil. The recognition of evil, the discovery that malevolence is when one subjects another to his/her version of an inferior man-made existence, is closely tied to what Jesus unraveled on the cross. And this unraveling of evil on the cross gives birth to conduct that treats the other, not as a piano key or spoke of a wheel, but as a worthy individual capable of having autonomy — a unique individual created in God’s own image. Ideology does not provide this way of conduct; it gives us the reverse. Ideology dismisses the individual’s true stature as an expression of divinity, and attempts to squeeze the individual into its utopian vision, with or without consent. This collective, coercive way of the world leads to tyranny. It leads to the Soviet Union and its gulag system.

Solzhenitsyn wrote about ideology,

“Macbeth’s self-justifications were feeble – and his conscience devoured him. Yes, even Iago was a little lamb, too. The imagination and spiritual strength of Shakespeare’s evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Ideology—that is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination. That is the social theory which helps to make his acts seem good instead of bad in his own and others’ eyes, so that he won’t hear reproaches and curses but will receive praise and honors. That was how the agents of the Inquisition fortified their wills: by invoking Christianity; the conquerors of foreign lands, by extolling the grandeur of their Motherland; the colonizers, by civilization; the Nazis, by race; and the Jacobins (early and late), by equality, brotherhood, and the happiness of future generations…. Without evildoers there would have been no Archipelago.”

To impose one’s worldview on another is to forget God. For ages, men have tried to bring about good by evil, violent means. Thieves try to provide by theft. Murderers try to fulfill life by killing. Politicians try to solve by scapegoating. Generals try to bring peace through war. Jesus called this “satan trying to cast out satan.” While it may have worked before during pagan times, it works no longer because of the crucifixion at Calvary. The memory that men had once lynched the innocent Son of God haunts us to ends of the earth. The face of Christ is etched on the countless men, women, and children we sacrifice in war, clinics, and prisons for the sustaining of fragile society.

But the question still remains: how must we conduct ourselves? It begins with the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus sets a precedent for us: resist not evil with evil. The act of turning the other cheek is a recognition of the autonomy of the other person. Not only that, it is also the recognition that the attacker is bitterly fighting a war within himself. The decision to not reciprocate violence with more violence urges the attacker to introspect and encourages him/her to find the Christ within.

Solzhenitsyn wrote,

“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 through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. 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.”

Solzhenitsyn also urged us to live not by lies. The greatest lie is the idea that we can bring about good from evil, that peace can come from violence. The Soviet Union believed this lie, and its leaders thought constantly and morbidly that they were only one execution away from utopia — one labor camp away from a worker’s paradise. Likewise, the motto of the concentration camps in Nazi Germany was: ‘Work will set you free.’ The perversion of reality, that is the lie preached by authoritarian cults all around the world.

Solzhenitsyn summed this up perfectly:

“Violence can only be concealed by a lie, and the lie can only be maintained by violence… Any man, who has once proclaimed violence as his Method, is inevitably forced to take the lie as his principle.”

After years of inhumane suffering in the camps, Solzhenitsyn was diagnosed with cancer. He fought and won this battle too. Years and years of living in the very depths of hell had transformed him. Earlier, he had already compared himself to the camp guards who ran the gulags, and concluded that he was once, when serving in the Red Army, no different than them. But he could no longer keep living in a lie. He had to speak the truth. He began by jotting down his own account of time spent in the gulags, and at the same time, he began collecting testimonies from hundreds of eye witnesses. He had already demonstrated a remarkable ability to memorize when he composed a poem comprising of thousands of verses whilst living in the gulags.

In 1962, a novel called One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was published in the Novy Mir magazine. It detailed a single day of a gulag inmate. The horrors of camp life became vivid in the eyes of readers across Russia. The book became enormously popular. It also earned Solzhenitsyn the wrathful eye of the totalitarian state watchdogs. Many attempts were made by the KGB to confiscate the manuscripts of his unpublished works, but by now the Gulag Archipelago had already been completed, translated, and distributed in the west. The party could no longer tolerate Solzhenitsyn; he became a non-person and was finally exiled from the country of his birth.

In 1970, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He lived in the United States, and returned to Russia in 1994 after the communist government had fallen.

Solzhenitsyn used the greatest weapon of all: Truth. The truth need not be accompanied by violence. It is powerful of its own accord. It has the strength to bring down empires. Solzhenitsyn wrote nothing but the truth about what his country was going through and what he was going through. He spoke truth about others, but most of all, he spoke truth to himself. In today’s world of superficiality, it is often the trend to lie to oneself. In the lies we tell ourselves, we claim that since we have only one life we should live for the moment. We drown in our own materialism and hedonism. We trap ourselves in the prison that calls itself pleasure island. We waste away without meaning, without purpose, and the best we can come up with is the wagging of fingers and waving of placards. Solzhenitsyn said otherwise. His message transcends the superficiality of our times. Against materialism, he argued for a Stoic approach to life and finding contentment. Against finger pointing and blaming others, he encouraged a life of continued death and rebirth, for before taking on the world one must first sort himself out.

The tyranny of compulsion still exists today. Society still goes by the principle of might makes right. The lie of sacrificial violence is well and alive, but it is loosing its stranglehold on humanity thanks to the revelation of the cross. As Christians, we would do well to further the demon of state tyranny on its way to hell. We would do well to demotivate the culture of violence in society by being shining lights of peace ourselves. We can start following Solzhenitsyn’s example. We can stop telling lies and start telling the truth whilst carrying the burden of existence.

“You can resolve to live your life with integrity. Let your credo be this: Let the lie come into the world, let it even triumph. But not through me.”

As I wait in the hospital for my mother to regain consciousness, I decide to start small. There is no point in revenge; nothing becomes better by doing that. I have to be a better son than I was before, and I have to find meaning through responsibility. Start small, like taking care of your loved ones, and healing those nearby who are in great pain. Truth and beauty goes hand in hand. Together, they provide meaning by which we can weather the storm, and in all of this, there is an abundance of freedom as only God can provide.

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