Tuesday, May 28, 2024


The Gulag Archipelago: An Experiment in Literary Investigation first appeared in Western languages in 1974, fifty years ago, in three volumes. I bought it and read it as soon as I could. I already had some sense of the inhumanity of  Communism but Solzhenitsyn certainly solidified my anti-Communism. Some regimes need to be destroyed. But Solzhenitsyn, based on his own experience in the GULAG, had also gained spiritual insight. Gary Saul Morson on the most important chapter in the book:
“Here is how it was with many others, not just with me,” Solzhenitsyn explains. One’s first prison experience resembles the sky over Pompeii or the heaven of the Last Judgment “because it was not just anyone who had been arrested, but I—the center of this world.” One thought occurs to everyone: one must vow to survive at any price. And one soon realizes what that means: “at the price of someone else.”
And whoever takes that vow...allows his own misfortune to overshadow both the entire common misfortune and the whole world.

This is the great fork of camp life. From this point the roads go to the right and to the left. One of them will rise and the other will descend. If you go to the right—you lose your life, and if you go the left—you lose your conscience.
Solzhenitsyn concedes that at that fork, “at that greater divider of souls,” most choose survival. ....

Although most prisoners chose survival, many chose conscience, and Solzhenitsyn describes a few he met. They all knew that, according to official Bolshevik atheism, there are no transcendent values. Lenin and his followers scorned such ideas as “human dignity” and the “sanctity of human life.” No, Soviet citizens were taught, only the material result counted, and that meant the only moral standard was the interest of the Communist Party. People who accepted this way of thinking readily concluded that, on the individual level, too, all that matters is what promotes one’s own welfare.

Choosing conscience meant rejecting such thinking. You gradually recognize that “It is not the result that counts...but the spirit! Not what—but how.” You begin to change. Instead of being sharply intolerant, you begin to forgive. “You have come to realize your own weakness—and you can therefore understand the weakness of others.” In short, “you are ascending.”

“Your soul, which formerly was dry, now ripens from suffering.” For the first time, you examine your life sincerely and “remember everything you did that was bad and shameful.” Solzhenitsyn recalls how, when he was in the hospital, the deeply wise Dr. Kornfeld, a convert to Christianity, explained to him that although you are innocent of the crime for which you were imprisoned, “if you go over your life with a fine-tooth comb and ponder it deeply,” you will be able to find real transgressions worthy of such punishment. As it happened, Dr. Kornfeld was murdered that very night. “And so it happened that Kornfeld’s prophetic words were his last words on earth. And directed to me, they lay upon me as an inheritance.” .... (more)

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