The pen is not just mightier than the sword; it is mightier than prison camps and the totalitarian regimes that depend upon them. The life of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the novelist and Russian dissident who died on August 3, proved as much.
In 1945, Solzhenitsyn was found guilty of anti-Soviet propaganda and sentenced to eight years in a labour camp, to be followed by permanent internal exile. He drew upon his experiences in the various labour camps and hospitals to pen four important novels that exposed the inhumanity of the Soviet system. First, in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and then in The First Circle, Cancer Ward and finally the three-volume The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn demonstrated the barbarity of a totalitarian state.
In Ivan Denisovich, published in 1963, Solzhenitsyn described the dreary labour camp existence of a single prisoner, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov. Although sentenced to 10 years hard labour for “spying,” Shukhov, like many others, is not expected to leave the camp, whether because he will die before his time elapses or because of general bureaucratic indifference to the duration of his sentence. Prisoners are given dehumanizing numbers for identification and dehumanizing work under the worst conditions. The novel showed the cruel sadism of people in power, but also the victory of hope possible in even the most dire circumstances.
In First Circle, academics are sentenced to camps that are not as physically harsh, but no less challenging. Working on technical projects, they face excruciating moral choices: assisting Stalin’s persecution of their fellow citizens or a life in the hard-labour camps of the Gulag. It demonstrates the challenges of maintaining human dignity in a system that robs individuals of both their humanity and dignity. The title takes its name from the first circle of hell in Dante’s Divine Comedy, where philosophers unable to enter heaven live, enjoying some small freedoms; but they are still in hell.
In Cancer Ward, like First Circle, published in 1968, Solzhenitsyn describes the harsh life in labour camps through the retelling of stories among cancer patients, and again shows that such dismal conditions need not destroy hope, even as it often breaks human bodies and human spirits. The cancerous tumours that torment and eventually kill many patients is an allusion to the police state that overruns Soviet society.
The Gulag Archipelago was written over a decade, finalized in 1967 – 50 years after the Bolshevik Revolution – and forced the rest of the world to see and understand the inhumanity of the Soviet system. Finally published in 1973, his “fictional” account of the prison camps gave excruciating details of life in a labour camp: what people were forced to endure and why many people did not survive. However, the powerful third volume, published five years after the first installment, recounts the stories of those who heroically resisted and rebelled against their oppressors.
All of Solzhenitsyn’s novels were a combination of autobiography and reportage – the stories were distillations of his own experiences and of those he knew in the prison camps. He would write on tree bark and concrete and then memorize thousands of lines so he could transcribe them once he was released from prison. The publication of his books was a defiant claim to his own humanity against the state that tried to break him. They were powerful testimonies against Communism and, after the publication of Ivan Denisovich andThe Gulag Archipelago, many European socialists, including Jean Paul Sartre and Gunther Grass, could no longer defend the Soviet Union.
Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970, but did not accept the award in person because he thought he would not be allowed back into his home country. He was re-arrested on Feb. 12, 1974, hours after completing an essay that echoed his Nobel speech and was reprinted in the Washington Post six days later. In “Live not by lies,” he condemned a “hopelessly dehumanized” man who abandons “all our principles, our souls and all the efforts of our predecessors and all the opportunities for our descendents” for a “modest ration of food” as long as our “fragile existence” is not disturbed. Solzhenitsyn said that modern man – he was explicitly writing about the Soviet Union, but was clearly also talking about the West – can find true liberation only in the “personal non-participation in lies.”
He said the success of a totalitarian regime stands on a house of cards, built on a foundation of untruth. In both explaining his own motivations for his literature and as a call to action to others, he said: “Though lies conceal everything, though lies embrace everything, we will be obstinate in the smallest of matters: let them embrace everything, but not with any help from me.” He explained that “when people renounce lies, it simply cuts short their existence.”
The lessons for everyone, but especially those who oppose any injustice, such as abortion, are clear.
Solzhenitsyn was exiled, living briefly in Germany and Switzerland before finally arriving in the United States and settling briefly at Stanford and then Vermont. He would eventually turn his eye to the problems inherent in the West. In his famous commencement address at Harvard in 1978, Solzhenitsyn condemned the West for its own decadence – for its blind and endless pursuit of material improvement and its abandonment of its Christian patrimony. The West, he said, was sustained by its spiritual life, a Christian understanding of the world, of good and evil. But, near the close of the 20th century, the West, especially America, replaced pursuit of the good life with pursuit of material goods.
The West lost its appreciation of the true good that comes from freedom. He said God endowed us with certain rights, but that “freedom was given to the individual conditionally, in the assumption of his constant religious responsibility.” Freedom in its popular understanding in 1978, as today, has been divorced from any responsibility, let alone one’s religious responsibilities.
The New York Times, at the time, condemned Solzhenitsyn as a dangerous “zealot” who thought he was in “possession of the truth.” The Washington Post condemned his views as the residue of a “particular religious and political” strain of Russian thinking “remote from Western thinking.” But not that long ago, such thinking was part of Western intellectual life. The American Founding Fathers fought a war for self-evident truths and liberty grounded in individual responsibility grounded in a religious sensibility.
But the Post was correct. The thinking of Solzhenitsyn is not exclusively “Russian” but is, indeed, now remote. Such non-Russians as Thomas Aquinas, Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Moore and Edmund Burke enunciated such views. Solzhenitsyn stood with these giants in recognizing that freedom does not make people virtuous (as the post-Enlightenment man suggests), but that virtue makes freedom possible.
Unfettered freedom, Solzhenitsyn warned, creates a society with little self-restraint and even less civic spirit. The community is ignored at the expense of the individual. The result, Solzhenitsyn told his Harvard audience, is “an atmosphere of moral mediocrity, paralyzing man’s impulses.” If there is no virtue upheld to live up to, none will be attained.
Solzhenitsyn was a man of dauntless courage. He returned to Russia in 1994, after the fall of communism. He was a Russian nationalist who lamented the declining influence of Orthodox Christianity and was often dismissed as an anachronistic grump who loathed freedom. But those who condemn the latter Solzhenitsyn fail to understand the totality of his grasp of authentic human freedom. That understanding allowed him to resist his tormentors’ oppression and speak out against the injustice of Soviet barbarism.
That The Gulag Archipelago is much better known than Robert Conquest’s magnificent The Great Terror, a history of Stalin’s purge, is a testament to the power of great literature. It forced many Soviet sympathizers to reconsider their support for Communism, or at least the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, by vividly capturing the evil inherent in the brutal, inhumane system. He helped undermine the lies on which the regime was based, that Communism delivered a workers’ paradise in which equality reigned.
It is unfortunate that his 1978 Harvard address did not do the same in forcing a recognition of the West’s decadence and its misuse of freedom. It is a sign that the West has degenerated too much. But, as Solzhenitsyn recognized, lies cannot stand forever.