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Advent series: Lies, prophecy, and judgement

08 December 2023

Continuing our series addressing the themes of Advent, Rod Garner marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Gulag Archipelago


Solzhenitsyn in 1953, when a prisoner at Kopk Terek, in Kazakhstan

Solzhenitsyn in 1953, when a prisoner at Kopk Terek, in Kazakhstan

ALEXANDER SOLZHENITSYN’s wife, Natalya, said of her husband’s death — on 3 August 2008, at the age of 89 — that he had died as he had hoped to die: in the summer, and at home. It was a peaceful end, after a long life in which he had achieved international renown as a Soviet dissident and writer. He was endowed with a prophetic voice rooted in the Christian faith, and his exposure of the horror and brutality of Stalin’s prisons and labour camps was achieved in the face of formidable obstacles.

Unlike the millions of innocent Russians who, from the 1920s onwards, had perished under the Soviet gulag system, he survived. Against medical odds, he overcame abdominal cancer and, later, an attempt by the Russian secret police to poison him. Confronted by a labyrinthine and corrupt political system that, to achieve its crazed ends, depended on the efficacy of the lie in all its elaborate and distorted iterations, Solzhenitsyn documented the pitiless deeds that had led to unimaginable human suffering.

He was sent into exile in the West in 1974, after the publication of The Gulag Archipelago, and was convinced that he would never return to Russia; 20 years later, he would be welcomed back.

Solzhenitsyn’s colossal book, running to more than 1500 pages in its unabridged form, sold 30 million copies, discredited Communism in his homeland, and contributed to the eventual collapse of the Soviet empire. Distinguished commentators lauded him as “the dominant writer of the 20th century”. With the characteristic modesty that formed part of his complex and sometimes cantankerous character, he, in contrast, depicted himself as “a little calf foolishly butting a mighty oak and thinking this could bring it down”. The extraordinary fact remains that he did believe that such an outcome was possible.

Arrested in 1945 as an “Enemy of the People” for disrespecting Stalin in a letter sent to a friend, Solzhenitsyn spent eight years in several labour camps, laying bricks, smelting metal in intense cold, wearing handcuffs for the slightest infractions, and hearing famished prisoners steal his paltry food ration in the dark. By sheer act of will, he committed himself to remembering everything, including the unexpected moments of grace.

Receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, in his acceptance speech Solzhenitsyn made reference to a Russian proverb: “One word of truth outweighs the whole world.” It expressed both the bitter experience of Russia’s subjugated people, and his belief that not even the worst atrocities inflicted upon the innocent could finally extinguish the human spirit. As a writer, he saw it as his duty to remind the world of monstrous things, and the importance of resisting the lie.

SOLZHENITSYN’s years in exile — first in Germany, and then in comparative isolation in the United States — did little to endear him to his new hosts. In 1978, he surprised students at Harvard by inveighing against the West’s crass materialism and barren soul, lamenting its “spiritual exhaustion” and its elevation of the human above everything else, including God.

Against the expectations of the liberal democracies that had afforded him shelter as a potentially useful Cold War figurehead against the Kremlin, he remained alone and aloof, at heart still in love with his birth country, if not its regime, and unimpressed by the empty enticements of liberalism. Set against the fate of the Russian peasants and Soviet citizens whom he still cared about, the prospect of being entertained to death in a culture defined by consumption and the mantra of material growth held no appeal.

Opinions about him began to shift. Critics labelled him a crank, or a has-been, and emphatically “not the liberal we would like him to be”. Even in Russia, after his return, younger people in particular came to view him — mistakenly — as a verbose commentator from the past, overtaken by history.

A deeper engagement with The Gulag Archipelago would have shown them that it was much more than a political diatribe, or a judgemental tome denouncing human wickedness and the abuse of power. At many points, Solzhenitsyn reveals himself as a writer and historian capable of wit, irony, dark humour, and devastating honesty about the moral lapses of his own past. This, after all, is the voice of a former Marxist commander in the Red Army, who knew about its war crimes against German civilians — including the gang-rape of girls, as a form of revenge for the Nazi atrocities committed in the Soviet Union.

IN THE labour camps that denied him the recurring duties and distractions of ordinary life, which rarely leave time and space for serious self-examination, Solzhenitsyn confronted his own failings and transgressions. “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?’”

This is the voice of a true penitent, who had renounced the Russian Orthodox faith of his upbringing to embrace Marxist atheism, but rediscovered Orthodox Christianity as a result of his experience in the camps. He was inspired by the prisoners alongside him: Protestants from the Baltic states, Catholics with rosaries whose beads they had fashioned from chewed bits of bread, and the Jewish convert to Christianity who had once sat with him in the ward of a camp hospital and related the long story of his conversion. Solzhenitsyn awoke next morning to learn that his new friend was dead, “dealt eight blows on the skull with a plasterer’s mallet while he still slept”.

THE 50th anniversary of the publication of The Gulag Archipelago in December 1973 provides a fresh opportunity to mark Solzhenitsyn’s literary achievement and the moral and physical courage that preceded it. As a prophet who shunned mere denunciation, and guarded against self-righteousness, he was not given to thinking that he was better or wiser than others.

What he did know beyond doubt was the potential for evil which runs through every human heart; that we are therefore sometimes simply wrong, prone to get others wrong, and needlessly cruel. The corrosion that besets our best intentions is, however, tempered by what he describes as “the bridgehead of good”: the fortification that is equal to the enemies of virtue and truth.

The season of Advent demands that we cast away the works of darkness and put on the armour of light. Solzhenitsyn’s masterpiece still inspires and encourages us in both endeavours.

Canon Rod Garner is an Anglican priest, writer, and theologian.

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