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“Shut your eyes, reader. Do you hear the thundering of wheels? Those are the Stolypin cars rolling on and on. Those are the red cows rolling. Every minute of the day. And every day of the year. And you can hear the water gurgling—those are prisoners’ barges moving on and on. And the motors of the Black Marias roar. They are arresting someone all the time, cramming him in somewhere, moving him about. And what is that hum you hear? The overcrowded cells of the transit prisons. And that cry? The complaints of those who have been plundered, raped, beaten to with an inch of their lives. We have reviewed and considered all the methods of delivering prisoners, and we have found that they are all. . . worse. We have examined the transit prisons, but we have not found any that were good. And even the last human hope that there is something better ahead, that it will be better in camp, is a false hope. In camp it will be . . . worse.”—End of Volume 1 of the Gulag.

A week ago today we passed the second anniversary of the death of the Russian prophet, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, one of the truly great men of our day.

Though faced with severe reprisals from the state, the betrayal of his first wife to the Soviet government, and eventual exile from his beloved though tortured homeland, he recorded the tyranny perpetuated by the Soviet ideologues in a number of deeply meaningful works, including, most famously, The Gulag Archipelago. Some of this massive work he wrote on scraps of paper, some he memorized on the rosary beads given to him by Catholic prisoners.

Solzhenitsyn knew of that which he wrote in his appropriately subtitled “An Experiment in Literary Investigation.”

“And where among all the preceding qualities was there any place left for kindheartedness? How could one possibility preserve one’s kindness while pushing away the hands of those who were drowning? Once you have been steeped in blood, you can only become more cruel,” Solzhenitsyn knew. “And when you add that kindness was ridiculed, that pity was ridiculed, that mercy was ridiculed—you’d never be able to chain all those who were drunk on blood.”

More than any other work, the Gulag forced western journalists and academics to confront the monstrous realities of the Soviet Union, not just under Stalin’s Cult of Personality dictatorship, but under the wretched evil that pervaded the entire system. Indeed, the Soviet Union ran on the blood of those who deviated from its vision of harmony and perfection. From the very beginning of the Soviet takeover of Russia, Solzhenitsyn noted, the revolutionaries established the ideologically-driven police, militia, army, courts, and jails. Even the labor camps—the Gulag—began in embryo form only a month into the revolution. The parasitic Soviets craved blood from 1917 to 1991; such bloodletting was an inherent part of the system. Solzhenitsyn claims that the Gulag state murdered 66 million just between 1917 and 1956.

The ideological system created distrust. “This universal mutual mistrust had the effect of deepening the mass-grave pit of slavery. The moment someone began to speak up frankly, everyone stepped back and shunned him: ‘A provocation!’ And therefore anyone who burst out with a sincere protest was predestined to loneliness and alienation.”

It also, Solzhenitsyn understood, established a permanent lie. “The permanent lie becomes the only safe form of existence, in the same way as betrayal. Every wag of the tongue can be overheard by someone, every facial expression observed by someone. Therefore every word, if it does not have to be a direct lie, is nonetheless obliged not to contradict the general, common lie. There exists a collection of ready-made phrases, of labels, a selection of ready-made lies.”

Ultimately, those who died immediately had the best of it, the Russian prophet knew. To survive meant not merely to lose the body at some point, but almost certainly the soul as well.

No mere anti-communist, Solzhenitsyn attacked not just the ideological regimes of Russia and its former communist allies in Eastern Europe, but he challenged all of modernity—in the East and the West. Western consumerism, he warned, will destroy the West by mechanizing its citizens in a more efficient and attractive manner than communism could. “Dragged along the whole of the Western bourgeois-industrial and Marxist path,” Solzhenitsyn stated,

A dozen maggots can’t go on and on gnawing the same apple forever; that if the earth is a finite object, then its expanses and resources are finite also, and the endless, infinite progress dinned into our heads by the dreamers of the Enlightenment cannot be accomplished on it . . . All that ‘endless progress’ turned out to be an insane, ill-considered, furious dash into a blind alley. A civilization greedy for ‘perpetual progress’ has now choked and is on its last legs.

Only by embracing a transcendent order and the true Creator, Solzhenitsyn argued, can mankind save itself from the follies and murders of the ideologues. In his 1983 Templeton address, he took his arguments against modernity even further.

Our life consists not in the pursuit of material success but in the quest of worthy spiritual growth. Our entire earthly existence is but a transition stage in the movement toward something higher, and we must not stumble or fall, nor must be linger fruitless on one rung of the ladder . . . The laws of physics and physiology will never reveal the indisputable manner in which the Creator constantly, day in and day out, participates in the life of each of us, unfailingly granting us the energy of existence; when the assistance leaves us, we die. In the life of our entire planet, the Divine Spirit moves with no less force: this we must grasp in our dark and terrible hour.

In his commentary on Solzhenitsyn’s address, Russell Kirk argued that the above passage “expressed with high feeling  the conservative impulse.” Certainly, Kirk and Solzhenitsyn were kindred spirits.

Importantly, one should never underestimate the importance of Solzhenitsyn’s moral imagination. As one of the leading Solzhenitsyn scholars, Edward E. Ericson, Jr., has argued: “I would say that One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich put the first crack into the Berlin Wall and The Gulag Archipelago was an irresistible blow to the very foundations of the Soviet edifice.”

The prophet is dead. The priest (John Paul II) and the king (Ronald Reagan) went before him.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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7 replies to this post
  1. Well done. Solzhenitsyn's words challenge us long after the Soviet Union has collapsed. Will our generation forget the hundred million or more innocents murdered by Soviet, Chinese, Vietnamese and Cambodian communists? I am afraid we may unless the voices of Truth touch our hearts. Write on Dr. Birzer. Write on so that we may remember. Speak to our hearts and call on us to live like men, not machines.

  2. Thanks, Brad, for remembering. Solzhenitsyn was one of the towering moral figures of the 20th century, yet in so many ways, his was a lone voice crying in the wilderness. He was scoffed at and rejected by the media, he was shunned by politicians (President Ford and Henry Kissenger would not meet with him), he was labeled a "religious fanatic" for invoking the name of God in public, and he was decried as an ardent Russian nationalist – maybe he was even a "fascist", many exclaimed!

    On commencement day at Harvard University, June 8, 1978, he made his greatest faux pas: he angered his audience with his critique of western materialism and his suggestion that, no, the West was not a good model for Russian transformation. Marion Montgomery wrote of that day, that Solzhenitsyn must have thought that he was speaking to "a responsible intellectual community." Rather, many delicate sensibilities were offended. Veritas is a hard sell. The number of those looking to him for insight from then on became even fewer. Subsequently, Solzhenitsyn was dismissed as a crank, maybe he was even a hermit, wasn't he, for choosing to live in Cavendish, Vermont, and not the upper west side of Manhattan, or Georgetown, or Paris?

    No. Solzhenitsyn was simply a man of tremendous courage with a powerful, moral story to tell and the will to tell it. Like John Paul II and President Reagan, he imagined an Eastern Europe freed from a perverse ideology, from pneumopathological disorientation (to use a Voegelinianism), and his vision proved more powerful than guns and butter.

    Hindsight, they say, is always 20-20, but looking back at those times, it is fascinating to read the analyses and predictions of the Soviet future. One of my favorites is from Basile Kerblay in his book, "Modern Soviet Society": "The foundations guaranteeing the stability of the edifice look unshakable: on the one hand, there is an ubiquitous, all-powerful Party that will brook no formation or association outside its control; on the other hand, there is a population whose essential needs…appear to be satisfied and which in any case has no opportunity of choosing an alternative. The here integrated into the system; far from being alienated, it is on the whole closely associated with the regime." I do not mean here to denigrate a scholar's powers of prediction. Few imagined a post-Cold War, post-Soviet world. Only three – the Pope, the President, and the writer – could imagine such. What I do mean to do is laud the power of the moral, imaginative artist.

  3. Brad, thanks for the post. As I just teaching a Modern Literature class, the moral imagination came up quite a few times as authors reflected on both their own era and what they saw in the horizon; It is this quotation, "A civilization greedy for ‘perpetual progress’ has now choked and is on its last legs" that a few of my students could point to the West, America and themselves. These few, quickly realized that it is within humanity and Grace that the world can be steered anew. Let us Redeem the Times!

  4. Right on, Dr. Birzer. Solzhenitsyn is one of the great leaders for imaginative conservativism. We must also take note of Solzhenitsyn’s critique of ideology — “Ideology is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evil doer the necessary steadfastness and determination.” What can push a man beyond that line of conscience? Ideology provides a justification for unlimited killing and torture – it is an ideology that divides the world into two camps of good and evil. It is a Manichean ideology. The Bolsheviks (or fill in the appropriate party) are for the people and those opposed to it are the evil ones. They must eliminated. Property owners, Christians, the educated, the opposing communist parties, Kulaks, sons of kulaks, etc. The Marxist ideology is a Gnostic one, but most of all it is Manichean. The way through ideology requires honest self-knowledge. When men first entered the camp they insisted upon their innocence (and most are innocent under law). But one is soon faced with the choice of survival at any cost, which means survival at the cost of others. So one is willing to throw others under the bus. But in the degradation of slavery one discovers the possibility of renewal through the discovery of conscience. The fork in the road ascends to moral improvement, or it descends to corruption. Solzhenitsyn repeats the same deep principle, the anti-Manicheeistic account of evil – evil is not polarized into two distinct groups, but it leads to personal accountability and repentance.
    It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings 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 through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil.
    So Solzhenitsyn realizes the importance of religion in moral development: “Since then I have come to understand the truth of all the religions of the world: they struggle with the evil inside a human being (inside every human being). It is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it within each person.” In light of this religious truth, the falsehood of Gnostic ideology, the falsehood of “all the revolutions in the world,” becomes painfully apparent. For they seek to destroy only those carriers of evil (the evil class, the evil party, the evil doers). And they take the evil to themselves. They fail to recognize carriers of good (the parable of the wheat and tares). The utopian impulse believes it can rid the world of all evil; and the Manichean tendency attributes it to the enemy class or party. The law of degradation is just that — “to beat the enemy over the head with a club.” Solzhenitsyn sees redemption in the life of beatitudes – “Bless you, prison, for having been in my life!” We can this deeper truth of religion and the spirit of the beatitudes in the turn of One Day in the Life, in the encounter of Shukhov with the Baptist character, Alyoshka. Alyoshka encourages Shukhov to pray at the end of the day, and he exhorts him to pray for his daily bread and for God “to remove the scum of evil from our hearts.” Shukhov scoffs at prayer and expresses his skepticism at God’s answers to prayer. Again Alyoshka instructs him on the meaning of life – his freedom will mean nothing if he fails to cultivate his soul. At the end of the day, Shukhov teaches Alyoshka how to survive without corruption – through the realm of natural justice. Alyoshka teaches Shukhov how to live well, in the presence of God. Solzhenitsyn provides us with a balanced vision of the temporal and eternal.

  5. It is sad that the world did not focus on the message of Mr. Solzhenitsyn on the anniversary of his death. If Bill Buckley and Ronald Reagan were alive I know there would have been more attention to the man and his important message. But on the bright side is the existence of this new internet community where events like this are used to educate. Mr. Birzer's essay is superb and the comments are of the highest quality.

  6. While Solzhenitsyn survived Stalin, when he began criticizing the amazing and easy slide of the Soviet pseudo-Marxist "New Class" into good old-fashioned plutocrats somehow owning everything in Russia that used to be State property, he quickly and quietly died, hardly the first or the last but undoubtedly the most famous victim of the Putinshchina.

    It reminds me so much of Martin Luther King's famous and famously brief transformation from black civil rights spokesman to advocate for working-people and the poor in America . . . .

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