by Brad Birzer
“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.
Dr. Bradley J. Birzer is co-founder of The Imaginative Conservative and a Senior Contributor. He is the author of Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth, and American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll. He is also author of The Humane Republic: The Imagination of Russell Kirk (forthcoming, University Press of Kentucky). Dr. Birzer also teaches Catholics in the Public Square for Catholic Courses.