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Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918 – )

 

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

1918 —

The horror tests comprehension: citizens sentenced to internal exile, incarceration, systematic starvation, torture and death on account of casual comment; secret police calling on people who have lived for years in dread of a pre-dawn knock on the door; orphaned children roaming city streets in packs as conscienceless, desperate and dangerous as wild hyenas bent on survival; men sentenced to lethal labour in Siberia, never to be heard from or heard of again, because they had visited the west; prisoners of war who had survived Nazi death camps and thereafter had to be assigned to Soviet camps since their wartime P.O.W. experience had given them a taste of the “finer things” of bourgeois life. Stalin slew sixty million before the seventy-four year nightmare ended and the Soviet communism crumbled in 1991.

It all began in 1917. One year later Solzhenitsyn’s widowed mother gave birth to the man in whose homeland devastation careened everywhere. In 1922 four leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church were executed because they had collected funds meant to assist hunger-deranged people found eating the carcasses of children who had succumbed to malnutrition and disease. Eventually Solzhenitsyn would see first-hand the irrationality that arises whenever ideology is maintained in the face of everything that contradicts it, for he narrowly escaped arrest when others in his bread queue were imprisoned for “suggesting” that there was a bread-shortage in the Marxist land-of-plenty, and for sabotaging the state by “sowing panic.”

Solzhenitsyn’s mother, fluent in French and English, was dismissed from her position as secretary at a flourmill since her family, prior to the Revolution, had had a little more money than most. Yet the effect of her mistreatment at the hands of coercive atheism merely found faith flooding her, never to recede. A godly aunt and uncle steeped the youngster in Orthodox liturgy and devotion. They also introduced him to Russia’s literary giants, especially Tolstoy. Soon he was reading Shakespeare and Dickens in English, Schiller in German. No less adept in the sciences than he was in the humanities, Solzhenitsyn recognized nonetheless that Marxist materialism would allow him to support himself through teaching mathematics and physics while literature remained his vocation.

In 1941 the Soviet Union entered World War II. Solzhenitsyn trained as an artillery officer and was decorated for bravery. Stalin, outraged at German brutalisation of Soviet citizens, announced than when Russian forces invaded Germany “everything” would be permitted. Solzhenitsyn was sickened as the elderly were robbed of their meagre rations and women were gang-raped to death.

A few months earlier he had penned a letter to a friend in which he had likened Stalin’s rule to feudalism. The letter had found its way to government snoops who forced his commanding officer to arrest him. Made to hand over his service revolver (the sign of dismissal,) he stood degraded when his officer’s insignia was ripped off his uniform and the red star torn from his hat.

Nights now found the disgraced man lying on a prison mattress of rotten straw adjacent to a latrine bucket. Men stepped over him to use it throughout the night. A few weeks later he was moved to the dreaded Lubyanka prison in Moscow, and locked up in a windowless cell so small he couldn’t stretch out his legs whether he sat or lay down. He had been charged with producing anti-Soviet propaganda. Eventually he was transferred to one of the forced labour camps that dotted the interior of the U.S.S.R. Lubyanka was to give rise to his world-acclaimed novel, The First Circle; his labour camp existence to his three-volume Gulag Archipelago. When he was diagnosed with cancer and expected to die (surgery with only local anaesthetic removed a large tumour and kept him alive) he pondered what would later appear as Cancer Ward. Yet his years of suffering in assorted prisons and prison camps worked a triumph in him: “…I was fully cleansed and came back to a deep awareness of God and a deep understanding of life.”

His “release” after eight years’ incarceration metamorphosed into internal exile. Now he was teaching high school in the easternmost reaches of the U.S.S.R, forbidden to travel. Through it all he wrote ceaselessly on scraps of paper, squirreling them away lest he commit the same blunder that had seen him sentenced. Then in 1956 President Nikita Khrushchev, publicly faulting Stalin’s harshness, deemed Solzhenitsyn’s wartime letter non-criminal. All charges were dropped. He went home.

Invited to read two chapters of One Day to eager Muscovites, Solzhenitsyn obliged them, and then excoriated the secret police. Only his international reputation spared him. The Soviet government dared not molest someone who had been awarded the Nobel prize for literature and whose books had been translated into 35 languages in one year. Still, it banished him. He moved to Switzerland, where Gulag could be published. The U.S.A. inhaled six million copies. The New York Review of Books pronounced it the single most devastating political indictment to appear in the modern era.

Eager to escape media hounding, he moved with his family to Vermont and became a near-recluse, always writing, emerging occasionally to speak, for instance, at Harvard’s commencement in 1978. Fifteen thousand people rain-soaked people reeled as he judged the west morally destitute. President Jimmy Carter’s wife sniffed, “There is no ‘unchecked materialism’ in the U.S.A.” Solzhenitsyn’s recitation was relentless: America’s pursuit of happiness has left it intellectually shallow, ethically incoherent and spiritually destitute.

Then in 1989 the Berlin wall crumbled, one of history’s unforeseeable convolutions. Two years later communism ended in Russia. Three years later still Solzhenitsyn returned to Russia, only to find that decades of communism had weakened the people to the point that they were vulnerable to contagion from the west. The infectious disease of material greed vomited up large-scale corruption, economic chaos, and clandestine financial compromises.

Despite the sickness of his still-weak nation Solzhenitsyn’s hope is undiminished. Russia can be healed, even as he is adamant that only Christian faith can heal it. Only the crucified can quicken in Russia’s people the self-renunciation any nation needs if only because self-renunciation is life’s open secret. Aware of systemic evil and of the “powers” of ideologies and “isms,” he likes to quote the old Russian proverb: “When evil appears, don’t search the village; search your heart.” Having seen his work achieve the unimaginable, he is convinced that even those with little visibility must pursue what has sustained him: “I live only once, and I want to act in accord with absolute truth.”

As long as truth is absolute it must be uttered amidst treachery, cruelty and falsehood. As it is uttered it will prove itself pregnant and powerful. When accepting his Nobel Prize he had cried, “One word of truth outweighs the world.”