Russian winters are not known for offering a wide variety of options for how to spend one’s evenings. Basically, you either stay inside or freeze half to death outside. So, when I found myself living in Russia during the winters of 1998 and 1999, I had plenty of time on my hands—enough to read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s enormous three-volume The Gulag Archipelago. (I advise you not to read Gulag in bed, for fear you might fall asleep and be crushed to death mid-sentence).
The Gulag is a literary investigation into the Soviet labor camp system Solzhenitsyn calls the “Gulag Archipelago,” a system of island-like camps spread across the Russian wilderness. Solzhenitsyn had been imprisoned and subjected to the hard labor and torture of “camp life” for nine years (1945-53). In his investigation, Solzhenitsyn relies on his own experience and the eyewitness testimony of some 200 survivors to narrate the horrors of the Soviet Union’s vast array of prisons, camps, informants, interrogators, spies, and secret police, as well as the heroism of ordinary Russian citizens and prisoners. In large part, the literary power of the book arises from Solzhenitsyn’s ability to use stories, images, and first-hand encounters to stamp indelibly on the reader’s mind the evils of the Soviet era.
Recently, I had to opportunity to reread portions of Gulag and thought it worthwhile to publish a brief summary of those portions, given the recent resurgence of Marxism in the United States. I’ll summarize three chapters, offer a few personal reflections, and conclude by providing a “recommended reading” list.
No reader of Gulag can forget the introduction to Solzhenitsyn’s third chapter in Part I, “Interrogation,” in which he reflects on how horrified earlier Russian writers and intellectuals would be if they had been able to foresee the horrors of the gulag:
“If the intellectuals in the plays of Chekhov, who spent all their time guessing what would happen in twenty, thirty, or forty years, had been told that in forty years interrogation by torture would be practice in Russia; that prisoners would have skulls squeezed with iron rings; that a human being would be lowered into an acid bath; … and that, in the luckiest possible circumstances, prisoners would be tortured by being kept from sleeping for a week, by thirst, and by being beaten to a bloody pulp, not one of Chekhov’s plays would have gotten to its end because all of the heroes would have gone off to insane asylums.”
Indeed, during the years between the 1917 revolution and the mid-twentieth century, it is estimated that Soviet authorities killed some four to five thousand persons per week.
How could so great an evil take root and flourish in the twentieth century? It is an interesting question upon which to reflect.
Solzhenitsyn’s answer is that, in the Soviet Union’s case, many of its most powerful political and cultural influencers were attempting to build a society without reference to God. But such vainglorious intentions had led to devastating results. In his famous quip upon receiving the Templeton Prize, Solzhenitsyn explains the cause behind the deaths of sixty million Russians as a result of the Communist Revolution: “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.”
The Soul & Barbed Wire
Which brings us to Part IV of Gulag, entitled “The Soul and Barbed Wire.” In the first chapter of Part IV, “The Ascent,” Solzhenitsyn reflects upon his experience, noting that concentration camps tended to either destroy a man’s soul or cause it to “ascend” spiritually, with very little middle ground. The decisive factor, he says, was the solidity of a person’s spiritual and moral convictions before having arrived at the camps.
Sadly, he argues, the majority of prison guards and inmates had been discipled into a Marxist worldview in which “right” and “wrong” are determined by which actions help achieve the prophesied socialist-Communist revolution and which do not. Having entered the doors of the concentration camp, their souls—thus deadened by Marxism—continued to descend. The torturers, especially, spiraled downward quickly and became more like swine than men.
In the camps, the Christian doctrine of human dignity had been discarded in favor of the Marxist view in which human beings are not created in the image of God, are not free thinkers or free choosers, and are essentially either friends or enemies of the revolution. In Solzhenitsyn’s words, prisoners were treated as “swarming lice” rather than the “crown of creation.” Whether or not one had rejected the Marxist view, he argues, is the decisive factor in whether one’s soul ascended or descended under the horrors of camp life.
Several passages are worth quoting in full:
“This is the great fork of camp life. From this point the roads go to the right and to the left. One of them will rise and the other will descend. If you go to the right—you lose your life, and if you go to the left—you lose your conscience.”
“And the only solution to [the deadening of one’s soul] would be [to embrace the fact] that the meaning of earthly existence lies not, as we have grown used to thinking, in prospering, but in the development of the soul. From that point of view our torturers have been punished most horribly of all: they are turning into swine, they are departing downward from humanity. From that point of view punishment is inflicted on those whose development . . . holds out hope.”
“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. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there re-mains . . . an un-uprooted small corner of evil. 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. And since that time I have come to understand the false-hood of all the revolutions in history: They destroy only those carriers of evil contemporary with them (and also fail, out of haste, to discriminate the carriers of good as well). And they then take to themselves as their heritage the actual evil itself, magnified still more.”
In the following chapter, “Or Corruption?” Solzhenitsyn argues that the reason the camps fostered such evil in its guards and prisoners is that the Communist Revolution had already corrupted them. The Soviet people, Solzhenitsyn argued, stepped into the Gulag Archipelago spiritually disarmed.
Two passages are worth quoting in full:
“So wouldn’t it be more correct to say that no camp can corrupt those who have a stable nucleus, who do not accept that pitiful ideology which holds that “human beings are created for happiness,” an ideology which is done in by the first blow of the work assigner’s cudgel? Those people became corrupted in camp who before camp had not been enriched by any morality at all or by any spiritual upbringing. (This is not at all a theoretical matter—since during our glorious half-century millions of them grew up.) Those people became corrupted in camp who had already been corrupted out in freedom or who were ready for it. Because people are corrupted in freedom too, sometimes even more effectively than in camp.”
“Yes, camp corruption was a mass phenomenon. But not only because the camps were awful, but because in addition we Soviet people stepped upon the soil of the Archipelago spiritually disarmed—long since prepared to be corrupted, already tinged by it out in freedom, and we strained our ears to hear from the old camp veterans ‘how to live in camp.’ But we ought to have known how to live (and how to die) without any camp.”
Resisting Marxism in Our Own Day
In conclusion, I will limit myself to one observation. When Americans read Solzhenitsyn’s reflections, I suspect that we typically overlook the fact that this level of corruption and violence could take root in the hearts of Americans just as easily as it did in Eastern Europeans. Certainly, our nation’s political arrangement is built more sturdily, and thus can resist more easily the inherently totalizing impulses of Marxism. But this sturdiness is in reality underlaid by a fragile foundation which depends upon the character of the American people, especially our shared sense of the dignity of fellow human beings.
We Americans are not inherently better people than our Eastern European neighbors, nor are our Eastern Europeans neighbors any more depraved. What they traded away in the Communist revolutions is the very thing we ourselves are on the brink of losing willfully here in America: a shared belief that human life is sacred, that right and wrong are transcendent, and that neighborly love is essential to a healthy society. We should heed the portent warnings of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and guard against the encroaching Marxism we now see taking root in the United States. As Solzhenitsyn reminds us, our very souls are at stake.