“In every life there is one particular event that is decisive for the entire person – for his fate, his convictions, his passions.” –Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, 1918-2008
For the great Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who died this week, the pivotal event of his life came when he was suddenly and unjustly pulled from freedom into captivity. Like millions of others, Solzhenitsyn was a victim of the Soviet Union’s political prison system, known by its notorious acronym: Gulag.
For writing politically unacceptable letters to a friend, Solzhenitsyn found himself stripped of rank, rights and liberty. He lamented that his tale was nowhere near unique. The Soviet Union spent decades locking up its own people in order to silence dissenters and terrorize those who were left.
But Solzhenitsyn’s gift for letters would prove to be his oppressors’ undoing. By chronicling the excesses of his communist captors, Solzhenitsyn exposed to the world the brutality of the Soviet Union. The truth and eloquence of his words could not be countered by communism’s elite apologists in the West and in 1970, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
A student hoping to learn from a Nobel laureate about the dangers of this world should set aside Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance and take up Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. Better yet, read Solzhenitsyn first, then consider how the assault on liberty he describes may apply to today’s religion of environmentalism. Solzhenitsyn’s canon is a study of the vigilance freedom requires, and the misery that comes when it is lost.
Tragically, communism did not collapse with the Soviet Union, and one-fifth of the world’s population is still subject to that demented ideology.
As the Olympic Games begin today in the People’s Republic of China, there has already been discussion of that communist regime’s suppression of its own people and its neighbours. The Laogai, China’s version of the Gulag, is the most extensive system of forced labour camps on the planet. Likewise, in North Korea and Cuba, political prison networks hold countless human beings in bondage for crimes of thought, speech and religion. This is the essence of communism, and the practitioners of today’s inhumanities are the heirs of Solzhenitsyn’s jailers.
But for all that he suffered and saw, Solzhenitsyn’s inclination was always toward mercy and goodness. This was not some version of pacifistic protest, however, but an act of intellectual will. “For mercy,” he said, “one must have wisdom.” In upholding this creed, he proved that the human spirit can maintain its divine spark, even in the face of true evil.
Understandably, Solzhenitsyn developed a cynicism toward politics, noting that fine words and high-minded ideology can blot out basic humanity. Of his cruel countrymen, Solzhenitsyn mourned, “Where had all that Russian generosity gone? It had been replaced by political consciousness.”
Solzhenitsyn knew his task was to tell the story of those who were silenced. In his dedication of The Gulag Archipelago to those who did not survive the prison camps, he asks their forgiveness, “for not having seen it all nor remembered it all, for not having divined all of it.”
But despite his human imperfection, Solzhenitsyn shed light on one of the greatest crimes in all history, and his imprisonment was not in vain. When Soltzhenitsyn’s oppressors took away his freedom, they gave millions of others a voice.