Quote: Self-reflection in the Gulag

… Following an operation, I am lying in the surgical ward of a camp hospital. I cannot move. I am hot and feverish, but nonetheless my thoughts do not dissolve into delirium — and I am grateful to Dr. Boris Nikolayevich Kornfeld, who is sitting beside my cot and talking to me all evening. The light has been turned out — so it will not hurt my eyes. He and I — and there is no one else in the ward.

Fervently he tells me the long story of his conversion from Judiasm to Christianity. This conversion was accomplished by an educated, cultivated person, one of his cellmates … We know each other very slightly, and [Dr. Kornfeld] was not the one responsible for my treatment, but there was simply no one here with whom he could share his feelings. He was a gentle and well-mannered person.

It is already late. All the hospital is asleep. Kornfeld is ending up his story thus:

“And on the whole, do you know, I have become convinced that there is no punishment that comes to us in this life on earth which is undeserved. Superficially it can have nothing to do with what we are guilty of in actual fact, but if you go over your life with a fine-toothed comb and ponder it deeply, you will always be able to hunt down that transgression of yours for which you have now received this blow.”

I cannot see his face. Through the window come only the scattered reflections of the lights of the perimeter outside. But there is such mystical knowledge in his voice that I shudder. …

And it so happened that Kornfeld’s prophetic words were his last words on earth. And, directed to me, they lay upon me as an inheritance. You cannot brush off that kind of inheritance by shrugging your shoulders.

But by that time I myself had matured to similar thoughts.

I would have been inclined to endow his words with the significance of a universal law of human life. However, one can get all tangled up that way. One would have to admit that on that basis those who had been punished even more cruelly than with prison — those shot, burned at the stake — were some sort of super evil-doers. (And yet … the innocent are those who get punished most zealously of all.) And what would one then have to say about our so evident torturers: Why does not fate punish them? Why do they prosper?

But there was something in Kornfeld’s words that touched a sensitive chord, and that I accept quite completely for myself. And many will accept the same for themselves.

In the seventh year of my imprisonment I had gone over and re-examined my life quite enough and had come to understand why everything had happened to me: both prison and, as an additional piece of ballast, my malignant tumor.

The Gulag Archipelago, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, pp. 309 – 311

Quote: “the center of this world”

Here is how it was with many others, not just with me. Our initial, first prison sky consisted of black swirling storm clouds and black pillars of volcanic eruptions — this was the heaven of Pompeii, the heaven of the Day of Judgment, because it was not just anyone who had been arrested, but I — the center of this world.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago (abridged), p. 301


Photo by Renato Danyi on Pexels.com

I finally finished reading the abridged version of The Gulag Archipelago, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The abridged version is 470 pages long, and it still gives the impression that we are only scratching the surface of all that happened with the camp system in the century since the Russian Revolution. Solzhenitsyn himself writes with regret about the fact that his account is sadly incomplete:

Those whom I asked to take on particular chapters would not do so, but instead offered stories, written or oral, for me to use as I pleased. What we really needed was a well-staffed office. [But] not only could I not spread myself like this; I had to conceal the project itself, my letters, my materials, to disperse them, to do everything in deepest secrecy. I even had to camouflage the time I spent working on the book with what looked like work on other things.

I must explain that never once did this whole book, in all its parts, lie on the same desk at the same time! In September, 1965, when work on the Archipelago was at its most intensive, I suffered a setback: my archive was raided and a novel impounded. At this point the parts of the Archipelago were already written, and the materials for the other parts, were scattered, and never reassembled: I could not take the risk, especially when all the names were given correctly.

I have stopped work on the book not because I regard it as finished, but because I cannot spend any more of my life on it. Besides begging for indulgence, I want to cry aloud: When the time and the opportunity comes, gather together, all you friends who have survived and know the story well, and write your own commentaries … Only then will the book be definitive. God bless the work!

The full list of those without whom this book could not have been written, or revised, or kept safe cannot yet be entrusted to paper. They know who they are. They have my homage.

pp. 469 – 472

No Triumph Here

There are many words that could be used to describe the experience of reading this book. Horrifying, overwhelming, and in parts, inspiring. But I have chosen sobering because that is the overall impression that it left with me. No book about the systematic arrest, imprisonment, degradation, and murder of millions of people — and the suppression of their stories — can end on a triumphant note. Even when the triumph that has happened is that their stories have finally been told:

We could not foresee what it would be like: how for no visible compelling reason the earth would shudder and give, how the gates of the abyss would briefly, grudgingly part so that two or three birds of truth would fly out before they slammed to, to stay shut for a long time to come. So many of my predecessors had not been able to finish writing, or to preserve what they had written, or to crawl or scramble to safety — but I had this good fortune: to thrust the first handful of truth through the open jaws of the iron gates before they slammed shut again.

Like matter enveloped by antimatter, it exploded instantaneously!

Only too rarely do our fellow countrymen have a chance to speak their mind … and former prisoners still more rarely. Their faith had proved false, their hopes had been cheated so often — yet now they believed that the era of truth was really beginning, that at last it was possible to speak and write boldly!

And they were disappointed, of course, for the hundredth time …

When Krushchev, wiping the tear from his eye, gave permission for the publication of [my novel about the gulags] Ivan Denisovich, he was quite sure that it was about Stalin’s camps, that he had none of his own.

I myself was taken by surprise when I received a stream of letters — from present-day zeks [prisoners]. These letters, too, were a single many-throated cry. But a cry that said, “What about us!!??” And the zeks set up a howl: What do you mean, never happen again? We’re here inside now, and our conditions are just the same!

“Nothing has changed since Ivan Denisovich’s time” — the message was the same in letters from many different places. “Any zek who reads your book will feel bitterness and disgust because everything is just as it was.” “What has changed, if all the laws providing for twenty-five years’ imprisonment issued under Stalin are still in force?”

After reading all these letters, I who had been thinking myself a hero saw that I hadn’t a leg to stand on: in ten years I had lost my vital link with the Archipelago.

pp. 451 – 453

Human Psychology is Universal

Though I have never lived under an oppressive socialist regime, many parts of this book felt familiar because human psychology is the same. For example, in an early chapter Solzhenitsyn describes how common it was for people to be arrested because they had been accused or betrayed by a jealous spouse. A man secretly accuses another man who he suspects is having an affair with his wife. A wife accuses her husband so she can get rid of him and live with her lover. This is the same phenomenon we now see on campuses where bitter exes will use the university’s sexual-harassment reporting system to take revenge on each other. And it’s not just about women vs. men: I recently saw a case where a lesbian used it to take down her ex, who happened to be a professor, after the relationship went sour. The problem is that when you set up a bureaucratic “justice” system that can be easily used to ruin people, the temptation to use it on your personal enemies is almost overwhelming.

Here are some other things that felt oddly familiar: When Solzhenitsyn’s book A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich came out, the Soviet newspapers grudgingly praised it: “an explosion of newspaper articles — written with gritted teeth, with ill-concealed hatred and resentment: an explosion of official praise that left a sour taste in my mouth” (p. 451). This, in turn, caused former prisoners to assume that the book was not an actual expose, but rather “controlled opposition” put out by the regime as more propaganda.

“The prolonged absence of any free exchange of information within a country opens up a gulf of incomprehension between whole groups of the population, between millions and millions. We simply cease to be a single people, for we speak, indeed, different languages.” (p. 432)

The mildest and at the same time most widespread form of betrayal was not to do anything bad directly, but just not to notice the doomed person next to one, not to help him, to turn away one’s face, to shrink back. They had arrested a neighbor, your comrade at work, or even your close friend. You kept silence. You acted as if you had not noticed. (For you could not afford to lose your current job!) And then it was announced at work, at the general meeting, that the person who had disappeared the day before was … an inveterate enemy of the people. And you, who had bent your back beside him for twenty years at the same desk, now by your noble silence (or even by your condemning speech!), had to show how hostile you were to his crimes.

p. 323

May God Prepare Our Hearts

Because if we ever face anything like this, our own character will be our downfall.

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.

If a person went swiftly bad in camp, what it might mean was that he had not just gone bad, but that that inner foulness which had not previously been needed had disclosed itself.

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 …

p. 319

When people express vexation, in my presence, over the West’s tendency to crumble, its political shortsightedness, its divisiveness, its confusion — I recall too: “Were we, before passing through the Archipelago, more steadfast? Firmer in our thoughts?”

And that is why I turn back to the years of my imprisonment and say, sometimes to the astonishment of those about me: “Bless you, prison!”

p. 313

Quote: Survive!

One’s own order to oneself, “Survive!”, is the natural splash of a living person. Who does not wish to survive? Who does not have the right to survive? Straining all the strength of our body! An order to all our cells: Survive! …

They lead thirty emaciated but wiry zeks [=prisoners] three miles across the Arctic ice to a bathhouse. The bath is not worth even a warm word. Six men at a time wash themselves in five shifts, and the door opens straight into the subzero temperature, and four shifts are obliged to stand there before or after bathing — because they cannot be left without convoy. And not only does none of them get pneumonia. They don’t even catch cold. (And for ten years one old man had his bath just like that, serving out his term from age fifty to sixty. But then he was released, he was at home. Warm and cared for, he burned up in one month’s time. That order — “Survive!” — was not there. …)

But simply “to survive” does not yet mean “at any price.” “At any price” means : at the price of someone else.

The Gulag Archipelago, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, p. 302

Hooray for the Russians!

Photo by Julius Silver on Pexels.com

… Even though it really stank to be one during WWII.

The first time [Russia] betrayed [her soldiers] was on the battlefield, through ineptitude — when the government, so beloved by the Motherland, did everything it could to lose the war: destroyed the lines of fortifications, set up the whole air force for annihilation; dismantled the tanks and artillery; removed the effective generals; and forbade the armies to resist. And the war prisoners were the men whose bodies took the blow and stopped the Wehrmacht.

The second time they were heartlessly betrayed by the Motherland was when she abandoned them to die in captivity [as prisoners of war of the Germans].

And the third time they were unscrupulously betrayed was when, with motherly love, she coaxed them to return home, with such phrases as “The Motherland has forgiven you! The Motherland calls you!” and snared them the moment they reached the frontiers.

Very few of the [Russian] war prisoners returned across the Soviet border as free men, and if one happened to get through by accident because of the prevailing chaos, he was seized later on, even as late as 1946 or 1947. Some were arrested at assembly points in Germany. Others weren’t arrested openly right away but were transported from the border in freight cars, under convoy, to one of the numerous Identification and Screening Camps scattered throughout the country. … As always, the interrogation [at these camps] began with the hypothesis that you were obviously guilty. And you, without going outside the barbed wire, had to prove that you were not guilty. Your only available means to this end was to rely on witnesses who were exactly the same kind of POWs as you. Obviously they might not have turned up in your screening camp; they might, in fact, be at the other end of the country; in that case, the Security Officers would send off inquiries, and you yourself would be questioned as a witness in some other case. True, it might take a year or two before your fate was resolved, but after all, the Motherland was losing nothing in the process. You were out mining coal every day.

“Oh, if only I had known!” That was the refrain in the prison cells that spring. If I had only known that this was how I would be greeted! That they would deceive me so! That this would be my fate! Would I have really returned to my Motherland? Not for anything!

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, abridged, from pp. 98 – 100

Contrast this to the famous photograph of an American sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square on V-J Day.

Quote: Through Every Human Heart

Where did this wolf-tribe [of KGB torturers] appear from among our people? Does it really stem from our own roots? Our own blood?

It is our own.

And just so we don’t go around flaunting too proudly the white mantle of the just, let everyone ask himself: “If my life had turned out differently, might I myself not have become just such an executioner?”

It is a dreadful question if one really answers it honestly.

So let the reader who expects this book to be a political expose slam its covers shut right now.

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

During the life of any heart this line keeps changing place; sometimes it is squeezed one way by exuberant evil and sometimes it shifts to allow enough space for good to flourish.

Confronted by the pit into which we are about to toss those who have done us harm, we halt, stricken dumb: it is after all only because of the way things worked out that they were the executioners and we weren’t.

From good to evil is one quaver, says the proverb.

And correspondingly, from evil to good.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, abridged version, from pp. 73, 74, 75