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Remember, O Thou Man

Remember, O Thou Man Week 4: Why Solzhenitsyn is in My Top 3 Historical Figures, feat. more ‘Four Last Things’ than some might be able to stomach

Tallyhi friends!

How are you on this fine Monday to end all Mondays?

*waits for response*

Oh it’s not Monday when you’re reading this?

I wish I could time travel.

I’m a pretty patient person, especially with spreadsheets, so let me tell you I don’t say lightly that we are all sort of losing our heads at work right now. Things are just insane. I finished today by no longer being able to follow a straight line with my eyes…my right eye has been wandering. I think perhaps I’m working too hard. I know the others are. (Daddy Rabbit, I swear, you’re looking more and more beaten down by the day and I don’t like it, I tell you.)

So yeah. 😀 How was your day?

I hope it was spectacular! Mine did have its high points despite craziness. Such as eating fried eggs with pickled onions and feta cheese for dinner. And visiting Thornrose Graveyard, which is in full Violet Vale mode right now. And also, getting to share with you a) one of the best essays I’ve ever written b) therein, some of my absolute favorite things about one of my absolute favorite historical figures.

I’ve said quite a few times that G.K. Chesterton, Stan Rogers, and Aleksander Solzhenitsyn are my 3 favorite non-canonized historical figures. I’ve certainly explained many a time and by varying methods why Stan Rogers is on that list, and Chesterton’s work is something I reference constantly; I don’t think anybody could debate his position on the podium.

But I realized recently that I’ve barely spoken at all about Solzhenitsyn’s work, and why I love him so. I also realized that the best way to do that is to give you a lengthy (and uncharacteristically formal) essay I wrote a while ago about his most famous work, The Gulag Archipelago. Which is at least 50% just a collection of some of the most striking snippets from that piece.

As to why it’s relevant to Remember, O Thou Man…well. If you read it, you’ll be able to see why.

Although fair warning: this is not for the faint of heart. Seventeen year old Grim had a pretty strong stomach, and a lot of the more striking and pivotal sections are kind of…well, we’ll just say sad. I don’t think I included any of the gory or nasty parts. Just some excessively sad ones. So if you want to skip this one, I’ll not shame you.

Anyhow. Take care of yourself till next week, friend. I can’t believe we only have one Remember, O Thou Man post left! Last year it seemed to stretch out for ages and this year I can barely keep up.

I leave you now in the hands of 17 year old Grim.

(I can assure you it’s not a place you want to be for long.)

Tallyho!

Eternal Possessions–A Literary Analysis of The Gulag Archipelago

Surely nobody who reads this book will ever forget it.

That is the first thing that comes to mind when trying to describe The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s massive “literary investigation” into the Soviet labor camps. It was published in 1973, when the Soviet state was still very much alive and well, and it almost instantly produced an explosion. The book was passed around among the Soviet citizens, in the utmost secrecy, as they learned of the things the state had so long hidden from them. No doubt they never forgot it. It made a sensation among the Westerners too. Solzhenitsyn had produced a real, truthful account of the atrocious Soviet cruelties, and right in the middle of the Cold War at that. It could hardly avoid leaving an imprint on people’s memories. 

But it turns out that this book is just as valuable now as it was back then. It’s information-heavy, often disturbing, and almost absurdly long (1,980 pages all told, broken into three volumes and six parts), so it is certainly not for the faint of heart. But for all that, it is not just a history book. Not even close. In fact, the book’s main value is its intrinsically human component. The Gulag Archipelago is not just a discussion of the Soviet state and the Gulag camps; it is a discussion of the humans in the Soviet state and the Gulag camps—and it was compiled out of hundreds of stories directly from those humans. It is a masterpiece of writing, and a masterpiece of journalism. It is a treatise on the total anarchy that prevails when humanity gives themselves over to evil—and it is a memorial to those few that rise above the chaos of such a situation. Not statesmen, or leaders, or even heroes in a traditional sense, but everyday men and women, whose names are all but unknown.

What makes us human? And is it possible to be human even in the midst of Hell on earth?

Those are the questions the book asks. And, moreover, the book provides the answers. Perhaps it is because this book, like a human, seems to have a body, a mind, and a soul. And I think, in the analysis of these three main components of Solzhenitsyn’s master work, both questions will be clearly answered even to someone who has not read the book. 

The body of The Gulag Archipelago is, of course, the physical, historical component. This is definitely the least pleasant aspect of it, and perhaps the most commonplace as well. Any old historian can slog through even the most unpleasant situations, and Solzhenitsyn does so with a will, detailing not only the situations of the camps themselves, but the history of the camps, the transportation of the camps, the transit prisons, the initial imprisonments, the trials, the sentences, the interrogations, the moment when the bluecaps show up at your door and you know all’s up with you. Every bit of it is reproduced and described, down to minute and gory facts, down to dates and names. It is certainly impressively complete. However, if that were all there was to the body, it still would not be anything to convince one to read the book. I repeat: any old historian can slog through even the most unpleasant situations. But that is most certainly not all. Solzhenitsyn produces most of this complete record via stories from people who experienced it. Certainly, some of it is boring historical monologue. But rarely do two pages go by without even a small anecdote of the people who were in these dreadful situations. Communism is a messy business, to say the least. And an extremely dehumanizing one. If one read a simple history book on the matter as long and detailed as Solzhenitsyn’s, it would weigh down on one pretty hard. But by the constant referral to the humans that experienced the terror, Solzhenitsyn’s style wages war with his material, and never allows the individual to be lost midst the bleak tragedy of the Soviet state. 

The mind of The Gulag Archipelago is possibly its most unexpected aspect: its humor. Yes, humor, in the form of sarcasm, satire, and irony. For all the horrors of the Communist society, it is, at its base, like all other human evils, profoundly laughable. A human that is so removed from God is very terrible and tragic to behold, it is true. But a human philosophy that is so removed from God is so far from anything good, true, or beautiful that it is not only terrible and tragic but also comically ridiculous. And Solzhenitsyn is infinitely aware of this. The book is full of instances where he sarcastically pokes fun at the Soviet regime and everything about it. Take, for instance, this discussion of the “Black Marias”, the police transport cars for condemned prisoners, into which were packed atrocious amounts of ragged, starving zeks:

For many years the Black Marias were steel-gray and had, so to speak, prison written all over them. But in the biggest cities after the war they had second thoughts and decided to paint them bright colors and to write on the outside, “Bread” (the prisoners were the bread of construction), or “Meat” (it would have been more accurate to write “bones”), or even, simply, “Drink Soviet Champagne!” (Vol I, 69)

And it is not only in his stylistic satire that he laughs at the preposterous situation of his country, but in the very anecdotes he picks:

A district Party conference was under way in Moscow Province…At the conclusion of the conference, a tribute to Comrade Stalin was called for. Of course everyone stood up…the small hall echoed with “stormy applause, rising to an ovation.” For three minutes, four minutes, five minutes, the “stormy applause, rising to an ovation,” continued. But palms were getting sore and raised arms were already aching. And the older people were panting from exhaustion. It was becoming insufferably silly even to those who really adored Stalin. However, who would dare be the first to stop?…after all, NKVD men were standing in the hall applauding and watching to see who quit first! And in that obscure, small hall, unknown to the Leader, the applause went on—six, seven, eight minutes! They were done for! Their goose was cooked! They couldn’t stop now till they collapsed with heart attacks!…nine minutes! Ten!…insanity! To the last man! With make-believe enthusiasm on their faces, looking at each other with faint hope, the district leaders were just going to go on and on applauding till they fell where they stood, till they were carried out of the hall on stretchers!…Then, after eleven minutes, the director of the paper factory assumed a businesslike expression and sat down in his seat. And, oh, a miracle took place! Where had the universal, uninhibited, indescribable enthusiasm gone? To a man, everyone else stopped dead, and sat down. They had been saved!

…that same night, the [paper] factory director was arrested. [And when he had signed] the final document of his interrogation, his interrogator reminded him: “Don’t ever be the first to stop applauding!”

…Now that’s what Darwin’s natural selection is. And that’s also how to grind people down with stupidity. (Vol I, 68-69)

 Even the most stoic of readers can hardly help a chuckle. And Solzhenitsyn himself clearly saw the humor of the situation. He, who spent eight years in the Gulag camps and his whole life under that same brutal regime, knows how to laugh—and not just how to laugh at the state, but at those who bow invariably to that same state, himself included. And if that is not the sign of a lively intellect, I would like to know what is.

Finally, there is the soul of The Gulag Archipelago. This is perhaps the hardest to describe. Solzhenitsyn is no preacher. His work was not written to be spiritual. However, it undeniably is spiritual. He seems to be almost unable to help himself. Like peepholes into his own soul, there are times when he breaks the historical and even the satirical tone and speaks to us human to fellow human, standing before God, trying desperately to warn us of the danger. And thusly one will find, in the middle of a long, dense description of some trial or prison or other injustice, a heartbreaking lament for a country gone wrong, a philosophical analysis of the authorities themselves, the story of some nameless individual, now long forgotten by all but this faithful archivist. It is almost impossible to describe how he weaves these moments in, how they work upon the reader, and touch the soul in ways nothing else could. These instances speak for themselves better than I could ever speak for them. So let me quote some at length. 

A small, footnoted tale of the daughter of an innocent man who was condemned to execution:

One little note on eight-year-old Zoya Vlasova. She loved her father intensely. She could no longer go to school [after they took him away]. (They teased her: “Your papa is a wrecker!” She would get in a fight: “My papa is good!”) She lived only one year after the trial. Up to then she had never been ill. During that year she did not once smile; she went about with head hung low, and the old women prophesied: “She keeps looking at the earth; she is going to die soon.” She died of inflammation of the brain, and as she was dying she kept calling out: “Where is my papa? Give me my papa!” When we count up the millions of those who perished in the camps, we forget to multiply them by two, by three. (Vol I, 431)

A vignette of the wife of a transit prisoner:

This was in the Kuibyshev Transit Prison in 1950. The prison was situated in a low-lying area…And right above the prison, bordering it on the east, rose a high, long, grassy hill. It was outside the camp compound and above it…Very rarely did anyone ever appear up there, although sometimes goats were pastured there, or children played. And one cloudy summer day a city woman appeared on its ridge. Shading her eyes with her hand and barely moving, she began to scan our compound from above. At the time, three heavily populated cells were taking their outdoor walk in three separate exercise yards—and there in the abyss among those three hundred depersonalized ants she hoped to catch sight of her man! Did she hope that her heart would tell her which one he was? In all probability they had refused to allow her a visit with him and so she had climbed that hill. Everyone noticed her from the courtyards and everyone stared at her. Down below in the hollow there was no wind, but it was blowing hard up above. It made her long dress, her jacket, and her long hair stream out and billow, expressing all that love and anxiety which possessed her. 

I think that a statue of such a woman, right there on that spot, on the hill overlooking the transit prison…just as she actually stood, might explain at least a little something to our grandchildren. 

She was there for a long time…but finally a soldier climbed up and began to shout and wave his hands at her—and chased her away. (Vol I, 550)

A discussion of the morality of the interrogators, coming right in the midst of the detailing of their foul doings:

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? (Vol I, 168, emphasis mine)

And finally, his advice to his countrymen regarding their own imprisonments (also exemplary of his advice to his fellow Russians throughout the book):

So what is the answer? How can you stand your ground when you are weak and sensitive to pain, when people you love are still alive, when you are unprepared? 

What do you need to make you stronger than the interrogator and the whole trap?

…at the very threshold, you must say to yourself: “My life is over, a little early to be sure, but there’s nothing to be done about it. I shall never return to freedom. I am condemned to die—now or a little later. But later on, in truth it will be even harder, and so the sooner the better. I no longer have any property whatsoever. For me those I love have died, and for them I have died. From today on, my body is useless and alien to me. Only my spirit and my conscience remain precious and important to me.”

Confronted by such a prisoner, the interrogation will tremble.

Only the man who has renounced everything can win that victory. (Vol I, 130) 

***

After the publication of the book, Solzhenitsyn became an increasingly controversial figure, as its fame spread, not only in the West but in his own native land. The cumulative result on his own life was his forced exile from his Motherland in 1974. He was sent to Germany, and from there he made his way to Switzerland, and eventually America, where he settled in Vermont. Four years later, on a rainy June day in 1978, Solzhenitsyn gave the Harvard graduation address to an audience of 20,000 people—and consequently infuriated and shocked the Western World. In his speech, instead of the profusion of thanks and praise that the West had expected, he harshly criticized the cowardly Western politicians, deceitful Western press, and materialistic attitude of the West as a whole. He stated, flat out, that America was not a model he would have his country follow. In fact, he compared the lazy humanism of America to the cruel Communism of Russia, and proved that both were, at the core, the same:

One does see the same stones in the foundations of a despiritualized humanism and of any type of socialism: endless materialism; freedom from religion and religious responsibility, which under communist regimes reach the stage of anti-religious dictatorship; concentration on social structures with a seemingly scientific approach…At first glance it seems an ugly parallel: common traits in the thinking and way of life of today’s West and today’s East? But such is the logic of materialistic development.

Most of all, he took issue with the blatant lack of any kind of spirituality in the modern West. He called for a revival of the Medieval zeal for the immortal, and condemned on a whole the humanistic ‘progress’ that started in the Enlightenment:

Even if we are spared destruction by war, our lives will have to change if we want to save life from self-destruction. We cannot avoid revising the fundamental definitions of human life and human society. Is it true that man is above everything? Is there no Superior Spirit above him? Is it right that man’s life and society’s activities have to be determined by material expansion in the first place? Is it permissible to promote such expansion to the detriment of our spiritual integrity?

Aleksander Solzhenitsyn died in 2008, in Moscow, Russia. He was buried three days later in Donskoy Monastery. He lived to be 89 years old.

And now, 42 years after his speech and 47 after his book, both are more important than ever.

The Gulag Archipelago is not an easy book to read. It is extremely disturbing, it is information-heavy, and it is absolutely massive. But it is also worth it. More than, in fact. I would say that everybody ought to read it. 

Because Solzhenitsyn didn’t just leave a record of events, with each human a dash on a graph. He left a biography of suffering and fear and triumph. He left an exhortation to his fellow humans, to “renounce everything”, to take a stand for the truth no matter what kind of Hell they live in. He left it to remind them that they had free will, and a God to account to—and that in the long run, absolutely nothing else matters. 

That is what it means to be human. That is what we all have in common, no matter what befalls us. The God-given ability to suffer. The God-given ability to choose. And the responsibility of using both well. And no matter what happens, these are our eternal possessions. 

“No one on earth has any other way left but—upward.” (Conclusion to the speech.)

And now more than ever in today’s Culture of Death, the world, the West, and we, as individual humans need this book. We need it to remind us of the horrors we are fighting against, and the cost if we fail, it is true. But most of all we need it to remind us that we are human. All of us. No matter what happens. We answer only to God, and we will always have the exercise of our free will.

The Devil can’t take anything unless we give it to him.

2 replies on “Remember, O Thou Man Week 4: Why Solzhenitsyn is in My Top 3 Historical Figures, feat. more ‘Four Last Things’ than some might be able to stomach”

“I leave you now in the hands of 17 year old Grim. (I can assure you it’s not a place you want to be for long.)” << XD I enjoyed my time in 17-year-old Grim's hands! But then, I do love essays (both writing them and reading them), so. There is possible bias of some kind, I guess.

I've not read *much* of Solzhenitsyn, but I do remember what I did read being fantastic, so I'm not surprised that he could make even a nearly-2000-page book interesting most of the time!

And those vignettes! So beautiful and heartbreaking. I can just *picture* that woman on the hill, and I agree with him that a statue of her would be well worth erecting.

"The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being" is something that my mom used to quote to my siblings and me when we were younger (and, she probably still does, I'm just not home to hear it). It's such an impactful quote, especially since it's hard to admit.

It's crazy to me how recent his life actually was! Like, 1970s? Some of that's after my parents were born! (He died in 2008! That's after I was born!) And also the fact that his book was published in Russia AND that ordinary Russians didn't know what was going on. Wut.

Kudos to him, too, for excoriating the West at a Harvard graduation address! (Although those poor graduates, lol. Probably not the encomium they were expecting.)

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Haha, well I have to admire that about you. I’m not huge on essays. I mean, I did well with them in the two college English classes I took, and spent a lot of time tutoring other people on how to write them. In all that time I never fell in love with them–at least, not the formal type I love writing y’know, and I do like writing/reading stuff that supports an idea. But not really formally. That’s something I’d like to change about myself…
Right? He’s such a good writer. Sometimes I just can’t even. I can’t formally recommend the Gulag because it’s just…so intensely gory and graphic…but if you can stomach it, DANG is it good.
That vignette is one of my favorites in the whole book, that I’ve seen. There’s also a beautiful story elsewhere about a camp where the men and women were separated by a wall, but would still try and…interact…through that wall (not necessarily always in a good way). But within that camp, there was a whole crowd of Lithuanian Catholics, and some of them got Sacramentally married by the priest there to a person on the other side of the wall without ever getting to see or touch each other properly…and they’d faithfully pass letters back and forth, and somehow hang on to the glorious hope and holiness of marriage WHILE ON OPPOSITE SIDES OF A WALL. It was an incredible story, for sure.
I do love that quote a lot. We had it up on our fridge at one point. Definitely one that’s worth remembering. I love that your mom quoted it to you often. What a wholesome mother-ly thing to do…
Okay so those two facts also blow my mind, ESPECIALLY THE MATTER OF HOW RECENT HE WAS. You can still find video footage of the guy on YouTube. Just…*ruptures some synapses*…
Lol, I know right. One of my favorite Solzhenitsyn moments for sure. If I recall correctly, Harvard was really mad with him about it. Dude was a savage.
Thanks Sam!

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