Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is someone I only recently discovered. After a group of readers and I had gone through Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life, his references to the Russian survivor inspired us to take the plunge into Gulag. After reading this review, I hope you will take the same leap.
The Real Problem of Evil
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?Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago (1973; New York: Harper Row Publishers Inc., 2007), 130
We make many films about the WWII Allies and their battle with the Nazis. We, the viewers, always see ourselves in the faces of the characters that survive, but never the nameless soldiers who die in the theatrical explosions and gunfire. After all, our lives are too significant to identify with the soldier who perishes in the opening scenes!
During my seminary education, it seemed that on a semester basis the question, “should you lie to the Nazis to save the Jews”, would come up. Many answers would be given. Some would say, “No, we can’t lie because God forbids it.” Others would say, “I will rely on God’s mercy and take my chance with lying.” In either case, you see yourself as a kind of hero, standing boldly for God or boldly for the oppressed.
The war movies that we grew up with are authentic and the heroes are to be celebrated as they stopped the advance of evil authoritarian forces. Their sacrifice is admirable, and their courage is something that we should seek to replicate. But what of Russian communism and its evils? Solzhenitsyn’s first volume presents the reader with a comparison of the Nazi evil and the Communist evil.
…[she] was confined in the internal prison of a Nazi camp while they tried to find out from her the whereabouts of her husband, who had escaped from that same camp. She knew, but she refused to tell! For a reader who is not in the know, this is a model of heroism. For a reader with a bitter Gulag past, it’s a model of inefficient interrogation: Yuliya [sic] did not die under torture, and she was not driven insane. A month later she was simply released — still very much alive and kicking.Ibid. 133
What we learn from Solzhenitsyn and the accounts of survivors is that there are no heroes in Gulag. If a movie were to be created about Gulag, it would live up to the cliché, “they all die in the end.”
So, what is the Russian version of the “lie to the Nazis” question?
You have just been captured in the middle of the night. You are brought to the Lubyanka prison where they beat you and place papers in front of you. It is a document that accuses you of crimes against the state. They pressure you to sign a confession affirming false accusations. In the room next to you, a cry rings out; it is the cry of your son yelling “Papa!” Should you “confess” and lie to save your son, or should you resist on principle that it is a false claim? As you read Gulag, you will find your decision does not matter. Your son will die either way. So, the question becomes, in the face of such evil, is there any way forward that can ensure truth wins and morality is preserved?
Optimism or Hope?
There is a passage in the gospels upon which we American Christians find reflection difficult:
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone wants to become my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of me will find it. For what does it benefit a person if he gains the whole world but forfeits his life? Or what can a person give in exchange for his life?Matthew 16:24-26; c.f. Mark 8:34
As Christians that have been blessed with so much in the United States, passages like this can be difficult to understand. However, after reading Gulag, they become untangled. It is not that we should relinquish and revile all that God has given us, but that we should acknowledge that all we have is not our own. The maker of our blessings is also the one who requests that we take up our cross and follow him. When Christ called the disciples, they dropped their nets, skills, careers and followed him. One cannot carry a cross while tangled in his nets. God may call us to drop what we have for the benefit of others. He may ask you to leave your job and help an organization you believe in. You may be asked to stand up for a co-worker who has been wrongly accused of racism. Whatever God asks of you, it must be done in the spirit that says “These are not my things. Not even my body belongs to me. Not my will, but your will be done.” Solzhenitsyn echoes this point discussing how to overcome the brutal torture of Soviet interrogations:
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? From the moment you go to prison you must put your cozy past firmly behind you. 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. [emphasis mine]Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, 130.
Gulag is dark, but its light is bright. It provides a look into the mystery of how God descends into the darkest moments in human history without cheapening the gospel with prosperity tricks that are so common today. It is an authentic look at the evil that lies within the heart of every man. It was not just Stalin who was evil, it was all those who failed to stand for the rights of their friends, family, and fellow citizens. The number of deaths in Gulag is impossible to calculate. The deaths that occurred outside of the Gulags were significant as well. What occurred in Russia is best described as a death of conscience. Men traded their neighbors, their friends, their families, and their souls to the goals of the state in exchange for their temporary preservation. A communist regime survives on the exchange of one’s conscience for the preservation of the regime.
It is in contrasting Gulag with the passages of scripture about death to self, that we must recognize that Christianity is a paradoxical religion; it is both hopeful and nihilistic: nihilistic in the sense that you will suffer as a disciple of Christ in this life, hopeful in that this suffering is one of the ways our salvation is confirmed and we relate to our Savior. Suffering is only for a season, but that is because death is the conclusion of the season. A Christian must have a healthy dose of Nihilism in his theology, otherwise he will be deluded into thinking he can hold his gold in one hand and his cross in the other. Nihilism helps us drop our blessings and take up our cross. Christ’s resurrection informs us that taking up our cross is worth it. When God calls, may he grant us the strength to drop our nets.
Gulag is excellent. However, it is a difficult read. There are many challenges with identification of characters and organizations such as the several names that the Russian secret police operate under throughout the book. I highly recommend that you pick up this version of the book. It provides a glossary of terms that will help you identify names and key organizations that were significant in the implementation of Communism and the Gulag. That said, don’t overthink the names of political figures, organizations, and persons in the book. The volume is long, and it’s more important that one does not lose motivation.
Secondly, read this in a group. I recommend a group of 3-5 people. Any bigger than that, and it will be difficult to manage the discussion. The topics are very deep and it’s important to allow for everyone to contribute on the content. We went at a pace of around 100 pages a week, and it was challenging for my group. I wouldn’t recommend going much faster as it is a book that should provoke reflection.
Finally, if you look at Gulag and say “Whoa, Bessy! I’m not a paper shredder. What’s the cliff notes version?” I have listed below several other books, including the abridged version.
- Conversations with a Dying Man – Samuel Rutherford
- In The First Circle – Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn
- The Gulag Archipelago Paperback [Abridged] – International Edition – Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn
- Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents – Rod Dreher
- 12 Rules for Life – Jordan B. Peterson
- Man’s Search for Meaning – Viktor E. Frankl
Looking forward to reading the review!
Thanks for the great reflections.
Perhaps some more tips on reading Gulag:
1. Expect lots of repetition in themes and narration of supporting evidence: names, events, etc. Do not resent the repetition; it’s there to be pounded into the reader’s soul over and over again so as to become unforgettable.
2. In the review we read, ‘We, the viewers, always see ourselves in the faces of the characters that survive, but never the nameless soldiers who die in the theatrical explosions and gunfire. After all, our lives are too significant to identify with the soldier who perishes in the opening scenes!”
True. Also, we never think of seeing ourselves in the faces of the perpetrators: Stalin, his leading cronies (most of whom were shot in the end), the camp guards, the secret police, the Black Maria drivers, the interrogators, the children who denounced their parents, the parishioners who denounced their priests. Why not? Because we desperately wish to think that we ourselves would not have joined them in their actions.
But we would have done so! Solzhenitsyn, informed by his rediscovered Christianity, wrote that the line between good and evil runs through each heart, rather than between classes of people. If, to take an example closer to home, we had lived in the antebellum South, we would most of us have been staunch defenders of the institution of slavery–just as most Americans today are making or have made their peace with our society’s current monstrous sins.
This situation constitutes the real force behind the petition in the Our Father, “And lead us not into temptation.” It is not the 1950s’ Leave it to Beaver kind of evil, where the Beaver takes fifteen cents off his Dad’s dresser but ‘fesses up to him later. That’s wrong, but it’s Sunday School stuff. No, the Gulag grade evil sucks you in, quickly snuffing out your initial horror of your own participation, and replacing it with the heart-searing self-justification so delightful to Satan himself, and eventually teaching you the pleasures of acting as a cruel mini-Stalin yourself to your neighbor.
3. We read,
“At the very threshold [of prison], 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.'”
Yes! I have found this passage to be perhaps the best explanatory analogy to Christ’s remarks that every disciple of his must die to himself. In the words of St. Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ.” This is the Christian nihilism. But the account continues, for I still live, he says. This time, however, I live Christ’s life within me–his resurrected life, to boot!
It is a most curious but necessary state of affairs: I live, even though I am dead. I am dead, even though I live.
Great thoughts James! Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts!
An enjoyable and stimulating review. I was not sure I agreed with Jordan Peterson’s warning that we are all capable of evil, but, yes, I would be capable of failing to stand against evil: “It was not just Stalin who was evil, it was all those who failed to stand for the rights of their friends, family, and fellow citizens.”
Thanks for your thoughts Laura, and for taking the time to read it!