Ten or twelve life-changing books: #4

4. 1976 Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago

Throughout the grinding of our souls in the gears of the great Nighttime Institution, when our souls are pulverized and our flesh hangs down in tatters like a beggar’s rags, we suffer too much and are too immersed in our own pain to rivet with penetrating and far-seeing gaze those pale night executioners who torture us. A surfeit of inner grief floods our eyes. Otherwise what historians of our torturers we would be! (Vol 1, chap 4).

I can remember how passages like this made my hair stand on end.

Solzhenitsyn describes the terrors and injustices of the Soviet penal camp system and the politics and mock trials that supported it. A monumental sewage disposal system, is his metaphor. It is chocked full of anecdotes, and Solzhenitsyn, himself an inmate during the time covered in the book, committed them to memory, with astonishing retention of names and details — but never unless the story was confirmed by a second witness.

There is a dark comedic strain that runs through the entirety, that should not be missed. This aspect may be why some of the stories leave a deep mark on the memory that can only be matched by episodes from Dante. There was a party function where a tribute to Stalin was ordered. Instantly, everyone jumped to his feet and began applauding. But no one dared be the first to stop applauding. “For three minutes, four minutes, five minutes, the stormy applause, rising to an ovation, continued.” Who could stop it? Not the functionary who had called for the ovation — he had taken the place of one who’d been arrested. “Six, seven, eight minutes.” When after eleven minutes someone on the stage did stop, everyone else also stopped, instantly, in relief. But that person was rounded up. Ten years.

Surrounded by a reign of terror with no reason to hope it would ever end, Solzhenitsyn nevertheless did hope. He had found God. The exchange of his freedom for God was his life-changing moment. It stamped his soul. He actually thanked his prison cell.

Bless you prison, bless you for being in my life. For there, lying upon the rotting prison straw, I came to realize that the object of life is not prosperity as we are made to believe, but the maturity of the human soul.

The man that emerged from the other end of the tunnel became, I believe, the most important prophet of the twentieth century.

In passing, I should mention a subliminal effect this work had on me. Solzhenitsyn’s tacit attitude throughout the grisly narrative was: This too must end; the truth will out and will triumph. Our people will repent and be reformed. This attitude is what set the stage for what I would later call post-millennialism. The a-millennial pilgrim motif is a partial truth, but Solzhenitsyn’s resistance in hope simply cannot emerge from that model, it seems to me. The amillennialist, testicles being crushed in the dungeon interrogation room, says “what do you expect?” Everyone else says, “something other than this.” For me it has little to do with a construction of how world history will turn out. It is far more a matter of the as-if; working in anticipation that doing so makes a difference, and that the truth will out, in history. The people will have an opportunity to repent, to change. It is a possibility always hovering.

Many probably assume that this massive work is obsolete now that the Soviet Union has collapsed. This is not so. First, it is a story about humanity, and its vision into the human heart cannot be obsoleted. But second, the gulag is shaping up quite literally to sally forth, this time under the guidance of our own rulers, in the USA (while Russia has become the only major power that defends Christendom). The divine humor in this great trading of places indicates that not all the possibilities of this basic form of demonism have yet been revealed, and defeated, in history. True, none of us know people that have had the doors kicked down at 2 AM: it is not yet the same in that respect. But there is a pall over our public discourse. We can’t use certain words: yet we can’t explain why. We can’t voice certain opinions, or risk losing our jobs. People turn us in. We lose our jobs, become ostracized, marginalized. Now, we don’t even get the dignity of a show-trial. Indeed, the cunning by which our rulers have brought about much of the same bondage without the need for female testicle-crushers and midnight interrogations may be the story of our half-century.

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