When I was in my twenties and first heard about Solzhenitsyn’s book, I was not interested. The hard-to-pronounce name of the author, the strange title of his work and its enormous size sufficed to put me off. But over the years, as I heard more about Solzhenitsyn, I was drawn to his history of the Soviet Union’s prison camp system.
The Gulag Archipelago, which was published at separate intervals during the 1970s, is a massive three-volume work (I should mention that an abridged version has been made available). A pervasive silence with regard to the evils of Communist Russia justified the length of Solzhenitsyn’s study. Even today those evils are largely ignored or rationalized or made to look like something that they were not. And, of course, the vast majority of those who would have provided first-hand testimonies never came forth from the slave labor camps. Some twenty million people were killed under Stalin’s leadership alone. But Stalin’s precursor, Lenin, was no slouch when it came to oppressive measures and mass murder. In any case, Solzhenitsyn, a survivor of this tyranny, tried to serve as a voice for those who did not survive.
Another reason that I was initially uninterested in The Gulag Archipelago was that its subject seemed too remote and irrelevant, like histories about the Huns or Genghis Khan. In short: “What does this have to do with the world that I know?” But after delving into it, I came to realize just how relevant it is; and not only in the negative sense.
The negative relevance of Solzhenitsyn’s book concerns innumerable issues with which we are all familiar today: threats against free speech; the practice of imposing guilt and shame upon those who are guilty of nothing; a fawning, groveling, agenda-driven media, and so on. The positive relevance of Solzhenitsyn’s book can be summed up in two words: spirituality and wisdom.
The Gulag Archipelago is a profoundly spiritual book. While it does not push a particular religious faith, it strongly suggests that the rejection of God and religious values inevitably leads to mass dehumanization. Moreover, the author inspires gratitude, a deep appreciation for the most ordinary goods of this life: bodily health, food and drink and sufficient clothing, shelter from inclement weather, the freedom to merely stretch out comfortably, and the companionship of people who love us and value us.
And as a sample of Solzhenitsyn’s wisdom, I conclude with the following quote:
“Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts. The line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains … an un-uprooted small corner of evil.”