Our souls can grow under suffering
Solzhenitsyn scholar reflection
Daniel J. Mahoney, Augustine Chair in Distinguished Scholarship at Assumption College, French political thought specialist, and Solzhenitsyn scholar, delivered a lecture entitled “Soul and Barbed Wire: Reflections on the 50th Anniversary of Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago.”
Aleksandr Isaevich Solzhenitsyn was a Gulag survivor, Soviet exile, and prolific writer who drew upon his experiences in his writing. In 1970 he won a Nobel Prize in Literature.
The lecture was sponsored by the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, the Constitutional Studies Program, the Center for Ethics and Culture, and the Department of Political Science. Mahoney will speak on campus again at the Center for Ethics and Culture’s 19th Annual Fall Conference, “Higher Powers,” which will take place November 1st through 3rd this year.
2018 is the centennial of Solzhenitsyn’s birth, Mahoney pointed out. The children born in Russia in 1918 were regarded as “Lenin’s Children.” Solzhenitsyn, however, proved counter to this label. Over the course of ten years, he wrote the Gulag Archipelago, a 1600-page book in seven parts and three volumes which recounts the atrocities of the Soviet labor camp system.
Mahoney highly recommended reading the chapter in Volume I called “The Bluecaps” wherein this famous quote lies, reflecting Solzhenitsyn’s view that ideology is at the center of the Soviet terror: “The imagination and the spiritual strength of Shakespeare’s evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology. Ideology––that is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evil doer the necessary steadfastness and determination… Thanks to ideology, the twentieth century was fated to experience evildoing on a scale calculated in the millions.”
Despite the brutalities suffered under the Soviet regime, Solzhenitsyn still maintained hope in his writing. “There’s not a trace of nihilism or despair to be found in Solzhenitsyn’s writings,” said Mahoney. “He insists light is ontologically prior to darkness, despite the persistence of evil in the human soul.”
Further, according to Mahoney, one can juxtapose the accounts of Solzhenitsyn and Shalamov in the Gulag, conveying a “great anthropological divide.” The latter writes that the camps reveal human nature as it really is, placing self-preservation above love, which is a very Hobbesian conception of human nature. Solzhenitsyn, on the other hand, saw that suffering led to spiritual ascent.
Central to Solzhenitsyn’s political vision was the division between truth and falsehood. He would often write of “the Progressive doctrine” in a sneering, sardonic way, Mahoney noted: “[Solzhenitsyn] never wavered in telling the truth about communist totalitarianism.”
Solzhenitsyn wrote that the publication of The Gulag Archipelago in various languages was“the beginning of the end.” Many people wrote to Solzhenitsyn of their experiences in the Gulag. He visited many of these people whose stories helped form The Gulag Archipelago.
John B. Dunlop, an expert on Soviet and Russian politics, commented that “The Gulag Archipelago is a personalistic feast.” To maintain his personhood, Solzhenitsyn asked Lithuanian Catholics in the labor camp to construct a large rosary for him so he could memorize a 12,000-word autobiographical poem. Solzhenitsyn wrote, “In the camps, all are depersonalized… [presenting] a face of the soul distorted.” Hence, in The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn as a philosophical poet made visible souls whose interiority had been covered up.
Mahoney summed up Solzhenitsyn’s argument in two sentences: “Human nature is ultimately more powerful than ideology. God’s grace is more powerful than imperfect human nature.”
In his Letter to the Corinthians, Saint Paul wrote, “Behold, I tell you a mystery. We shall all indeed rise again: but we shall not all be changed” (1 Cor 15:51). It is Christ who elevates those in suffering through His grace.
“Solzhenitsyn has been rightly compared to Saint George, fearlessly subduing the dragon of ideology,” Mahoney said, “the Gulag Archipelago is the most powerful indictment of political ideology in history.”
Yet, Solzhenitsyn noted in “The Bluecaps,” “if you expect this merely to be a political exposée, then slam it shut right now.” The Gulag Archipelago is mostly about the human soul, regarding an individual Manichaeism. “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,” Solzhenitsyn wrote.
And so, at the end of “The Ascent,” Solzhenitsyn confesses: “Bless you prison for being in my life.” It was only in being in prison and the camps he learned these essential truths about the human soul and human nature, Mahoney said.
Bea Cuasay is a sophomore studying Philosophy and Humanistic Studies and an aspiring Constitutional Studies minor. She is not in Michigan. If you’d like to discuss how God draws straight with crooked lines, you can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.