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“The God-imposed aim” of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s life

Myroslav Marynovych

The moment when Providence chooses a person to carry out a historical mission is beyond human comprehension. What depends on the person is whether he heeds the voice speaking to him from within and obeys it, which as the Hebrew prophets bear witness, is not always easy. For that voice does not usually call to luxury in regal chambers, but to great pain and suffering.

I don’t know at what moment Alexander Isaevich Solzhenitsyn was called to such a great mission. Perhaps when he miraculously recovered from cancer? Did he perhaps then have the feeling that he was on borrowed time (Andriy Sheptytsky) in order to carry out something very great? “All the life returned to me from that time was not mine in the full sense of the word, it has an imposed purpose.”* However it was Solzhenitsyn who heard that voice, heeded the calling and fulfilled his task with honour. At that time the world was ripe for the truth about the Gulag, or more precisely, ready enough to be filled with horror, and the word of truth poured from Alexander Isaevich’s lips and began to free the human soul. From that time on the world clearly sensed that the nails were being loudly beaten into the coffin of the communism Solzhenitsyn hated.

Yet in the life of the great there is a moment which is especially dangerous for them. After all it is important for a person to feel not only that moment when the Lord places His hand upon their shoulder, leading them to a courageous deed, but also the moment when He takes His hand away. No, I am not saying that God abandons a person – it is their specific mission, demanding God’s special attention, which is ended.  The bliss given to those persecuted for the truth ceases. He who fails to notice this in time risks continuing to play his role although the play has ended.

It would seem as though Alexander Isaevich did not notice this second moment. It is probably this which explains all the tragedy of his later life.

It’s hard, after all, for people to realize that they do not become great, but that they are chosen for greatness. And when, having concluded your mission, you feel that Providence is filling somebody else with the passionary spirit, it is important to feel that you are a key on the Divine fortepiano, which must be heard as needed in the melody of the heavenly spheres when touched by God’s finger, but not fall away when the finger strikes neighbouring keys. …

* * *

What can a former Ukrainian dissident feel about Alexander Isaevich? I will speak for myself: gratitude and, at once, reproach. The second need not of course cancel out the first, on the contrary, with Solzhenitsyn’s passing into eternity, the reproach should decrease, turning into conceptual statements, while the gratitude should grow. It is this that we would wish for about us after our death.

We owe Solzhenitsyn our eternal and unqualified gratitude that the world once again heard the truth about the crimes of communism. Political memory is very short-lasting, and by the time “One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich” and the “Gulag Archipelago” appeared, the world had already forgotten the testimony of Viktor Kravchenko, a communist functionary in Ukraine, who during the suffering of night torture vowed that he would tell the world what was going on in secret in the torture chambers of the NKVD, and he did so. His book “I chose freedom”, which was published in the USA in 1946 had an explosive effect and aroused heated discussion.

Yet the world loves the strong and successful, and therefore the magnetic figure of the victor of the Second World War – “Uncle Joe”, with his inevitable pipe and Georgian moustache, attracted westerners much more than his victims traumatized by their suffering. They therefore forgot about the Gulag.

Alexander Isaevich who also vowed in memory of his campmates that he would tell the world of their suffering also rent apart the veil of silence. “If Chekhov’s members of the intelligentsia, all musing over what would be in twenty-thirty-forty years, had been told that in forty years in Rus there would be interrogation through torture, that they would squeeze a skull through an iron ring, drop a person into a bath of acid, naked and bound, torment him with ants and bed bugs, that a burning hot cleaning rod would be thrust into his anal cavity (“secret branding”), that they would slowly press down with a boot on his genitals, and as the very lightest – torture through a week of sleeplessness, thirst and beat him to the bleeding flesh – not one of Chekhov’s plays would have reached the end, all the heroes would have ended up in a madhouse” (Gulag Archipelago).

Humanity is still discussing why there is such inexplicable asymmetry in the assessment of the crimes of Nazism and communism. One can name dozens of reasons why we’ve ended up in this position and why so many people consider a communist Nuremburg – 2 to be untimely and unnecessary. Yet it is impossible to corrupt Heaven and an untaken exam will sooner or later bring us to the desks as D-grade students.

It is Russia’s unwillingness to declare communism a crime and express repentance for it that dooms it to support for a return to it today and new upheavals tomorrow. What bitter irony over Putin’s policy of glorifying Russia’s history we find in Alexander Isaevich’s words: “Or even more terrible is the fact that thirty years later they tell us: you shouldn’t go on about that!  if you remember the suffering of millions, that distorts the historical perspective! If you poke about into the essence of our morals, that mars material progress!  Better to recall blast-furnaces burning, rolling lathes, dug canals … no, better not about canals … then about Kolyma gold, no, and better not about that either… You can talk about it all, but knowing how, but glorifying …” (Gulag Archipelago).

You can understand Vladimir Putin and all his supporters in Russia: for a people accustomed to feeling “in front of the entire planet” it’s hard to immediately understand the weight of their mistakes.  The intention, therefore, to “renew the greatness and strength of Russia” was inevitable and doomed to overall support. Yet bad news awaits Russia: the Russians will still have to go through that catharsis which they should have experienced after the collapse of the Soviet Union.  After all Solzhenitsyn had said it: “We don’t have the strength for an Empire!  - and we don’t need it, let it fall from our shoulders: it crushes us, and drains and hastens our downfall” (“How to build Russia”). It will only happen, unfortunately, under the worst circumstances and at the price of greater suffering.

However Ukrainians have nothing to gloat over since Ukraine also needs to go through its own catharsis, and not hide either behind an adaptation of Putin’s policy of glorification of the Soviet past, or under the guise of victims of classic occupation.  It is the unwillingness of a considerable part of Ukraine to acknowledge the crime of communism and repent for their part in it that is dooming it to division of its national spirit and to endlessly standing still.

There is something significant and at once fundamentally flawed in the fact that no nation which paid homage to the communist Beast is today expressing repentance. All consider themselves victims, placing the blame on others. Well, the fact that they were victims is indisputable – Ukrainians need look no further than Holodomor for evidence of that. Yet what about guilt?  The guilt of the Russian people is for me clear and cannot be placed on a par with the guilt, for example, of the Latvian shooters who at a terrible time for them protected the Bolshevik hydra from destruction. Yet are we not oversimplifying the situation for ourselves by placing the blame for the communist crime only on the Russians?  Is the fear of moral or material restitution not constraining the work of national consciences? 

A former victim who, seeing that the person who harmed him shows no repentance, fires up hatred towards him, and in so doing shows that he has big problems with spirituality. A real revelation for me came in the words of Emil Castro: “The victim does not only receive restitution. S/he holds the key to real and fundamental reconciliation”. After all it is the victim who forgives, only he alone. Furthermore, the repentance of the wrong-doing does not have to be a prerequisite for forgiveness – it would be difficult to imagine Jesus in the moment of the passion crying “Forgive them, Father, but only on condition that they repent!”

Therefore the following words from Solzhenitsyn apply also to Ukrainians: “Without exception, each nation, however persecuted, aggrieved and absolutely right it may feel, at some time undoubtedly added its share of callousness, injustice and arrogance” (“Repentance and self-limitation as categories of national life”).  Ukrainians’ current misfortunes (like the misfortunes of many peoples who were their Gulag colleagues) from one point of view are like the floundering of a spiritually undeveloped consciousness which seeks camouflage for its sores and to be excused for its faults.

Yet the transformation of consciousness should be no less radical in the West since it was in the socialist circles of Europe and in the university auditoriums of Harvard, Oxford and the Sorbonne that the impenetrable shields were forged which for so long protected the communist monster. In his address to Harvard graduates on 8 June 1977, Solzhenitsyn gave a psychological diagnosis for the illness: “Hitler never had so many resources, so many people, so many penetrating ideas, so many of his own supporters in the western world, a fifth column, as the Soviet Union”. Yet Solzhenitsyn was not able to overcome this disease. Even the fall of the USSR was a shock for the western elite, but not a lesson.

With the change of the respectable and wealthy Soviet Union into the respectable and wealthy Russia, their value system has basically not changed at all. The same pattern so aptly noted by Alexander Solzhenitsyn: “Western thinking has become conservative only in order to maintain the world situation as it is, only so that nothing changes. The enfeebling dream of the status quo is the sign of a society which has ended its development”. The West will therefore, it would seem, once again take its lesson resolving the problems which Putin places before it.

The unrecognized, unpunished and not repented for crime of communism thus hangs over all players in the present geopolitical drama. Alexander Solzhenitsyn was and will always be one of the most vocal witnesses for the prosecution at a thus far virtual trial of history. He formulated the thesis which I came to later, on an entirely empirical basis, observing the bacchanalia of evil in Ukrainian politics. “The destruction of our souls over three quarters of a century – that is the most terrible thing” (“How to build Russia”). Indeed the greatest victims of communism were not the innocent who were slaughtered, but those who remained to live on.

* * *

My main reproach against Solzhenitsyn, as could be predicted, is over his twisted understanding of the Ukrainian situation. This feeling emerges precisely because I did not expect such an expansive great-national mentality from a former prisoner of Stalin’s labour camps who had such close contact with Ukrainian prisoners.  “But then in cut-off Halychyna, under Austrian tending, a distorted Ukrainian non-native language was grown, littered with German and Polish words, with the temptation to wean the Carpathian Rusins off the Russian language and the temptation of full all-Ukrainian separatism”

(“How to build Russia”)

I find it difficult also to understand how such a morally attuned writer like Solzhenitsyn, in the same work could have blithely carved up the territory of Kazakhstan, and passed unequivocal geopolitical sentence on the Crimean Tatars. “The Crimean Tatars must of course be enabled to make a full return to the Crimea. However with a density of population in the XXI century with room for 8-10 million – the hundred thousand strong Tatar people cannot demand to own it”  And this was said by a representative of a country which holds the uninhabited expenses of Siberia, proudly refusing to give up a part of its territory to overpopulated China!

One can assume that we are dealing here not with a conscious great-country position, but with stereotypes of consciousness which are simply not noticed by those who hold them (such stereotypes are of course held not only by Russians, but by Ukrainians too). This view is prompted by a typical phrase by Solzhenitsyn from the same work which combines both willingness to recognize the bitter truth and an unconscious indifference to the pain of other peoples. “Over three quarters of a century – with the foisted and trumpeted “socialist freedom of nations” the communist authorities muddled, corrupted and dirtied so much in the relations between these peoples that you can no longer see the paths by which to return with one regrettable exception, to that peaceful co-existence of nations, that even drowsy lack of distinction of nations which had almost been achieved in the last decades of pre-revolutionary Russia”.

This is so typical for a patriot of Russia – to not notice that this supposed “peaceful and drowsy co-existence of nation” was achieved at the cost of arrests and exile “not allowed to write or pain”, at the cost of decrees against the use of, for example, Ukrainian language and police control over the mood of citizens.  This so reminds one of the responses of those who today look with nostalgia to the deceased – Soviet Union. “After all we lived together so nicely!”  In truth “drowsy lack of distinction” of ills inflicted on others!

However it is entirely possible that the specific perception is not due to a conscious great-nation callousness, but from the fact that for Solzhenitsyn Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians are basically one people. When he pronounces the word “peoples”, he effectively means other peoples beyond the circle of “internal” East Slavonic peoples. “One of the features of Russian history which has always been there and remains, has supposed such a direction of crimes in mass form and we have largely perpetrated them not outside, but within, not to others, but to ourselves. It is Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians who have most of all suffered from our misfortunes” (“Repentance and self-limitation as categories of national life.”)  Here all three nations are mentioned as tribes, as ethnic groups of one nation – as a Ukrainian would say: “From the “Wisla” operation it was the Lemki and Boiki who suffered the most”.

This in my view makes clear Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Achilles’ heel. It is impossible to “build Russia” in a civilized manner on this basis. This is why Solzhenitsyn proved to be a heeded and rejected prophet. The Russian people heard him when, having taken hold of a military compass, it began defining its new sphere of influence. This is already less than it was, however its nature has remained the same: let each person keep their hope who is added to the inner circle of “our people”. Yet the people have still remained deaf to Solzhenitsyn’s call to repentance.

* * *

I would venture to repeat myself that with Solzhenitsyn’s passing into eternity our reproach should decrease, turning into conceptual statements while our gratitude should grow. His unforgettable call “to live not by lies” moved many a heart who in those far off years furtively glanced at half-faded reprints of samizdat, or through the cacophonous jamming listened to every word on Radio Svoboda. This call is not new, however blessed is he who repeats it at the right time and in the right place.  Alexander Solzhenitsyn reminded us of it in the very “bastion of world evil” and at a time of its respectable impunity. He reminded each person of the simple truth how one can at the personal level fight evil. “Violence can hide behind nothing except lies, and a lie can only be maintained by force. And it does not lay its heavy paw on every shoulder, nor every day; it demands from us only submission to lies – that’s where all the loyalty lies. And it is here that we find the simplest, most accessible key to our liberation which we spurned: personal non-complicity in the lie! Let the lie cover everything, let it control everything, however in the smallest thing we will hold firm: let it control everything, but not through me!” (“To live not by lies”) These words can be seen as an epitaph which the author himself carved upon his grave.

Solzhenitsyn had the courage, having fastidiously rejected one sinful system, to recognize the inner rot of its main rival. “It is depressing that generated through contemporary adversarial publicity, the intellectual pseudo-elite sneers at the absolute nature of the concepts of Good and Evil, hides indifference to them through “pluralism of ideas” and deeds. Initial European democracy was imbued with the sense of Christian responsibility and self-discipline. However, gradually these spiritual foundations have been eroded. Spiritual independence is squeezed out and twisted by the dictatorship of triviality, fashion and group interests. We are entering democracy not in its healthy age,” (“How to build Russia”)

Yet it would seem that the critical attitude to the West proved a disservice to Solzhenitsyn. It would seem that Alexander Isaevich was not devoid of the prejudice typical for Russians of the Third Rome (i.e. Russia – translator) to the First Rome. However, even if he really personally and consciously did not nurture it his criticism fostered that eternal opposition. Whether he wanted it or not, he contributed to the “greatness and strength” of Russia being perceived by its citizens in terms of its eternal opposition to the West. As a result, the moral truth in Solzhenitsyn’s assessment of the West proved to a large extent weakened.

This is why the gravestone monument to Solzhenitsyn could be reminiscent of that on the grave of Khrushchev – a combination of white and black stone. There is nothing ill-meant in this: all people who have lived, are alive or will live on our sinful earth deserve such a monument in the eyes of the Lord. Solzhenitsyn himself articulated the reason: “We have lost the MEASURE OF FREEDOM. We have no means of defining where it begins and where it ends” (Gulag Archipelago).


*  the Russian “vlozhennya tsel” is translated in the title as “God-given”, but the word literally means enclosed or added to something  (translator)

Published in the periodical “Krytyka”

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