Reconsidering Solzhenitsyn (2/3) – Solzhenitsyn, a Shout
Rev. Thierry de Roucy June 1st, 2012
Fifty years ago, A day in the life of Ivan Denissovitch was published, and soon became a literary milestone, and a worldwide phaenomenon. In this novel inspired and documented by his own experience of deportation, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008) unveils the horror of the Gulag, and ignited a fascinating debate over the mysterious value of suffering: There are moments when I say, 'God bless you, prison.' . . .
In this article written in 2008, soon after the Nobel Prize recipient's death, Heart's Home founder Rev. Thierry de Roucy pays hommage to Solzhenitsyn: the writer, the survivor, the man. In our 21st century that is so young, and yet already so heavily burdenned with suffering, Rev. de Roucy presents Solzhenitsyn as a true master: a man who awakens the fundamental questions, those very questions "that have the power to raise us up, or to destroy us."
The great figures who left their imprint on the 20th Century, those who shaped it, are now disappearing, one after the other. I think of Little Sister Magdalena of Jesus (1898-1989), Mother Teresa (1910-1997), Pope John-Paul II (1920-2005), Sister Emmanuelle (1908-2008) . . . I also think of Chagall (1887-1985), Yehudi Menuhin (1916-1999), Rostropovitch (1927-2007) and, more recently, of . . . Aleksandr Isaievitch Solzhenitsyn, who died in Moscow, on August 4, 2010. He was eighty-nine years old.
Truly, the newborn century is becoming orphaned. The bond that kept him attached to the previous century is being severed. The masters who fed him and guided him are now leaving the stage, one by one. It is time for him to walk by himself. He cannot depend anymore on these wise men of the past. However, their experience, their gaze, their work, their writings remain. Our century cannot erase their memory. He has to feed on it, build on it, rely on it.
Solzhenitsyn is no more. Soon after his death, newspapers did not fail to salute the writer, to praise the wrestler, to criticize the polemicist. What I would like to do instead, is to pay homage to the man, to the man as a whole. Solzhenitsyn was more than a writer, more than a wrestler, more than a polemicist. He was a survivor, a Christian, a man with a mission. He was supremely aware of it, and he remained faithful to this mission until his very last breath. His was the task and the duty to undress history: the history of the days when his country was suddenly plunged into decades of an appalling chaos. He would renounce everything that was not directed towards this goal ― trips, too frequent interviews, distractions, never-ending meals . . . There is no time to waste. It is high time to make The Wheel go forward . . .
From the very first time I read Solzhenitsyn, back in the 70's, I found more in his writings than a mere account of a few days in the life of a specific people and determined individuals. Despite the thorough objectivity of his writing, I encountered a friend, a man whose "I" is incredibly strong, a brother who always encouraged me to live more fully, fearless of suffering, and exile, and death. Each book of his allowed me to put my finger into his many-times wounded side, and to acknowledge the Father's might in this surviving body.
Discovering Solzhenitsyn led me to a sudden broadening of my understanding of what literature is all about. Up to that point, I had understood it mainly as a question of rhymes and tropes, modes and dreams, plots and denouements. But it suddenly unveiled much greater depths: it became a deployment of memory, a fight for truth, a man's gift of himself, the presenting of a redemption . . . I understood that literature was about life, that it was a wedding, a substantial reality, a share in the logos, a logos that shatters and disturbs . . .
If Solzhenitsyn decided to become a writer, it was not so that he could express his sense of wonder for the beauty of Russian steppes, nor was it to free himself from sentimental failures. Though it was manifested very early on, it is in jail that Solzhenitsyn received his vocation as a writer. "It first occurred to me as I was ten, when I read Tolstoy's War and Peace. I immediately felt called to write something important. [...] I remember very clearly this day, in November 1936, when I was suddenly seized by this task. It was fifty years ago. I then took the decision to write a grand epic about the Russian Revolution. If it were not for my time in prison, I could have become a writer anyway, but I would certainly not have achieved my own goals. [...] In jail, I became a true man, a strong man. The writer I am today was formed in prison, and in the camp.” This makes us understand better that Solzhenitsyn’s writings are not mere ink characters. They are crosses, raised up towards heaven. “With him,” said Georges Nivat, “literature faced its martyrdom, it suffered death, and received a second baptism.” 
If Solzhenitsyn is so historically important, if his voice is so eloquent, and if such an aura of respect surrounds him, it is because of the amount of suffering that befell him, and the way he carried the heavy yoke of existence. "Solzhenitsyn's work burns in the blaze of a human suffering beyond words."  When I think of his existence, I spontaneously recall the words written by Pope Benedict XVI in his Encyclical Spe Salvi: "The true measure of humanity is essentially determined in relationship to suffering and to the sufferer. [...] Furthermore, the capacity to accept suffering for the sake of goodness, truth and justice is an essential criterion of humanity, because if my own well-being and safety are ultimately more important than truth and justice, then the power of the stronger prevails, then violence and untruth reign supreme. Truth and justice must stand above my comfort and physical well-being, or else my life itself becomes a lie.” 
When he was born, on December 11, 1918, Aleksandr Isaievitch was already a paternal orphan. His father died six months before the birth of a son he would never know. Soon after, Aleksandr would mourn the loss of his paternal grandfather. In October of 1941, Solzhenitsyn is drafted. In January of 1944, when he is just 26 years old, his mother dies. On February 9, 1945, he is brutally arrested. He is first sent to the Lubyanka Prison, and then to the Butyrki Prison. On July 27, 1945, he is condemned to serve eight years in a labor camp. In January of 1952, he has a tumor removed from his neck. The surgeon is a Zek , just like himself. In 1953, Solzhenitsyn is released from the Ekibastuz Camp, and is sentenced to “perpetual exile” in Kazakhstan. In 1958, a new cancerous tumor forces him to spend several months in the hospital: “When I arrived in Tashkent that winter I was practically a corpse. I came there expecting to die. But I was given another lease of life.”  In 1965, the secret police confiscates several of his writings. From 1969 on, he will have to suffer unceasing calumnies and betrayals from his closest friends, as well as obnoxious articles written by the press. On February 13, 1974, he is deprived of his Russian citizenship, and deported, first to West Germany, then to Switzerland, and finally to the United-States (October 1977), where he remains until 1994. When he is about to leave Vermont, he loses his eldest son in tragic conditions, a blow that strikes him very hard. However, what could be his greatest suffering is still waiting for him in Moscow: the disintegration of his country, its lack of moral consistency. Until his death, Russia will remain a deep wound in his side. Until his death, he will have to embrace, with unspeakable pain, that "the worse thing in this world is to be born a Russian," as he himself wrote in The Gulag Archipelago.
"Maybe these years were necessary. [...]
There are moments when I say, 'God bless you, prison.' " © OpenDemocracy
Without going too far in analyzing the details of his existence, and with all due respect for the secrets of his soul, it seems that all the sufferings of the 20th Century were concentrated in the life of Solzhenitsyn: loneliness, war, hunger, the rage of ideology, cancer, betrayal, exile, political disappointment . . . Like Varlam Shalamov ― another witness, along with Vassili Grossman, of the Sovietic horror ― Solzhenitsyn could have spent his life writing about the uselessness of the camps, and of the terrible trials he endured. One knows, indeed, what Shalamov said and repeated in the Kolyma Tales: "The camp is a wholly and entirely negative school of life. No one will take anything useful or necessary from there. [...] Every minute of camp is a poisoned minute. There is a great deal there that man should not know, should not see, and if he has seen it, then it is better for him to die.”  Solzhenitsyn, on the other hand, makes the opposite statement in Candle in the Wind (translated literally, the title of this play would be "The Light that is in You"). Alex, the protagonist, talks to his Uncle Maurice about his years in prison and says: "Maybe these years were necessary. [...] There are moments when I say, ‘God bless you, prison.’ ”  Truly, we can agree with the great expert of the Russian Nobel Prize Georges Nivat, when he states that “His oeuvre can be understood as a long and paradoxical eulogy of detention. Like the apostle Paul, he blesses the prison. As the roommate of the humble mason Ivan Denissovitch says to him: ‘Prison clears up the soul.’ ” 
For Solzhenitsyn, what is true of prison, is also true of the hospital, and war, and exile . . . Such events ― inasmuch as, with the grace of God, we embrace them ― can contribute to a catharsis, a purification, the birth of the "I." It is all the truer, that "there are very few human beings who really act." Many, let us be honest, just allow themselves to be manipulated by ideology, by the dominant desire, the urge to be right, to prove the stronger. This is a self-destructive way of living. The trials of sickness and prison put the brakes on our dreams of domination. They break our pseudo-happiness. It does not take long before they totally strip people of their daily securities. It happens from one day to the next, as in the case of Paul Nicolaïevitch Roussanov, the protagonist of the Cancer Ward, and as in the case of the deported, whose experience Solzhenitsyn describes in the first pages of The Gulag Archipelago. And when it happens, man cannot count on anything or anybody. He cannot count on the presence of his relatives or friends. Nor on his notoriety. Nor on his rights. "Arrest is an instantaneous, shattering thrust, expulsion, somersault from state into another."  You are clothed in the convict’s uniform, or the inpatient’s garment; you are given a number, and dog-food (if only!) on your plate. You have no more control over your schedule. And yet, paradoxically, from that moment on a new life can arise. From that moment on, an “I” can spring forth from that concentrationary anonymity. “A man you stripped of everything is no longer submitted to you. He is free again!” He can speak without fear! He has nothing to lose: he has already lost everything! As he writes in 1969 in a letter to his friend Tvardovski: “I understand my whole life as a progressive rising-up from a kneeling position. The progressive passage from a forced dumbness to the true freedom of speech.” 
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in 1994, back in Russia after a long exile. © OpenDemocracy
When his destiny is suddenly converted into a terrible trial, the very first question man has to come to terms with, is the one constantly repeated at the beginning of The Gulag Archipelago: "Why?" – "Why me?" – "Why?" Why am I being arrested in the middle of the night, and in the coldest of winter? Why this tumor on me, so large I can't turn my head anymore? Why am I being sent to the war? Why am I freezing to death and breaking stones? The longing for meaning arouses when hands are bound by handcuffs . . . When I hear my companions in misfortune shouting their pain. It is the searing question — as much as the evil that befell me — that I have to face, in order to live, to survive, and hopefully to be reborn to a new life, within the tragic conditions of this "barbed-wire century" in which I had the privilege to be born.
The problem of meaning quickly awakens man from metaphysical slumber, and carceral torpor. If all the works of Solzhenitsyn have one thing in common, it is that all his characters are called to allow the truth about themselves to surge forth, though sometimes through the most violent tribulations. The writer is not a metaphysician, but he has his characters face questions that have the power to raise them up, or to destroy them. In extreme conditions, questions are extreme. It might be the only grace of these most terrible minutes destiny has in store for each one of us.
Behind each line of Solzhenitsyn, ones catches a glimpse of his own story, or that of his companion's. The story of a kenosis, that led him — like Christ, who "emptied himself, [...] becoming obedient unto death.” (Phil 2,7-8) — from tribunal to prison, from being imprisoned to being whipped, from being whipped to the cross, and from the cross down to hell … He is incarcerated, wounded, tortured, cursed, condemned … He falls in the mud, he is thrown in the pit … Many a time he is left for dead, but in the most secret hour of the night he rises up again: “Recovering from the camps, recovering from cancer, recovering from the absence of Russia, Solzhenitsyn, relegated and ‘almost dead,’ opens wide his eyes. Every day, he strives to gaze more intensely: at the radiant southern sun, at the bursting blues of Ouzbekh designs, at the splendor of a blooming ouriouk, ‘and even at the foal that broke into the garden through a breach in the fence, and trampled the lawn.’ How good it is to see the world! [...] Solzhenitsyn’s passionate attempt to ‘embrace the whole reality’ (Lukacs), is a reconquest of immediacy in a world thoroughly mediated by the artificiality of ideology.” 
Ultimately, this sacrifice of his whole life enabled thousands of pages to condense and convert into one substantial shout. The shout he became. A shout that echoed beyond the barbed wires surrounding the gulag, the hospital, and the borders of exile. A shout many are afraid of, because they are afraid of the truth. A shout that was silenced many times, because it proclaims "the end of the vain rattle of formal logic, and empty syllogisms," and "the new beginning of true speech on the earth … This shout is a newborn's first wail, the wail that accompanies the coming of the new man to the light of this world." 
A shout that sounds like a shout of fright: the one that echoes from the century of gulags. But it is also a shout that spreads like a testimonial of mercy: "Despite everything," said Solzhenitsyn, "I am convinced that [God] is present in every human life, in my own life, and in the life of entire peoples." A shout clothed in a divine tenderness. A tenderness given for us to contemplate, today and tomorrow, in the depth of his gaze. A tenderness that seems to come from as far as — and as close as — Golgotha.
1. Translated from: Georges Nivat, Soljénitsyne, éd. du Seuil (coll. Écrivains de toujours), Paris 1980, p.33.
2. Ibid., p.52.
3. Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, 38.
4. Short for Zalioutchon, name given to a prisoner in the Gulag.
5. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Right Hand, in The Short story: an introduction, Wilfred Stone, Nancy Huddleston Packer, Robert Hoopes, McGraw-Hill, 1983, p.451.
6. Shalamov, Kolyma Tales, quoted in Rusistika: the Russian journal of the Association for Language Learning, Issues 1-10, Association for Language Learning, The Association, Indiana University, 1990.
7. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Candle in the Wind, Bodley Head, 1973, p.24.
8. Translated from: Georges Nivat, Alexandre Soljénitsyne: La Roue rouge – Au Tocsin muet de l’Histoire, in La république des Lettres, dimanche 1er mai 1994.
9. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, Volume 1, HarperCollins, 2007, p.4.
10. Quote translated from: Georges Nivat, Soljénitsyne, éd. du Seuil (coll. Écrivains de toujours), Paris 1980, p.36.
11. Translated from: Georges Nivat, op. cit., pp. 74-75.
12. Translated from: Hans Urs von Balthasar, De l’intégration, DDB, Paris 1970, p.289.
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