Eight years in a labour camp brought him to a profound conversion
Last December saw a significant centenary: 100 years since the birth of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Russian writer and winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970. A hugely significant figure for literature, for Russia and for his witness to Christianity, he is less remembered now than he ought to be. But two online articles, by Joseph Pearce in The Imaginative Conservative and Douglas Kries in The Catholic Thing, remind us of Solzhenitsyn’s enduring importance.
Born at the birth of the Bolshevik Revolution, he grew up in Rostov as an atheist, believing the Communist propaganda that the inevitable progress of history would mean the gradual withering away of religious belief. Then, at the end of the War in which he had fought as an officer and survived, he was sentenced to eight years’ hard labour for criticising Stalin in a private letter.
What he saw and suffered during those eight years, as well as a diagnosis of cancer in 1953, brought about a profound inner conversion to Orthodox Christianity. Solzhenitsyn was struck by the way Christians in the gulag understood how suffering could be redemptive rather than simply a grim fate to be endured. Coming to realise the systematic lies he had been taught under the Soviet system, he began to see his imprisonment as a blessing.
His first novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962), an account of life in a hard labour camp, made him instantly famous. Inevitably falling foul of the Russian authorities, his 3-volume The Gulag Archipelago (1973) had to be published in secret. Expelled from the USSR in 1974 and settling in the US, he returned to Russia in 1994, after the collapse of Communism. He died in 2008, something of an anachronism in the new Russia of President Putin.
Solzhenitsyn was also an embarrassment to the West, which he was not slow to criticise for its pursuit of materialistic contentment at the expense of spiritual wisdom. But he remains a prophetical voice, certainly for those, both in and outside Russia who understand that without lasting spiritual values any attempt to construct a modern civilisation will ultimately fail. He remains a witness to courage and integrity; to how it is possible for human beings to rise above their appalling circumstances and to refuse to be degraded by the cruelty of their fellow-men. In this he is joined by other figures of the gulag, such as American priest, Fr Walter Ciszek who spent 20 years in Siberian camps, and the poet Irina Ratushinskaya, imprisoned for her “dissident” poetical voice.
Solzhenitsyn also brings me back to the subject of my last blog, on Victoria Smolkin’s book, A Sacred Space is Never Empty, which describes the bizarre story of how the Communist government tried over 70 years and in many inept ways to eradicate religious belief in the USSR. Solzhenitsyn knew from his own bitter experience that Communism was incapable of providing positive personal meaning for individuals’ lives or for “solace in the face of suffering.” As he wrote, “The battle line between good and evil runs through the heart of every man”. Men cannot be perfected by political systems, only by grace.