Some time after I heard that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had died, I pulled The Gulag Archipelago from the shelves and found that I’d left some bookmarks in it.
I’ve only read that and A Day in the Life…, so that’s how I judge A.S. Most of the obituaries and tributes I’ve read lately are half-apologetic, dwelling on Solzhenitsyn’s retrograde nationalism and alleged anti-semitism. I can’t say anything on those points, having only read a few of his works. The ones I read, however, impressed me.
These are some of the bits I flagged as I was reading The Gulag Archipelago. First, on the arrest:
Why, then, should you run away? And how can you resist right then? After all, you’ll only make your situation worse; you’ll make it more difficult for them to sort out the mistake. And it isn’t just that you don’t put up any resistance; you even walk down the stairs on tiptoe, as you are ordered to do, so your neighbors won’t hear.
And how we burned in the camps later, thinking: What would things have been like if every Security operative, when he went out at night to make an arrest, had been uncertain whether he would return alive and had to say good-bye to his family? Or if, during periods of mass arrests, as for example in Leningrad, when they arrested a quarter of the entire city, people had not simply sat there in their lairs, paling with terror at every bang of the downstairs door and at every step on the staircase, but had understood that they had nothing left to lose and had boldly set up in the downstairs hall an ambush of half a dozen people with axes, hammers, pokers, or whatever else was at hand? After all, you knew ahead of time that those bluecaps were out at night for no good purpose. And you could be sure ahead of time that you’d be cracking the skull of a cutthroat. Or what about the Black Maria sitting out there on the street with one lonely chauffeur — what if it had been driven off or its tires spiked? The Organs would very quickly have suffered a shortage of officers and transport and, notwithstanding all of Stalin’s thirst, the cursed machine would have ground to a halt!
If… If… We didn’t love freedom enough.
On the mysterious prickings of conscience:
Our feelings could not be put into words — and even if we had found the words, fear would have prevented our speaking them aloud to one another. It was not our minds that resisted but something inside our breasts. People can shout at you from all sides: “You must!” And your own head can be saying also: “You must!” But inside your breast there is a sense of revulsion, repudiation. I don’t want to. It makes me feel sick. Do what you want without me; I want no part of it.
On where evil lies:
[L]et the reader who expects this book to be a political exposé slam its covers shut right now.
If only it were 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. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
On victory and defeat:
There is a simple truth which one can learn only through suffering: in war not victories are blessed but defeats. Governments need victories and the people need defeats. Victory gives rise to the desire for more victories. But after a defeat it is freedom that men desire — and usually attain. A people needs defeat just as an individual needs suffering and misfortune: they compel the deepening of the inner life and generate a spiritual upsurge.
For several centuries we had a proverb: “Don’t fear the law, fear the judge.”
But in my opinion, the law has outstripped people, and people have lagged behind in cruelty. It is time to reverse the proverb: “Don’t fear the judge, fear the law.”
Vlasov spoke… in a fast retort: “For myself, I’ve decided one thing only. I’m going to tell the executioner: ‘You alone, not the judges, not the prosecutors, you alone are guilty of my death, and you are going to have to live with it! If it weren’t for you willing executioners, there would be no death sentences!’ So then let him kill me, the rat!”
On the withdrawal of consent:
The weakening and shaking up of the Tsarist prison system did not come about on its own, of course, but because all society, in concert with the revolutionaries, was shaking it up and ridiculing it in every possible way. Tsarism lost its chance to survive not in the street skirmishes of February but several decades earlier, when youths from well-to-do families began to consider a prison term an honor; when army officers (even guard officers) began to regard it as dishonorable to shake the hand of a gendarme. And the more the prison system weakened, the more clearly evident were the triumphant ethics of the political prisoners, and the more visibly did the members of the revolutionary parties realize their strength and regard their own laws as superior to those of the state.
After all, we have gotten used to regarding as valor only valor in war (or the kind that’s needed for flying in outer space), the kind which jingle-jangles with medals. We have forgotten another concept of valor — civil valor. And that’s all our society needs, just that, just that, just that! That’s all we need and that’s exactly what we haven’t got.