An Excerpt from Solzhenitsyn’s “Gulag Archipelago”

I’m still reading through The Solzhenitsyn Reader and found another excerpt I thought was worth sharing here. This comes from part four of The Gulag Archipelago. Solzhenitsyn is reflecting that for some people, including himself, the torturous exile to the archipelago could “transform your former character in an astonishing way”:

Looking back, I saw that for my whole conscious life I had not understood either myself or my strivings. What had seemed for so long to be beneficial now turned out in actuality to be fatal, and I had been striving to go in the opposite direction to that which was truly necessary to me. But just as the waves of the sea knock the inexperienced swimmer off his feet and keep tossing him back onto the shore, so also was I painfully tossed back on dry land by the blows of misfortune. And it was only because of this that I was able to travel the path which I had always really wanted to travel.

It was granted me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience: how a human being becomes evil and how good. In the intoxication of youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer, and an oppressor. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. And it was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains… an unuprooted small corner of evil.

Since then I have come to understand the truth of all the religions of the world: They struggle with the evil inside a human being (inside every human being). It is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it within each person.

And since that time I have come to understand the falsehood of all the revolutions in history: They destroy only those carriers of evil contemporary with them (and also fail, out of haste, to discriminate the carriers of good as well). And they then take to themselves as their heritage the actual evil itself, magnified still more.

As hard as it is for a skeptic like me to admit it, to the extent I see hope for the future I see it in the form of something akin to a religious revival. Expecting meaningful reform (or abolition) of governments and states in isolation from the reform of the people who maintain these governments and states is hopeless, and revolution has exactly the same problem but with the additional handicap of being bloody and traumatic.

Trouble is, it’s easy to find examples of religious revivals gone haywire, and it’s easy to imagine even promising examples going off the rails. Would I care to join a Cromwell or Khomeini (or a secularish American equivalent) in toppling the corrupt order on a popular wave of religious awakening?

Arthur Evans, one of the few Americans to spend any time behind bars for war tax resistance, died at age 89.

In , Evans defied an order to turn over his financial records to the government and was jailed for 90 days.