A Misinterpreted Episode from Solzhenitsyn’s “November 1916”

Let me serve you up another slice of Solzhenitsyn.

The Red Wheel is a set of books that are meant to capture the story of the emergence of the Soviet Union from the collapse of the Tsarist order. In these books, Solzhenitsyn uses a variety of techniques to tell the story from many angles. It’s a project that he first conceived of when he was still a communist true believer in the mid-1930s. Over time it grew increasingly ambitious and, of course, changed its focus as he came to see the Russian revolutions as the central global tragedy of his time. Some of the work has yet to be translated into English.

This selection is an excerpt from chapter six of . Second Lieutenant Sanya Lazhenitsyn has become guilt-ridden about his participation in war and has come to see a military chaplain, Father Severyan. He had been to see him once before and had received absolution, but this hadn’t eased his mind:

“…you gave me absolution for my sin and my doubts — but I hadn’t absolved myself. It all came back to plague me again. Should I have gone back to you? A second and a third time? To repeat what I’d already said, in the very same words — as if I was rejecting the absolution you’d given me? And even if you didn’t reproach me, what could you do? Only repeat: ‘I, an unworthy priest, by the authority given to me by God…’ And I would be answering back, as you covered my head with your robe: ‘No, don’t forgive me, it won’t help!’ In confession there’s no avoiding it: you have to pardon me in the end.”

The chaplain hears him out, but suggests that the problem isn’t sin or forgiveness or absolution but Lazhenitsyn’s erroneously quasi-pacifist idea of Christianity. Lazhenitsyn pushes the point:

“…the way I look at it, Father Severyan, since we’re in the same brigade and your job is to contribute to the success of Russian arms, there’s little comfort you can give to me. You are too involved in it all, and — forgive me for saying so — may be sinning yourself. You distribute amulets, and make sure every last man has one around his neck. You carry the cross along the trenches before an attack, and sprinkle the men with holy water. Or you take an icon around the dugouts for tomorrow’s corpses to kiss. Priests have been known, when there are no officers left, to jump at the chance of relaying their regimental commander’s battle orders. But the most dreadful thing of all is when a service is held in the field, and the candles are placed on pyramids of four rifles leaning together.”

Severyan responds that he volunteered to join the military in battle — “I actually thought that this was the more natural place for me to be in time of war” because for a priest "[l]ife as it is must be our field of action.” He then goes on to make a strange, back-handed defense of war:

“At no time has the world been without war. Not in seven or ten or twenty thousand years. Neither the wisest of leaders, nor the noblest of kings, nor yet the Church — none of them has been able to stop it. And don’t succumb to the facile belief that wars will be stopped by hotheaded socialists. Or that rational and just wars can be sorted out from the rest. There will always be thousands of thousands to whom even such a war will be senseless and unjustified. Quite simply, no state can live without war, that is one of the state’s essential functions.” Father Severyan’s enunciation was very precise. “War is the price we pay for living in a state. Before you can abolish war you will have to abolish all states. But that is unthinkable until the propensity to violence and evil is rooted out of human beings. The state was created to protect us from violence.”

To me this speech is most remarkable for how it autodigests, contradicting itself and dissolving its own arguments. The editors of The Solzhenitsyn Reader take it at face value, summarizing Severyan’s argument (as Solzhenitsyn’s argument) in their introduction as: “The state, for all its limitations, is an indispensable precondition of the common good, a necessary instrument for avoiding the evils that flow from imperfect human nature.”

But try to form syllogisms from the statements in this speech: War is the price we pay for living in a state, and the state was created to protect us from violence. No state can live without war, and you will be astonished to learn that none of our political leaders have been able to prevent war. Rational and just wars cannot be sorted out from the rest, and once they have been sorted out millions of people will find them to be senseless and unjustified anyway.

Severyan goes on, “[keeping] his mind fixed on the same thought, resisting any temptation to digress”:

“In ordinary life thousands of bad impulses, from a thousand foci of evil, move chaotically, randomly, against the vulnerable. The state is called upon to check these impulses — but it generates others of its own, still more powerful, and this time one-directional. At times it throws them all in a single direction — and that is war. So then, the dilemma of peace versus war is a superficial dilemma for superficial minds. ‘We have only to stop making war and we shall have peace.’ No! The Christian prayer says ‘peace on earth and goodwill among men.’ That is when true peace will arrive: when there is goodwill among men. Otherwise even without war men will go on strangling, poisoning, starving, stabbing, and burning each other, trampling each other underfoot and spitting in each other’s faces.”

The argument continues to eat itself here. The fallen world is full of people acting cruelly, lashing out in chaotic spasms of impulsive evil. “The state is called upon to check these impulses” but instead creates others, “still more powerful,” and focuses them like a magnifying glass focuses the sun’s rays, “and that is war.”

“War is not the vilest form of evil, not the most evil of evils. An unjust trial, for instance, that scalds the outraged heart, is viler. Or murder for gain, when the solitary murderer fully understands the implications of what he means to do and all that the victim will suffer at the moment of the crime. Or the ordeal at the hands of a torturer. When you can neither cry out nor fight back nor attempt to defend yourself. Or treachery on the part of someone you trusted. Or mistreatment of widows and orphans. All these things are spiritually dirtier and more terrible than war.”

Lezhenitsyn, though eager to hear some good-sounding story like this that will ease his conscience, can’t help but notice that in war you have injustice, murder, torture, treachery, and mistreatment of widows and orphans in “the most wholesale form.” But Severyan responds — allegedly defending war and the state, mind you — by saying those individual evils he enumerated only seem lesser than the evils of war…

“…There are just as many of them. Only they are not assembled in one place in one short period of time, like those killed in war. Think of the great tyrants — Ivan the Terrible, Biron, Peter. Or — yes — the reprisals against the Old Believers. No need for war there — they were effectively suppressed without it. Over the years, and counting all countries, the sum of suffering is no less without war than with it. It may even be greater.”

This begins to work: Well, if the evil the state commits in war is just a more obvious version of the evil the state commits on a larger scale outside of war (thinks Lezhenitsyn) then maybe I shouldn’t be so upset about my participation in it.

Lazhenitsyn was livening up. Brightening. And the priest spoke with even greater ease…

“The real dilemma is the choice between peace and evil. War is only a special case of evil, concentrated in time and space. Whoever rejects war without first rejecting the state is a hypocrite. And whoever fails to see that there is something more primitive and more dangerous than war — and that is the universal evil instilled into men’s hearts — sees only the surface. Mankind’s true dilemma is the choice between peace in the heart and evil in the heart. The evil of worldliness. And the way to overcome this worldliness is not by antiwar demonstrations, processions along the streets with signs bearing slogans. We have been granted not just one generation, not just an age, not just an epoch, to overcome it, but the whole of history from Adam to the Second Coming.…”

Lazhenitsyn has one more brief spasm of doubt: “Does any of this make murder in battle more forgivable than murder with malice aforethought? Or murder by a torturer, or a tyrant.” Setting the bar high, he nonetheless leaves himself a possible escape: “It’s just that here we have a ritual, it’s made to look like a matter of routine — ‘everybody else is doing it, I can’t be the odd man out’ — and this ritual deludes us. Gives us a false reassurance.”

Nothing false about it, says Severyan: “Yes, but if you think about it, a ritual has to have some sort of basis in reality. … War… creates comradely union, it calls on us to sacrifice ourselves… Say what you like, war is not the greatest of evils.”

Not the greatest of evils, almost certainly more forgivable than murder with malice aforethought or murder by a torturer or tyrant. With that ringing endorsement, Lazhenitsyn turns: “What you say… comes as a surprise to me. I hadn’t thought enough about it. It’s a great relief. But everybody should be told about these things. Nobody knows about them.” He then <symbolism class="Christian">opens the stove and stirs the coals</symbolism>.

I think the editors are being naïve when they say that this can be best read as “the sympathetically drawn cleric [giving] voice to a Christian wisdom that affirms that war, especially in defense of state and nation, ‘is not the vilest form of evil.’ ”

So if you remember from the last episode of Days of our Levies, the IRS sent me a levy notice telling me they planned to seize a bank account I closed in .

That having failed to work out as planned, they’re back for another try. I got another levy notice. They’re going after a relatively new account, so they must finally be operating off of my latest set of W-2s. Still, there’s not much there to seize. They’ll get less than 10% of what they’re after at worst. Wonder what they’ll try next.