Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Last Day in the Life of Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Alexander Solzhenitsyn passed away today of heart failure. His story is one that we do well to remember.

In the closing weeks of World War II, while a young commander in the Russian army, Solzhenitsyn wrote a letter to a friend. In the letter, the young man flippantly referred to Stalin as "the man with the moustache." For this act of disrespect, Alexander Solzhenitsyn would spend the next ten years of his life in work camps.

Released following Stalin's death, Solzhenitsyn vividly portrayed the brutality of the Stalin regime. His first work was "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich."

The AP describes his early work and its impact this way:

Beginning with the 1962 short novel "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," Solzhenitsyn...devoted himself to describing what he called the human "meat grinder" that had caught him along with millions of other Soviet citizens: capricious arrests, often for trifling and seemingly absurd reasons, followed by sentences to slave labor camps where cold, starvation and punishing work crushed inmates physically and spiritually.

His "Gulag Archipelago" trilogy of the 1970s shocked readers by describing the savagery of the Soviet state under the dictator Josef Stalin. It helped erase lingering sympathy for the Soviet Union among many leftist intellectuals, especially in Europe.

But his account of that secret system of prison camps was also inspiring in its description of how one person — Solzhenitsyn himself — survived, physically and
spiritually, in a penal system of soul-crushing hardship and injustice.

I read "One Day..." while in high school and it had a dramatic impact on me. I still sometimes think about the closing lines of the novel. Solzhenitsyn describes a day in the life of Denisovich, a carpenter imprisoned at a work camp. At the conclusion of the day, Denisovich reflects that the day wasn't as terrible as it could have been: "they hadn't put him in the cells; they hadn't sent his squad to the settlement; he'd swiped a bowl of kasha at dinner; the squad leader had fixed the rates well; he'd built a wall and enjoyed doing it; he'd smuggled that bit of hacksaw blade through; he'd earned a favor from Tsezar that evening; he'd bought that tobacco. And he hadn't fallen ill. He got over it."

And then the haunting final lines: "A day without a dark cloud. Almost a happy day. There were three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days like that in his stretch. From the first clang of the rail to the last clang of the rail. Three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days. The three extra days were for leap years."

The inhumanity of this system targeted not just political dissidents and those guilty of dissent but believers as well. God used these work camps to create opportunities for believers to reach those they would never have been allowed to reach on their own. Stalin actually aided the missionary endeavor through his imprisonment of believers!

Yet Stalin and the oppresive regimes that would follow, had no intention of being anything but brutal. Solzhenitsyn offered a scathing look at a government that, as Pushkin put it, forced its citizen to become either tyrant, traitor, or prisoner.

Here is Alexander Solzhenitsyn being searched at the gulag where he spent several of his ten years of imprisonment.

The AP has a summary of his life that you might find helpful here:

Solzhenitsyn was not a great lover of Western governments as well. He denounced the materialism and decadence of our society as well.

I think it is incumbent upon us as both believers and good citizens to read books like "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich." As citizens, we do wsell to remember the tyranny inflicted by an immorral government upon her own people. It keeps us humble, grateful, and watchful.

As believers, reading books like "One Day..." helps steel us for the possibly difficult times God may have in store for us if we decide to be obedient to Him. We live at a unique time in human history in a unique place. Most believers have found themselves having to make hard decisions about how to be obedient in an environment that hates God and the gospel.

Just ask our brothers and sisters in China, who are facing intense persecution as the rest of the world looks on with relative indifference.


Grammy said...

wonderful commemtary on the communist regime. I lived through most of the happenings that took place (not personally, you understand), but read about it in the papers and magazines and was aware that it went on. Thanks for the reminder.
love you,
Grammy (aka your grandma)

Cheryl said...

I'm ordering them off Amazon tonight!
Thanks Daniel!