Solzhenitsyn and the Bones of Norilsk

August 3, 2009

Solzhenitsyn2Every June when spring finally arrives in the Siberian city of Norilsk, the bones appear, unearthed by the thaw and washed to the city by the melting snows.  The bones are the remains of prisoners who labored in Norilsk decades ago when the city was a prison labor camp, one of the remote frozen islands of the Gulag Archipelago.  The citizens of Norilsk want to forget the grisly origins of their city.  But the bones force them to remember.

The world came to know of the horrors of the Siberian camps largely through the efforts of one man, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who died one year ago today.  While some of his fiction, such as the novellas One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Matryona’s Place, is among the best of 20th century Russian literature, the work for which Solzhenitsyn will always be known is The Gulag Archipelago. Using mathematical mnemonic techniques to remember in breathtaking detail the events of his eleven years in the Soviet prison system, Solzhenitsyn – like the spring thaw unearthing the bones of Norilsk – brought the horrors of the Gulag into the light of day.  As he wrote in a prefatory note to The Gulag,

By an unexpected turn of our history, a bit of the truth, an insignificant part of the whole, was allowed out in the open.  But those same hands which once screwed tight our handcuffs now hold out their palms in reconciliation: “No, don’t! Don’t dig up the past! Dwell on the past and you’ll lose an eye.”

But the proverb goes on to say: “Forget the past and you’ll lose both eyes.”

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