Solzhenitsyn and the Bones of Norilsk

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.”

Are we in danger of forgetting that past of which Solzhenitsyn was the principal revealer?  When recalling the years “after the shock of 1989,” Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger perceptively notes “how little was said about the horrors of the Communist gulag, how isolated Solzhenitsyn’s voice remained: No one speaks about any of that.”  That “isolated voice,” too, is in danger of fading.  How many college students today could answer if asked, “Who was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn?”  Or even more disconcertingly, how many could answer, “What was the Gulag?”

A decade ago, Solzhenitsyn’s name was left off most lists that were then being compiled of the 20th century’s most important persons.  More alarming is that a list such as Time Magazine’s “100 Most Important People of the Century” could omit Joseph Stalin.

“No, don’t! Don’t dig up the past! Dwell on the past and you’ll lose an eye.”

Russia tries hard to keep the metaphoric bones of Norilsk far below the earth’s surface.  Monuments to the Gulag prisoners are almost nonexistent.  Access to the limited extant Soviet-era archives is highly restricted.  People don’t talk about the past.  The situation in the West is not dissimilar.  Many – especially certain academic elites still cozy with Marxism – want to pretend that the horrors of the Gulag never occurred.  Others ignore them out of apathy.  In those rare instances when the past is not forgotten, it is distorted: when the city of Norilsk finally erected a statue in honor of the “builders of Norilsk,” it was not of a starving, shivering, ill-clad prisoner, but rather a bronze relief of a bare-chested, muscled man with a trowel.

Through this forgetting and distorting, we risk crafting a false world of ideas divorced from the reality of historical truth.  In so doing, we neglect Solzhenitsyn’s greatest lesson: Ideology is that which allows man to commit the most horrific evils, and ideology can only be destroyed by the truth of realism.

In The Gulag, Solzhenitsyn explains,

To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law.  Fortunately, it is in the nature of the human being to seek a justification for his actions.

Macbeth’s self-justifications were feeble—and his conscience devoured him.  Yes, even Iago was a little lamb too.  The imagination and the spiritual strength of Shakespeare’s evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses.  Because they had no ideology.

Ideology—that is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination.  That is the social theory which helps to make his acts seem good instead of bad in his own and others’ eyes, so that he won’t hear reproaches and curses but will receive praise and honors. . . .

Thanks to ideology, the twentieth century was fated to experience evildoing on a scale calculated in the millions.  This cannot be denied, nor passed over, nor suppressed.  How, then, do we dare insist that evildoers do not exist?  And who was it that destroyed these millions?  Without evildoers there would have been no Archipelago.

Professor Adriano Dell’Asta, who teaches Russian language and literature at the Catholic University in Brescia and in Milan, has commented brilliantly on the work of Solzhenitsyn.  Dell’Asta has shown that the driving force of regimes like the Soviets and Nazis was the ideological lie, that is an idea – reinvented day after day in said regimes – that has no relation to truth.  For those who wield the ideological lie, ideology is not a form of power within reality but rather is the pretext to create a new “reality” itself which is not really reality at all, insofar as it has nothing to do with truth.  Once the truth of reality has been eliminated, it is easy to eliminate other people: just say that they are “unnatural” and not really humans.

SolzhenitsynSolzhenitsyn’s great insight, according to Dell’Asta, was that the ideological lie could not be defeated by another idea, but only by the truth of realism.  The world of ideas is a world created by man.  Thus were one to combat ideology with another idea, one would remain a prisoner of the dialectic of ideas.  The only escape from idealism is through the truth of a reality that is not fashioned by man.  Solzhenitsyn destroys the ideological lie by exposing the truth of the experience of man.  He does so in his literary works by employing the form of the proverb, which is a truth that the individual himself does not invent, but rather which is handed down to him from humanity’s lived experience and which ultimately comes from a source that is higher than he.

Solzhenitsyn used the truth of realism not only to expose the Soviet ideological lie, but also to challenge the West, which he perceived to be suffering, at its roots, from the same problem as the East.  In his 1978 commencement address at Harvard University – which more than slightly irked some of the Western academe – he said,

There is a disaster, however, which has already been under way for quite some time. I am referring to the calamity of a despiritualized and irreligious humanistic consciousness. To such consciousness, man is the touchstone in judging and evaluating everything on earth. Imperfect man, who is never free of pride, self-interest, envy, vanity, and dozens of other defects. We are now experiencing the consequences of mistakes which had not been noticed at the beginning of the journey. On the way from the Renaissance to our days we have enriched our experience, but we have lost the concept of a Supreme Complete Entity which used to restrain our passions and our irresponsibility. We have placed too much hope in political and social reforms, only to find out that we were being deprived of our most precious possession: our spiritual life. In the East, it is destroyed by the dealings and machinations of the ruling party. In the West, commercial interests tend to suffocate it. This is the real crisis. The split in the world is less terrible than the similarity of the disease plaguing its main sections.

When Solzhenitsyn began to preach such things with increasing vigor, he who was once briefly regarded as a hero in the West soon was dismissed as a right-wing nationalist, as an anti-Semite, as one who held too narrowly to Orthodox Christianity.  It is easier to dismiss Solzhenitsyn than to absorb the lesson his life and writings teach us.  For if we allow our fantastical, self-fabricated worlds to be penetrated by the truth, we shall be forced to see, as Solzhenitsyn did, where evil ultimately resides:

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.

Hans urs von Balthasar once remarked that if all of the books of the 20th century disappeared, the one book which must be preserved is Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago.  The reason we cannot afford to forget The Gulag and Solzhenitsyn is not just so that we do not become oblivious to where Marxism leads, but more generally – and more importantly – so that we never lose sight of the horrors of which man is capable once he is divorced from a truth beyond himself.

Someday, the bones will stop appearing in Norilsk each spring.  When that day comes, may the voice of Solzhenitsyn still be there to remind us.

© Vincent L. Strand and Whosoever Desires, 2009.

9 Responses to Solzhenitsyn and the Bones of Norilsk

  1. Fr. Philip Shano, S.J. says:


    Thank you for your reminder about Solzhenitsyn and his significant role in the twentieth century. More to the point, thank you for stressing the power of remembrance. Memory is that faculty that keeps revealing the significance of God’s constant presence to us, if we have the disposition to receive that presence. We can assist the memory by recalling events of our lives. Thus, the significance of the daily Examen of Consciousness. A community’s memory is significant in its ongoing experience of discernment. The community experiences energy and insight when significant experiences are recalled. Our strong memory is the making of community. It gives us a sense of belonging to the larger faith community’s memoria of the Eucharist. So, thank you for making me ponder memory.

    I pray for this creative project you and the others have started. May your words edify, strengthen, and challenge readers! I’ll keep your blog on the list of websites I check from time to time.

  2. Dick Tomasek says:

    Brilliant and true. Thanks, Vince. Without the obedience of faith and without constant prayer, we Jesuits too, so involved in the world of ideas, can begin to loose our moorings. Discernment is always determined by the Word of God which of course, for us Catholics, is inseparably united with Sacred Tradition and the Magisterium.

  3. Carrie S says:

    Well said! I loved teaching Solzhenitsyn to my juniors (“One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”). AS a public school teacher, I couldn’t really say much that could be considered to promote God or any sort of religious ideas, of course. But I could show them the reality of evil that has taken place, and we could discuss how that could have happened.

    For a more modern glimpse of reality, I highly recommend “Left to Tell,” by Immaculee Iligabiza. She is a survivor of the Rwandan holocaust of 1994. (She also happens to be Catholic.) It’s an amazing story of faith in the face of evil.

  4. Hi Vince,

    First of all congratulations on launching this site! And Thank You! And I thoroughly enjoyed the FAQ.

    Your post is a timely one indeed. I think many are unaware of just how relevant this history is to our generation.

    Living in Venezuela, under the reality of an emerging dictator and communist state (and it is far more communist than socialist) has made me all too aware of the greater evils that can be accomplished through the world of ideas.

    “…the driving force of regimes like the Soviets and Nazis was the ideological lie, that is an idea – reinvented day after day in said regimes – that has no relation to truth. For those who wield the ideological lie, ideology is not a form of power within reality but rather is the pretext to create a new “reality” itself which is not really reality at all, insofar as it has nothing to do with truth. Once the truth of reality has been eliminated, it is easy to eliminate other people: just say that they are “unnatural” and not really humans.”

    It’s beginning to show here in Venezuela, in its own unique way. But a perhaps more relevant observation is that it is also happening in the United States. As Eric Fromm writes in an afterword to 1984, “Books like Orwell’s are powerful warnings, and it would be most unfortunate if the reader smugly interpreted 1984 as another description of Stalinist barbarism, and if he does not see that it means us, too.”

    The situation in the U.S. is perhaps more insidious, but manifesting in observable ways nonetheless. And this seems to be caused by a general decrease in self-confidence, dedication to the truth, and faith in God, and an increasing dependence on the government for ideas, guidance, security, health, etc.

    Ok, I didn’t mean to sabotage your post and make it too political!

    Thanks again!

  5. Mark Tamisiea says:

    Hi Vince:

    Thanks for sending me your blog. Solzhenitsyn is a great prophet for our times. I spent last Fall in Siberia and learned a great deal from the “blue-haired men & women” (holy, holy people) who survived several decades in the gulags. I’m very thankful for the Russian, Central & Eastern European people of faith who stood & stand in strong witness to our faith thru the crosses they’ve lived… & with a jarring Resurrection spirit ~ that’s grace!

    I’m reminded of Bronislava who made a rosary out of bread crumbs while in the gulags (she says it kept her alive as she witnessed the deaths of family & friends around her) and to this day will traverse thru snowbanks to get to daily Mass. This is a woman in her 80’s with a crooked leg, a cane and beaten up body. It’s Jesus Christ that propels her, not an ideology. In the town of Magadan where I lived, estimates range from 2 to 10 million gulag victims were killed there. A sobering thought.

    Carrie S – I offer you a challenge – don’t fall into the trap of a false understanding of public education. God & religious ideas are fundamental to Solzhenitsyn’s writings. That’s his point & criticism of the dualism that both Communist Russian culture & US pop culture have allowed.

  6. Thomas Shawn says:

    Also research Magadan, Siberia .. there’s a Catholic parish there and a solitary monk works with street children and young people abandoned by their parents. There’s particular road there, the one that led to the gulag that was literally paved with ground up bones of victims mixed in with the cement.

    That the USA is sliding toward atheistic socialism is all too obvious with Bush playing the Hitlerian National Socialist and 0bama playing the Marxist-Communist. It’s all flowing one way save for a few Christians here and there.

    Only the Rosary and the Eucharist can save us at this point.

  7. Joe says:

    I must admit to a certain skepticism regarding Western and capital-c Catholic readings of Solzhenitsyn. The truth is that Solzhenitsyn was a Russian nationalist who held to a fairly exclusivist (and admittedly idiosyncratic) vision of Orthodoxy. Those were the central commitments of his life, and I don’t believe his message can be properly appreciated apart from them. In other words, one can’t treat his identity as both Russian and Orthodox as secondary to some more ‘universal’ human message – in speaking and writing about “we” and “us,” Solzhenitsyn was most concerned with his fellow Russians. He did not come to the West as a prophet, but as an exile whose fundamental loyalties remained to the land and the culture that had shaped him.

  8. Vincent L. Strand, SJ says:

    Thank you all for the comments.

    Fr. Shano: You remind us well of the importance of memory.

    Carrie: I am glad to hear that you teach Solzhenitsyn. Re: Iligabiza, you might also enjoy her book _Our Lady of Kibeho_ about the Marian apparitions in Rwanda which preceeded the genocide.

    Mr. Bretl: Thank you for perspective from Venezuela. Your comment about Fromm’s commentary on Orwell is well placed. Solzhenitysn gives us hope because he does not end up loving Big Brother.

    Mr. Tamisiea and Mr. Shawn: Thank you for reminding us about the faith that remains present (and has remained) among the people of Russia.

    Joe: You offer a helpful reminder about Solzhenitsyn’s allegiances. I too, do not believe that his message can be appreciated apart from his particular commitments. I did not mean to treat his commitments as Russian and Orthodox as secondary to a ‘universal’ human message. Instead, I think that a universal human message can emerge out of the particular precisely when the particular is taken seriously. In fact, I think this is part of his realism which I tried to highlight. Regarding his relationship to the West, yes, he certainly came to America as an exile and not a prophet, and as you know, he lived as one in exile while in the States. However, he did address the West occasionally, and therefore, I believe that I am justified in the end of my essay to consider his message for the West, both from these particular addresses delivered by Solzhenitsyn and from the universal message which I believe emerges from the particular.

  9. […] do much harm.  Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (whose legacy has been discussed on Whosoever Desires before here) based his One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich on his experience in a labor camp south of […]

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