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Solzhenitsyn: Politics and the Ascent of the Soul

This essay appears in the Spring 2019 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.


Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918–2008), whose centennial has just passed, was not only one of the great souls of our age, he was also one of the few great writers and thinkers to make the human soul an explicit theme of his writing and reflection. In addition to recovering the memory of a wounded Russia and taking aim at an inhuman ideology that had assaulted that country’s best traditions and the flower of the nation, Solzhenitsyn recovered a classical and Christian appreciation of the human soul as the most precious part of God’s creation. Any serious reader of The Gulag Archipelago, one who approaches that work with a minimally open heart and mind, cannot help but be moved, even transformed, by a close reading of “The Soul and Barbed Wire,” the fourth and central of its seven sections. If, as the writer’s widow, Natalia Solzhenitsyn, has suggested, this “experiment in literary investigation” is ultimately an “epic poem” about the drama of good and evil in the human soul, and not merely an assault on a particularly monstrous and inhuman regime (which it surely also is), then “The Soul and Barbed Wire” is the key to unraveling the reflection on the soul at the heart of Solzhenitsyn’s moral and philosophical self-understanding.

This powerful work, at one and the same time a historical inquest, personal memoir, political meditation, and philosophical reflection, is more than the sum of its parts, as Natalia Solzhenitsyn observes in her wise and memorable introduction (“The Gift of Incarnation”) to the 2010 Russian abridgment. As every reader of The Gulag Archipelago knows, Solzhenitsyn’s central theme is “the line dividing good from evil [that] cuts through the heart of every human being.” It was only in a Bolshevik prison in the late 1940s that Solzhenitsyn gradually discovered that “the line between 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.”

Ideologies such as Jacobinism and Communism—and, as Jordan B. Peterson has pointed out in his own recent foreword to The Gulag Archipelago, the Manichean identity politics closer to home—locate all evil in suspect groups (aristocrats, merchants, Christians, kulaks, “white privilege”) rather than in the human heart itself. They inevitably war on human nature and aim to eradicate evil rather than to “constrict it within each person.” The same human being can be at once victim and victimizer. The latter goal, the restriction of evil in each human heart, is the aim of all nonutopian philosophical and religious thought. It is also an indispensable precondition of free and decent politics.

Solzhenitsyn was the scourge of what he elsewhere calls “bloody physical revolutions” since they show no knowledge of the human soul and inevitably lead “not to a bright future, but to worse perdition, to worse violence” (see Solzhenitsyn, “An Orbital Journey,” National Review Online, January 7, 2019). Solzhenitsyn was not only the anti-ideologist par excellence but also a Socratic philosopher who strove for self-knowledge and human self-understanding. His experience in Soviet prisons and camps (as well as in internal exile) between 1945 and 1956 allowed him to pursue the great Socratic and Delphic imperative to “know thyself!” That pursuit of self-knowledge, conveyed in the written word at first surreptitiously (Solzhenitsyn began as an “underground writer”), has profound political implications. But if Solzhenitsyn ultimately wanted “Birnam Wood to move,” to bring the ideological state to its knees, as he once said invoking Shakespeare’s Macbeth, his highest goal was surely personal and philosophical self-understanding. As Georges Nivat, the distinguished French Solzhenitsyn scholar, likes to say, Solzhenitsyn was above all a writer and a fighter, but I would add (and Nivat would surely agree) that he was also a thinker, even a moral philosopher of sorts. We honor Solzhenitsyn when we do justice to the complexity of his bearing as writer, combatant, thinker, and moral witness. In this moral and intellectual complexity, united by the firmest commitment to truth and conscience, lies his ultimate greatness.

* * *

As “The Soul and Barbed Wire” demonstrates above all, The Gulag Archipelago “is about the ascent of the human spirit, about its struggle with evil,” to quote Natalia Solzhenitsyn yet again. The two spiritual possibilities, the ascent of the human soul and the struggle with evil, are inseparable for Solzhenitsyn. He is not a Stoic sage who upholds self-contained “apathy,” a spiritual serenity independent of all external circumstances. That is surely inhuman and un-Christian. As we shall see, the great Russian writer believes that radical evil must be confronted, with force if necessary, in order to defend the liberty and the dignity of the human person. In his historical novel cycle The Red Wheel and elsewhere, he contests Tolstoy’s pacifism, which conflates love with sentimentality and abandons the weak and innocent to the degradation of inhuman tyranny. Solzhenitsyn never opposed military service and honored those who served their country (but not those who served Communist ideology).

In volume 3 of The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn honors all those who resisted Communist totalitarianism, from the heroes who dramatically liberated the camp at Kengir for forty days in the spring of 1954; to the remarkable “committed escaper,” Georgy Pavlovich Tenno; to the people of the Russian city of Novocherkassk, “a town of fateful significance in Russia’s history” that rose up against Communist tyranny in June 1962 at terrible cost without the world learning a thing about its citizens’ courage and sacrifices until the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s account. In fact, for Solzhenitsyn, “the active struggle against evil,” as he called it in a December 2006 interview, is one vitally important means by which the soul rises above the constraints of external circumstances and the inhuman appeal to “survive at any price.” Varlam Shalamov, the other great Russian chronicler of the gulag, the author of the monumental Kolyma Tales, vehemently argued that “in the camp situation human beings never remain human beings—the camps were created to this end” [italics are mine]. But Solzhenitsyn rejects the view that moral “corruption” was inevitable, even in the camps. No camp, he insisted, can automatically corrupt those human beings with a “stable nucleus,” with what he sometimes calls a principled “point of view.” The human soul is never simply reducible to external circumstances, even of the worst kind. Solzhenitsyn repudiates Marxism, and sociological reductionism and determinism of every kind. The permanent relevance of his rejection of the contemporary burial of human free will cannot be overstated. Solzhenitsyn’s work remains a welcome and necessary antidote to the scientism and determinism that remain all too regnant in academic and intellectual circles.

Solzhenitsyn adamantly rejects the view that human beings are obliged to choose “survival at any price.” In chapter 60 of In the First Circle, one of the novel’s protagonists, Innokenty Volodin, painfully arrives at the conclusion that self-preservation, not to mention vulgar hedonism, can never be the highest good for human beings with souls. Volodin sees beyond the “great truth” that “we are only given one life.” He “became aware of another law: that we are given only one conscience, too.” This would also remain Solzhenitsyn’s deepest conviction. As the Russian Nobel laureate points out in “The Ascent,” the deepest and most beautiful chapter in the whole of The Gulag Archipelago, “to survive at any price” always means “at the price of someone else.” This is never acceptable.

“At that great fork in the camp road, at that great divider of souls,” not a few (if nothing like a majority) chose the path of decency and conscience. They were determined to preserve what Solzhenitsyn suggestively calls their “human countenance.” In “The Ascent,” Solzhenitsyn highlights the fundamental decency of his Estonian friend Arnold Susi, who later gave him a hiding place in the forests of Estonia to write most of The Gulag Archipelago in the winters of 1965 and 1966. Susi was “never a believer,” Solzhenitsyn notes. But this “fundamentally decent” man was at the age of fifty not about to go down the path of moral perdition. He refused to become a “trusty,” a person who had a privileged place in the camp and avoided “general work.” Susi thus faced a gravely enhanced chance of dying at forced labor, abetted by inhuman cold. Solzhenitsyn knew Susi before and after the camps (they spent time together in the Lubyanka prison in Moscow in 1945), and he could attest that his Estonian friend remained the same decent man he had been when he entered the camps. Susi, by himself, refutes every claim of sociological determinism.

Solzhenitsyn, as the author of Two Hundred Years Together, published in Russian in 2001 and 2002, has been unfairly attacked by those who deny his claim that Russian Jews played a “disproportionate” role in the Russian revolutionary movements, even as he denounces (in chapters 9 and 14 of that work) the stupid and pernicious claims of the extreme Russian right that Bolshevism was a result of a Jewish “conspiracy” against the Russian nation. And some Jewish readers have reacted furiously to Solzhenitsyn’s claim in chapter 20 of Two Hundred Years Together that Jews benefited disproportionately from cushy “trusty” positions in the camps (like the Armenians, he notes, they should be given credit for looking out for their own). Solzhenitsyn’s critics ignore the fact that he pays particular homage to noble Jews he met in the camps, men such as Boris Gammerov, Vladimir Efroison, and Yakov Grodensky, who freely accepted general work and did so from “the noblest of Jewish appeals.”

These were Solzhenitsyn’s friends, and he profoundly admired them. They could have readily opted out of “the common fate,” but they did not. These Jewish prisoners were, according to Solzhenitsyn in chapter 20 of Two Hundred Years Together, the noblest embodiments of the “path of self-limitation” that Solzhenitsyn saw as an option even in the hellish world of Soviet forced-labor camps. Solzhenitsyn writes about them with respect, friendship, and admiration: he “never loses sight of such examples,” the only ones capable of “saving humanity.” Solzhenitsyn states emphatically that “all my hope rests in them.” He thus writes not only of Jewish “renegades” (see chapter 15 of Two Hundred Years Together) who rejected the faith of their fathers and turned to an inhuman secular religion such as Bolshevism. He also singles out those Jewish heroes who did honor to their people and faith. Spiritual ascent is not necessarily coextensive with a turn to the Christian faith, as Susi, Efroison, and Grodensky illustrate. To these men, Solzhenitsyn gives his highest unqualified praise.

Solzhenitsyn argues that the rejection of survival at any price, and the accompanying refusal to eschew general work, can and did lead some to a remarkable “ascent” of the soul, a ripening of the human spirit brought about by redemptive suffering. Once that decision had been made, one could learn patience, love of those near to us, genuine friendship, and much more. One’s conscience could awake to the call of duty, and the light of God’s grace could shine on a ripening soul. And some, like Solzhenitsyn himself, came as a result to an explicitly theistic, even Christian affirmation, finally appreciating the loving presence of a providential God who would not abandon them even in the conditions of the camps. Because the experience of the camps had opened his soul to moral self-examination, allowing the scales of ideology and ideological fanaticism to fall from his eyes, Solzhenitsyn would go so far as to proclaim at the end of “The Ascent,” “Bless you, prison, for having been in my life!”

To be sure, Solzhenitsyn fully appreciated that he was an innocent victim of a capricious, violent, and lawless state. But his conscience was not completely clear, and prison and camp gave him a welcome opportunity for moral self-examination.

Yet, as every reader of Solzhenitsyn knows, this is not the end of the story. Solzhenitsyn never recommends moral or religious quietism. In “Our Muzzled Freedom,” another chapter in “The Soul and Barbed Wire” section of The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn provides a riveting and bleak description of “free” Soviet life during the heyday of Communist totalitarianism under Lenin and Stalin. Betrayal and lying became “forms of existence.” “Every act of resistance to the government required heroism quite out of proportion to the magnitude of the act. It was safer to keep dynamite during the rule of Alexander II than it was to shelter the orphan of an enemy of the people under Stalin.” Under such soul-destroying circumstances, apolitical Stoic apathy is impossible, immoral, and irresponsible. Such evil must be resisted out of self-respect as well as respect for the common good and love of one’s people.

At the end of “The Soul and Barbed Wire,” Solzhenitsyn pays tribute to a remarkable Russian woman, Anna Skripnikova, who spent fifty years or more in and out of Bolshevik prisons and camps. Her motto could also be Solzhenitsyn’s: “It is better to die than to permit one’s spiritual core to be broken.” Skripnikova freely denounced the cultural barbarism of the Bolsheviks and the oppression, violence, and mendacity imposed in the name of an inhuman ideology. In the 1950s she sent dozens and dozens of petitions to the United Nations (she even sent three in Stalin’s time!) denouncing “savage tyranny” in the Soviet Union. Her “ascent of the soul” took the form of a spirited or thumotic defense of truth, liberty, and human dignity.

Anna Skripnikova had a principled “point of view,” a “stable nucleus,” that no ideologist or torturer could destroy. Solzhenitsyn laconically ends his moving tribute to Skripnikova by stating: “And if everyone were even one-quarter as implacable as Anna Skripnikova—the history of Russia would be different.” She is a most noble and determined embodiment of what Solzhenitsyn has in mind when he speaks of the “active struggle against evil.”

To be sure, Solzhenitsyn profoundly admires humble examples of moral probity, such as the selfless Matryona of Matryona’s Home and that simple hardworking peasant Ivan Denisovich, who did not deserve ten years in horrible camps just because Stalin and his minions were unprepared for the war with Germany. These simple folks, as exemplified in those works of fiction, sustain all of Solzhenitsyn’s admiration. But Solzhenitsyn looks up to the “active struggle against evil” above all. It, too, is an embodiment of spiritual “ascent” and of a willingness to care for those under perpetual assault from the totalitarian juggernaut.

* * *

In the end, Solzhenitsyn brings together two imperatives: that of moral self-limitation and that of humane self-government. Unlike Tolstoy, who lived in a comparatively free country in the last periods of tsarist rule, Solzhenitsyn did not believe that “only moral self-improvement was necessary.” As he argues in volume 3, part 1, chapter 4 of The Gulag Archipelago, for beings with bodies as well as souls, political liberty matters, too. It is not the ultimate meaning of human existence, but it is “the first step,” a crucial prerequisite for avoiding a fundamental assault on the dignity of human persons. Without political liberty, human beings cannot breathe freely, nor can they exercise the arts of intelligence (and moral judgment) that are at the heart of our humanity.

In the last twenty-five years of his life, Solzhenitsyn became an eloquent partisan of democratic self-government, especially at the local level. He thought it indispensable for developing the civic and moral virtues of a free people. He did not want Russia simply to copy Western democracy, especially in its decayed, relativistic, late-modern forms. But he admired the cantonal and local liberties he saw at work in Switzerland and Vermont during his twenty years of Western exile. In his memoir of his years in the West, Between Two Millstones, Solzhenitsyn provides a moving description of the vigorous and morally serious self-government he saw at work in the Swiss Catholic half-canton of Appenzell in April 1975. It might be said that he admired the hardy “republican” spirit that he saw at work there. This kind of democracy “filled him with respect,” and he hoped it could provide an inspiration for the renewal of local and provincial civic forms in Russia itself. Solzhenitsyn also strikingly noted that the Swiss Confederation is the oldest extant democracy on earth, dating from 1291, and that “it did not spring from the ideas of the Enlightenment, but directly from ancient forms of political life.” Unlike left-liberals in the West, Solzhenitsyn does not identify self-government, or political democracy, exclusively with the philosophy of the Enlightenment.

We have now arrived at the larger question of the relationship between politics and the soul in Solzhenitsyn’s thought as a whole. Solzhenitsyn clearly did not believe that politics was the highest activity or endeavor in the human world. Nor was he in any way indifferent to it. On May 31, 1974, on the occasion of being awarded the Golden Matrix Prize of the Italian Catholic Press Union for his resistance to Soviet totalitarianism, Solzhenitsyn delivered a speech to a group of Catholic journalists in Zurich (see the aforementioned “Orbital Journey” address). He spoke about the need to avoid both theocratic and spiritualist despotism, on the one hand, and the tyranny of a materialist cornucopia, on the other. The Kingdom of God on Earth cannot be forcibly imposed, he suggested, nor should humankind slavishly worship material things. Socialism is a false solution because it endorses and ratifies new forms of materialism and tyranny, far worse than what it replaces. Solzhenitsyn would repeat this point in his 1978 Harvard Address.

As Solzhenitsyn makes clear in the 1974 “Orbital Journey” speech, he remained faithful to the twin imperatives of self-limitation and self-government, rooted in a “worthy equilibrium between the physical nature of man and our spiritual nature.” With the best classical and Christian wisdom, Solzhenitsyn affirms that human beings are a judicious mix of body, mind, and spirit. A moral revolution, rejecting all violence and utopianism, may be “discovered” and “discerned” in a future that attempts to come up from a modernity that is playing itself out. (Solzhenitsyn adamantly opposes every attempt to return to some alleged golden age.) The radical enlightenment—and the “violent physical overthrow” of decent if imperfect regimes—must be rejected by all those who value truth, liberty, and adherence to the moral law. But free and decent politics must give the human soul its due if we are not to eradicate the moral foundations of human liberty—that is, to destroy the moral free will and self-respect that enable personal and political liberty to endure. Self-limitation and self-government cannot live without each other, without undermining human freedom and the deepest wellsprings of the soul.

As we rapidly move along in the twenty-first century, Solzhenitsyn, chronicler of the fate of the soul under both ideological despotism and, increasingly, a soft and relativistic democracy, very much remains our contemporary: a true friend of “liberty and human dignity,” as Tocqueville put it, and a partisan of the human soul imparted to us by a just and merciful God. His courage remains an inspiration for all. While fearlessly slaying the dragon of ideology and ideological despotism, he taught us deep and enduring truths about the drama of good and evil in the human soul. He thus remains our permanent contemporary. ♦

Daniel J. Mahoney holds the Augustine Chair in Distinguished Scholarship at Assumption College. He is the author, most recently, of The Other Solzhenitsyn: Telling the Truth About a Misunderstood Writer and Thinker and The Idol of Our Age: How the Religion of Humanity Subverts Christianity.


Sources and Suggested Readings

I have drawn on the excellent new edition of the authorized abridgement of The Gulag Archipelago, 1918–1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, translated from the Russian by Thomas P. Whitney and Harry Willetts, abridged and introduced by Edward E. Ericson Jr., and with a compelling new foreword by Jordan B. Peterson (London: Vintage, 2018). This welcome new edition was published to commemorate the centennial of Solzhenitsyn’s birth and the fiftieth anniversary of Solzhenitsyn’s completion of The Gulag Archipelago in 1968. See pages 302–9 for Solzhenitsyn’s discussion of “survival at any price” and “the ascent of the soul.” The great passages on the “line dividing good and evil” in the human heart appear on pages 75 and 312, respectively. The response to Tolstoy’s dismissal of the necessity of political liberty can be found on pages 351–52 of the abridged edition.

I am indebted to Natalia Solzhenitsyn’s “The Gift of Incarnation,” translated by Alexis Klimoff and published in English in Daniel J. Mahoney, The Other Solzhenitsyn: Telling the Truth About a Misunderstood Writer and Thinker (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2014), 206–30. The crucial quotations can be found on pages 224 and 225.

The remarkable discussion of Anna Skripnikova appears in the last chapter of the unabridged version of volume 2 of The Gulag Archipelago and of “The Soul and Barbed Wire,” entitled “Several Individual Stories.”

For a discussion of the Jewish exemplars of noble self-limitation in the camps, see Solzhenitsyn, Deux siècles ensemble: 1917–1972, translated from the Russian by Anne Kichilov, Georges Philippenko, and Nikita Struve (Paris: Fayard, 2003), chap. 20, 364–65.

I have drawn extensively on Solzhenitsyn’s speech on the occasion of receiving the Golden Matrix Prize of the Italian Catholic Press Union on May 31, 1974. See Solzhenitsyn, “An Orbital Journey,” with a preface by Daniel J. Mahoney, National Review Online, January 7, 2019, https://www.nationalreview​.com/2019/01/aleksandr-solzhenitsyn-decries-materialism-modern-society/.

See pages 107–12 of Solzhenitsyn, Between Two Millstones: Book 1, Sketches of Exile, 1974–1978, translated by Peter Constantine, foreword by Daniel J. Mahoney (South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2018), for a remarkable sketch of age-old Swiss democracy as practiced in the half-canton of Appenzell. Solzhenitsyn visited Appenzell on election day in April 1975.


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