Notes from the Gulag

If you have never read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn–or only read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich–then more pleasure awaits you. Keep in mind that he is Russian, and thus tends towards long books. But like Tolstoy, the pages are full of life:

“Arrest is an instantaneous, shattering thrust, expulsion, somersault from one state into another.
We have been happily borne — or perhaps have unhappily
dragged our weary way— down the long and crooked streets of
our lives, past all kinds of walls and fences made of rotting wood, rammed earth, brick, concrete, iron railings. We have never given a thought to what lies behind them. We have never tried to penetrate them with our vision or our understanding. But there is where the Gulag country begins, right next to us, two yards away from us.

In addition, we have failed to notice an enormous number of closely fitted, well-disguised doors and gates in these
fences. All those gates were prepared for us, every last one! And all of a sudden the fateful gate swings quickly open, and four white male hands, unaccustomed to physical labor but nonetheless strong and tenacious, grab us by the leg, arm, collar, cap, ear, and drag us in like a sack, and the gate behind us, the gate to our past life, is slammed shut once and for all.
That’s all there is to it! You are arrested!
And you’ll find nothing better to respond with than a lamblike
bleat: “Me? What for?”
That’s what arrest is: it’s a blinding flash and a blow which
shifts the present instantly into the past and the impossible into omnipotent actuality.
That’s all. And neither for the first hour nor for the first day will you be able to grasp anything else.
Except that in your desperation the fake circus moon will blink
at you: “It’s a mistake! They’ll set things right!” ”
The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Know yourself

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970. If all you have read by him is One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, I recommend that you dip into his other works.* He follows in the tradition of Tolstoy and Chekhov with his fresh prose and insights into people. Like Tolstoy, he tends to write long. But you can read just a few pages and have a full meal. Here is a tasting from Volume One of The Gulag Archipelago. It’s a work of history, not memoir or fiction. Yet it reads like a thousand short stories, like a Russian version of Scheherazade’s Arabian tales.

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people
somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were
necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them.
But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of
every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

During the life of any heart this line keeps changing place;
sometimes it is squeezed one way by exuberant evil and sometimes it shifts to allow enough space for good to flourish. One and the same human being is, at various ages, under various circumstances, a totally different human being. At times he is close to being a devil, at times to sainthood. But his name doesn’t change, and to that name we ascribe the whole lot, good and evil.

Socrates taught us: Know thyself!

Confronted by the pit into which we are about to toss those
who have done us harm, we halt, stricken dumb: it is after all only because of the way things worked out that they were the executioners and we weren’t.

*Assuming that 650 pages of Russian history [in just Volume One] puts you off, you might want to try starting with Cancer Ward. It’s a more intimate book about a group of cancer patients, one of whom says, “We always think of death as black, but it’s only the preliminaries that are black. Death itself is white.”