Power and Possessions in the Gulag

“Pride grows in the human heart like lard on a pig.”
[Gulag, vol. 1, p. 163]

Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, a dam-burst of words which swept away a half-century of lies and denials about the Soviet state’s oppressive nature, first washed across the west forty years ago. It was acclaimed as a great work: an extraordinary feat of research and memory; a brave act of defiance written with the clarity and flintiness of an Old Testament prophet. Since then, the Soviet state has collapsed, taking with it the obvious political relevance of Solzhenitsyn’s great work.

Why should it continue to be read, a generation later?

One answer is that it explores the moral development of one of the most significant thinkers of the past century. Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s moral clarity was acquired in part through a painful struggle against external oppression. It also grew out of his struggle to understand and overcome the temptations that drew him onto the oppressor’s path.

Consider how Solzhenitsyn’s attraction to power blinded him to his own complicity with oppression. After enduring months of humiliation and threats in officer training school, he revelled in his new uniform and its symbols of power—gold buttons and blue shoulder boards. He bullied his orderly, humiliated men in front of their colleagues and sent at least one man to his death in a useless mission. When he was arrested at the front, he and seven other men were marched to a detention center: six were Soviet soldiers who had been captives in a German POW camp and the other was a German civilian. Told by a sergeant to carry his own heavy briefcase, Solzhenitsyn refused, clinging to his now-vanished power.

“I am an officer. Let the German carry it.”

As his Simon of Cyrene carried the briefcase over the muddy, treacherous roads, he was overcome with exhaustion. Wordlessly, the Russian POW beside him picked up the bag and carried it as far as he could. Then another picked up the burden. One by one, the other Russian POW’s and the German civilian took turns carrying the bag, without speaking to or even looking at Solzhenitsyn.

While the other prisoners carried his bag, Solzhenitsyn treated their service as his due. After all, he was an unselfish patriot and a superior person. Only later did he recognize that his actions were in keeping with the oppressors. For him, the problem of evil became personal:

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? [Gulag, vol. 1, p. 162]

From that time on, he knew that under different circumstances, the lure of power might easily have drawn him into the secret police.

His lessons about the corrosive effects of possessions came months later. After enduring a lengthy stay in Lubyanka Prison and a taxing interrogation, Solzhenitsyn was sent to the Gulag to serve an eight-year sentence. As his voyage into the dark realm began, he received a food package from well-meaning relatives. In time, he would come to see it as

a poisoned gift, because it transforms you from a free though hungry person into one who is anxious and cowardly, and it deprives you of that newly dawning enlightenment, that toughening resolve, which are all you need for your descent into the abyss. Oh, wise Gospel saying about the camel and the eye of the needle! These material things will keep you from entering the heavenly kingdom of the liberated spirit. [Gulag, vol. 1, p. 546]

When he arrived at a transit prison, he was assigned to a cell that was not yet completely filled. The men already in the cell were distributed in what he came to recognize as the standard configuration: the thieves monopolized the top bunks and the gray mass of men used the lower bunks. Solzhenitsyn and a companion, clutching their food parcels, slipped under one of the bunks, looking to avoid trouble. Without warning, a group of young thieves swarmed over them like a pack of rats and made off with the parcels.

Solzhenitsyn slid into the aisle, enraged at his loss. Instead of assaulting the ringleader, though, he angrily demanded access to the bunks as compensation for the theft. The ringleader assented and had two of the ‘gray neutrals’ thrown out of their bunks to make room for the newcomers. Insensitive to the injustice he had committed, Solzhenitsyn spent the rest of the afternoon grieving his material loss.

And it was only at night that the reproachful whispers of our neighbors reached us: how could we ask the thieves to help us by driving two of our own people under the bunks in our place?  And only then did awareness of my own meanness prick my conscience and make me blush.
[Gulag, vol. 1, p. 548]

Power, possessions, honour and hope for the future were all stripped away from Solzhenitsyn in the prisons, labour camps and cancer wards that were to be his home in the coming years. And with them went the easy justifications and self-deceptions that wrap us in the comforting blanket of our own self-regard. In their place emerged Solzhenitsyn’s prophetic message, words of hope for the oppressed and of warning for the affluent.

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