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Ellen Myers

Someone has said that “the Christian understanding of creation, the fall, and redemption underlies Sotzhenitsyn’s writing, he has accepted this analysis.” 1

Alexandr Solzhenitsyn tells us that he came to faith in the Creator “God of the Universe” 2 by the road of intellectual arrogance and lust for power, descending in prison to the “edge between being and nothingness” 3 where he “renounced that aim of surviving at any price” 4 and went “where the calm and simple people go.” 5 After listening to a prison doctor’s “long story of his conversion from Judaism to Christianity ... his last words on earth,” Solzhenitsyn knew that “you cannot brush off that kind of inheritance by shrugging your shoulders.” 6 And so Solzhenitsyn returned to God as the Creator of man and therefore giver of man’s meaning;

Not with good judgment nor with desire
Are its (life’s) twists and turns illumined.
But with the even glow of the Higher Meaning
Which became apparent to me only later on.
And now with measuring cup returned to me
Scooping up the living water,
God of the Universe! I believe again!
Though I renounced You, You were with me! 7
By his faith Solzhenitsyn is to Soviet Russia, and to the entire twentieth century world, a voice crying in the wilderness of materialism, a candle in the wind of humanist atheism. The voice cries out: “Morality is higher than law! ...This view must never be abandoned. We must accept it with heart and soul...words like ‘good’ and ‘evil’ ... are concepts from a sphere which is higher than us.” 8 The voice commands: “DO NOT LIE! DO NOT TAKE PART IN THE LIE! DO NOT SUPPORT THE LIE!” 9

The candle is the light of Christ in the human heart, according to the Bible passage Solzhenitsyn proclaims through his stand-in, Aunt Christine, at the climax of his drama, Candle in the Wind:

No man, when he hath lighted a candle, putteth it in a secret place, neither under a bushel, but on a candlestick, that they which come in may see the tight ...Take heed therefore that the light which is in thee be not darkness …
And in his cry against materialism, he has Aunt Christine quote again from the Bible:
And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou has much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry. But God said unto him. Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee; then whose shall those things be, which thou has provided? 10
For all his deep rejection of Communism, and encyclopedic knowledge of its atrocities documented in the nearly 1300 pages of the four completed (at this writing) volumes of The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn does not people his works of fiction with stereotyped communist or anti-communist puppets. The nearest he comes to tailoring characters according to the views they represent is in Candle in the Wind. Yet its hero Alex is a living, complex man, not a robot of manufactured single-minded virtue and wisdom.

The mark of truth and value in man is not to seek vengeance, but repentance and reconciliation. Solzhenitsyn, prophet and teacher rather than rebel and revolutionary, shows this in the following exchange between Alex and the African student Kabimba, who is angry and disillusioned with the research institute for which both work:

Kabimba: ... They’re all rich and totally unconcerned, they’ll never be able to understand how other people live! I hate myself for clinging to them! I hate them all!

Alex: Kabimba! You know I’ve also fallen hopelessly behind them because of the time I spent in prison. So what am I to do now? Elbow them aside? Smash their windows? Kabimba! Hatred and resentment will never get you anywhere. They are the most barren feelings in the world. One has to rise above that and realize that we have lost centuries or decades—we’ve been insulted, humiliated, but that’s no reason for revenge. Nor should we try. All the same we’re richer than they are.

Kabimba (indignantly): We are? Richer in what way? In what way?

Alex: Because we’ve suffered, Kabimba. Suffering is a lever for the growth of the soul. A contented person always has an impoverished soul. It’s our job to build little by little. 11

The “heroine” Alda is a most unheroic victim of her own pliable nature. The representative of shameless hedonism, Professor Maurice Craig, reduced in his old age to playing cook and housekeeper to his young, career-crazy, oversexed wife Tillie, evokes our pity along with our contempt. The messenger of Biblical Christianity, ragged Aunt Christine herself shelters “how many cats ... nine or ten? It seems kind of a lot,” 12, appearing thereby foolish and contemptible to the shallow worldly-minded. Lest Tillie Craig seem too one-sided and shrill, a parody of the modern liberated woman, Solzhenitsyn also portrays in laboratory chief Annie Banigge a gentler human being who can still reject cruelty, feel ashamed at taking a husband away from his paralyzed wife, and cry all night. 13 The most puppet-like characters in Candle are the members of the “bio-cybernetic team,” and we may assume that they are themselves the first victims of their own conditioning by scientific elimination of human emotions as proper expressions of rightful value judgments. 14

What a wealth of living men and women do we find in Solzhenitsyn’s panoramic novels! Their very length and explicit details become a joy as we look forward to meeting the “lesser” people along with the principal ones! In A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich we love not only Ivan himself but also his meek and serene Baptist friend Alyosha: “What was he so pleased about? His cheeks were sunken, he lived only on his ration and didn’t earn anything extra ... He always did whatever you asked. If only everybody in the world was like that, Shukhov would be that way too.”15 In The First Circle we admire not only its chief protagonist Nerzhin, but the marvelous hero Gerasimovich. He wears a pince-nez, seems “very narrow in the shoulders and very small,” with a “thin dried-up face,” as he turns down a comfortable job building listening devices for the GPU and possible early release, and chooses instead certain death by starvation and freezing in an arctic prison and final separation from his wife. Why? Because “Putting people in prison is not my field! I don’t set traps for human beings! It’s bad enough they put us in prison …”16 Examples from the above and other works could be multiplied.

Perhaps the most moving story by Solzhenitsyn is Cancer Ward. Immediately we are introduced to Communist Pavel Nikolayevich Rusanov entering “wing 13” with superstitious dislike. “It isn’t, it isn’t cancer, is it, Doctor? I haven’t got cancer?” we hear him stammer as we see him touch “the malevolent tumor on the right side of his neck.”17 It is all found right here on the opening page: Rusanov’s desire to lie his illness away: the privileges he feels entitled to as a Party member, yet which are meaningless in the reality of illness and death; his unwillingness to face truth, an unwillingness at once pathetic and wrong. He persists in his denial of truth to the very end, claiming to be cured while the doctors expect him to die within the year.18 Rusanow is a minor character, eclipsed by hero Kostoglotov (“bone-eater”) and his love, Dr. “Vega” Gangart whom we also love without reservation. No, there is no “happy ending!” But there is victory and hope in the end.

Is Cancer Ward an allegory of Communism? Is Communism itself portrayed here either as a “cancer ward,” or as a terminal case of spiritual cancer, a gigantic, arrogant, parasitic, fatal fraud? Solzhenitsyn was “criticized for the very title of the story, which is said to deal not with a medical case but with some kind of symbol.”19 He replied with a defense of his work as a portrayal of realistic truth:

I do not believe that it is the task of literature to conceal the truth, or to tone it down, with respect either to society or the individual. Rather, I believe that it is the task of literature to tell people the real truth as they expect it. Moreover, it is not the task of the writer to defend or criticize one or another mode of distributing the social product, or to defend or criticize one or another form of government organization. The task of the writer is to select more universal and eternal questions, the secrets of the human heart and conscience, the confrontation of life with death, the triumph over spiritual sorrow, the laws of the history of mankind that were born in the depths of time immemorial and that will cease to exist only when the sun ceases to shine. 20

Solzhenitsyn is gifted with tremendous realism both in factual description, and in fictional retelling of actual facts. Compare the first chapter of the first volume of The Gulag Archipelago, “Arrest,” with the moment-by-moment fictional arrest of Innokenty Volodin in The First Circle. 21 Another example is the entire book, Lenin in Zurich, where Solzhenitsyn lives and speaks as it were from within Lenin. With him we too enter Lenin’s soul, shut up away from normal humanity within the prison hell of his totally self-centered, power-craving plotter’s mind that is racked with constant, envious hatred and fear. Only one other is admitted to this hell: Lenin’s proud, “liberated” mistress, Inessa Armand.

He acknowledged dependence on no one in the world except Inessa. He felt it least when he was smarting from one of their fights. Most of all, when they were together. No, when they were not... 22
Love? Rather, perversion of love and deliberate abasement of Lenin’s wife, plain, dull, loyal Nadya Krupskaya. Of course it does not last:
He couldn’t guess where their relationship had gone wrong. Or why. What was there to spoil it? When had he ever tried so hard to please, when had he deferred to anybody as he did to her’... He had been surprised that, with the three of them, it had held together so long. But now it had collapsed … 23

All others are mere tools, though for a while he might serve as theirs. Typical is Lenin’s relationship with Parvus, the conspirator arranging for Lenin’s transportation to Russia through Germany:

But now he had high hopes for Lenin, and leaned on him with all his pudgy immensity, forcing him farther and farther along the bed, until he was sitting on the pillow and could feel the bedstead against his elbow.

“Aren’t you afraid that mere slogans will be useless without money? With money in your hands—power will be yours. How else will you seize power?” …

Lenin was sickened by his self-assurance but fascinated by the reality of his power. 24

We are indebted to Solzhenitsyn for his courage in the face of possible torture and death, not only for himself but for his wife and three small children. The wealth of his work and ideas cannot possibly be adequately summarized in this brief tribute. One final consideration must suffice: amazingly, in all Solzhenitsyn’s prison novels, none of the heroes escape by suicide! Doggedly, simply, without heroics, as though no other way were a human option, his martyrs go on going on, day by day, moment by moment. We marvel at their fathomless patience which, akin to charity, and paired with charity in Solzhenitsyn’s Christians, bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things, never fails. Yet we dare not say it is contrived; and when we are confronted with the author’s explicit testimony on the source of such patient endurance within himself we dare not doubt its experiential truth, nor that this truth can free everyone, you, me, if we accept and live by it:

How easy it is for me to live with you, Lord!
How easy for me to believe in you.
When my spirit is lost, perplexed and cast down,
When the sharpest can see no further than the night,
And know not what on the morrow they must do,
You give me a sure certainty
That you exist, that you are watching over me
And will not permit the ways of righteousness to be closed to me.
Here on the summit of earthly glory I look back astonished
On the road which through depths of despair has led me here,
To this point from which I can also reflect to men your radiance
And all that I can still reflect you shall grant to me.
And what I shall fail you shall grant to others.
    —Alexandr Solzhenitsyn 25


1 Niels C. Nielsen, Jr., Solzhenitsyn’s Religion. Pillar Books, New York, 1976, 151
2 Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, Part Two (Vols. III and IV), Harper & Row, New York, 1975, 615
3 Ibid., 610
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid.
6 Ibid.
7 Ibid.
8 Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Address in Washington. DC., on June 30, 1975, published by the AFL-CIO, 851 16th Street NW. Washington. D.C. 20006 (Publication No. 152), 23
9 Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, ed., From Under The Rubble, Little, Brown & Co., New York, 1975, 274
10 Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Candle in the Wind, Bantam Books. New York. 1974,136
11 Ibid., 128
12 Ibid., 59
13 Ibid., 83-85
14 cf. C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, Macmillan Publishing Co., New York, Thirteenth Printing 1975, 13-35
15 Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich, Bantam Books. New York. 29th Printing 1976, 49, 120
16 Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The First Circle, Bantam Books. New York, Fourth Printing 580, 582, 583
17 Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Cancer Ward, Bantam Books, New York, Fifteenth Printing 1972. I.
18 Ibid., 454
19 Ibid., 554
20 Ibid., 554-555
21 Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago. Part One (Vols. I and II), Harper & Row, New York, 1975. 3-23.; The First Circle, 604-643
22 Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, Lenin in Zurich. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc., New York, 1975, 79
23 Ibid., 234
24 Ibid., 130-131
25 Nielsen, op. cit., 19-20

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