Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: Learning From Hard Times

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was one of most influential Russian writers of the past century. His work is held in high regard in Russia for its cultural importance, and his book “The Gulag Archipelago” has been required reading in Russian schools since 2009. President Putin called the book “much-needed” for its content.

Solzhenitsyn was also the winner of 1970 Nobel Prize for literature, and the price came with a quote “for the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature.”

What are the reasons for such high praise? Could we still today learn something from Solzhenitsyn’s work? Let’s dive deeper to find out.

It’s The Hard Knock Life

“My life is over, a little early to be sure; but there’s nothing to be done about it. I shall never return to freedom. I am condemned to die – now or a little later. But later on, in truth, it will be even harder, and so the sooner the better. I no longer have any property whatsoever. For me those I love have died, and for them I have died. From today on, my body is useless and alien to me. Only my spirit and my conscience remain precious and important to me.”

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was born in 1918 Kislovodsk, Russia. He was a scholar; his studies in Rostov University revolved around in mathematics, but he also attended supplementary courses in Moscow Institute of Philosophy, Literature, and History.

Then World War II came. Solzhenitsyn would serve in the army as a commander of a battery unit in the front lines. He served valiantly and became a decorated soldier; he was rewarded for his personal heroism on three different occasions.

Despite his rather impressive credentials, he wasn’t immune from the wrath of the ruling party. In 1945 he was arrested for criticising Stalin in private conversation(s) (I guess it wasn’t so private after all). He got sentenced to an eight year term – eight long years to be spent at a labour camp. This is how life ended for many in Soviet Russia.

“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. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains … an unuprooted small corner of evil.

Solzhenitsyn survived his sentence, but his punishment wasn’t over; after his sentence he was to spend the rest of his life in internal exile. His exile, however, also didn’t last long. In 1956 thanks to Khrushchev’s reforms, Solzhenitsyn was allowed to return to Kazakhstan where he would later work as a teacher.

He had seen many horrors during his time in the gulag. This gave him more than enough material to work with as he was writing his books. He started publishing his work in the 1960’s, with his most notable book from this time being One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which remained his only major work published in Russia until 1990. Solzhenitsyn continued to write for a while, but by 1969 he was expelled from the Writers’ Union.

He found himself in the crosshairs of the Soviet authorities once again in 1974 (well, there was also one failed assassination attempt on him in 1971). The Gulag Archipelago had just been released in the West (first in Russian in 1973, and in English in 1974), and this caught the ire of the ruling party. Solzhenitsyn was to be stripped of his Soviet citizenship (for committing treason) and then sent into exile once again. However, this time his exile was to be of the external type, as he was flown to Frankfurt the very next day.

“… What about the main thing in life, all its riddles? If you want, I’ll spell it out for you right now. Do not pursue what is illusionary -property and position: all that is gained at the expense of your nerves decade after decade, and is confiscated in one fell night. Live with a steady superiority over life -don’t be afraid of misfortune, and do not yearn for happiness; it is, after all, all the same: the bitter doesn’t last forever, and the sweet never fills the cup to overflowing.“

Solzhenitsyn didn’t stay in Frankfurt for too long. He had been unable to receive his Nobel price in 1970 because he couldn’t travel to Sweden as he didn’t know if he’d be able to return to Russia from Stockholm after receiving the price. At the same time, Sweden didn’t want to hold a special reward ceremony in their Russian embassy because it could have damaged their relationship with Russia. So, in 1974, Solzhenitsyn travelled to Stockholm, Sweden, to receive the price he was granted four years prior.

After this detour he soon headed towards Zurich, Switzerland where he would stay until 1976. The same year Stanford University invited him and his family to stay at the Hoover Tower in the Hoover Institution, an invitation he was more than happy to accept. Solzhenitsyn would spend the next several years in the US before returning home to Russia in 1994 (after the collapse of the Soviet Union) where he would spend the rest of his days.

Solzhenitsyn died in August 3rd, 2008 due to heart failure.

“A man is happy so long as he chooses to be happy.”

Despite all the challenges he faced, Solzhenitsyn was able to live a fulfilling life. He wasn’t a perfect human being, no one is, but he left us with many wisdoms about life.

In addition, he also left us in the West a warning.

A Warning To The West

“The Western world has lost its civil courage, both as a whole and separately, in each country, each government, each political party and of course in the United Nations. Such a decline in courage is particularly noticeable among the ruling groups and the intellectual elite, causing an impression of loss of courage by the entire society.”

Initially, Solzhenitsyn had been a staunch supporter of Communist ideas. His mind changed before, and even more so during his time in the gulag.

After moving to the US and spending time there, he started noticing worrying signs of materialism that he knew would lead to problems later down the line.

“Own only what you can always carry with you: know languages, know countries, know people. Let your memory be your travel bag.”

This one’s a little ironic as Solzhenitsyn himself didn’t fully learn English despite living in the States for 18 years. But he certainly did travel and he also knew people, for better or for worse.

Today it’s a little difficult to accomplish this pipedream. We do know, however, that whatever you own ends up owning you. Perhaps there exists a sweet spot somewhere in the middle.

Look around you – there are people around you. Maybe you will remember one of them all your life and later eat your heart out because you didn’t make use of the opportunity to ask him questions. And the less you talk, the more you’ll hear.

But it wasn’t materialism alone that worried Solzhenitsyn. He had interviewed over 250 people for The Gulag Archipelago. From these interviews and from his own experience, he was able to come to conclusions about why all the cruelty was able to manifest itself in Soviet Russia:

“Over a half century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of old people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.” Since then I have spent well-nigh 50 years working on the history of our revolution; in the process I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own toward the effort of clearing away the rubble left by that upheaval. But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous revolution that swallowed up some 60 million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.”

Was it that men had forgotten God? Perhaps.

As materialism and hedonism increases, it also takes away from spiritual pursuits. Spirituality is certainly something that is lacking in the Western society.

People have forgotten how to love. Short term pleasure over long term satisfaction. Life becomes meaningless if everything in it holds no value. Wandering aimlessly with no goal in sight, just waiting for the next high. This is how many choose to live their lives. It will eventually end in tears.

But what will it all lead to?

The Rise of Totalitarianism

“Unlimited power in the hands of limited people always leads to cruelty.”

Unless you have lived under totalitarian rule or studied history (most haven’t), you might have missed the obvious signs where we are currently headed.

See, the government is not your friend. It has its own interests, and those always come first. That being said, the power they hold is limited by how much power the people in any given country allow them to have.

“Let us not forget that violence does not and cannot exist by itself; it is invariably intertwined with the lie. They are linked in the most intimate, most organic and profound fashion: violence cannot conceal itself behind anything except lies, and lies have nothing to maintain them save violence. Anyone who has once proclaimed violence as his method must inexorably choose the lie as his principle.”

In our current environment, governments all around the world have been given near unlimited power over our lives. In some countries more so than others. Either way, it is not looking great.

Tyrannical governments can only exist if people allow it to happen. But after a certain point it is no longer possible to stop what is coming. That’s why it’s important to keep your leaders in check, and make sure they are following the already agreed upon rules.

The media works hand-in-hand with the government. On this topic Solzhenitsyn had this to say:

“You must understand, the leading Bolsheviks who took over Russia were not Russians. They hated Russians. They hated Christians. Driven by ethnic hatred they tortured and slaughtered millions of Russians without a shred of human remorse. It cannot be overstated. Bolshevism committed the greatest human slaughter of all time. The fact that most of the world is ignorant and uncaring about this enormous crime is proof that the global media is in the hands of the perpetrators.”

This is not to say that ALL people working in the mainstream media are in on it, but the people at the top (the ones who make all the important decisions) certainly are.

But the “small” people in the chain are not blameless. You too will be held to account when the time comes.

“You know, that is one of the consequences of the weak sense of responsibility of the press. The press does not feel responsibility for its judgments. It makes judgments and attaches labels with the greatest of ease. Mediocre journalists simply make headlines of their conclusions, which suddenly become generally accepted.”

Understand that some people actually take the news seriously, and it can have devastating consequences. Journalists should report the news, not nonsense propaganda.

I hope you come to your senses before all of this is over.


Solzhenitsyn offered a solution to our problems:

The Solution

“And how we burned in the camps later, thinking: What would things have been like if every Security operative, when he went out at night to make an arrest, had been uncertain whether he would return alive and had to say good-bye to his family? Or if, during periods of mass arrests, as for example in Leningrad, when they arrested a quarter of the entire city, people had not simply sat there in their lairs, paling with terror at every bang of the downstairs door and at every step on the staircase, but had understood they had nothing left to lose and had boldly set up in the downstairs hall an ambush of half a dozen people with axes, hammers, pokers, or whatever else was at hand?… The Organs would very quickly have suffered a shortage of officers and transport and, notwithstanding all of Stalin’s thirst, the cursed machine would have ground to a halt! If…if…We didn’t love freedom enough. And even more – we had no awareness of the real situation…. We purely and simply deserved everything that happened afterward.”

If you’ve ever been bullied at school or work, then you most probably already know this: the only way the bullying stops is if you stand up for yourself.

One must be prepared to defend oneself if the situation calls for it.

Our hope is that it doesn’t come down to that.

“The simple step of a courageous individual is not to take part in the lie. “One word of truth outweighs the world.”

The least we can do is not be part of the lie. It takes courage to speak the truth, yes, but if enough people to do it, then it becomes easier to speak for everyone.

You are not alone. There are many like you out there in the world. You need not be afraid to speak the truth.

“You can resolve to live your life with integrity. Let your credo be this: Let the lie come into the world, let it even triumph. But not through me.”

This message concerns everyone.

Time will tell whether we, as a collective, learn to appreciate the things we already have. Whether we learn to let go of past grudges, and join together to create a better world.

We will, but what will it take?


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