Saturday, August 5, 2017

Sohlzenitzyn & The Mystery of Soviet Suffering

"It is possible to build the Empire State Building, to drill the Prussian army, to stack the hierarchy of the state higher than the throne of the Creator. It is, however, not possible to overcome the odd spiritual superiority of certain people. There are privates who are feared by their company commanders, common workers who terrify their masters, plaintiffs who instill fear in their accusers."
- On Bobynin

"There you have are losing all grounding upon which you stand and all goals that may be ahead of you. Doubt is good and necessary. But in the end, shouldn't a man love something?"
"Yes, love!... Love! But not history only a girl!"
-The night time conversation of Nierżyn & Rus'ka

"One cannot let this people free, nor refrain from teaching them. One cannot keep this people in a state of uncertainty. The Revolution had left the people at the mercy of Godlessness, and that is dangerous. For twenty years now, Stalin had been trying to remedy this situation."
- Stalin's reflections in his 70th year

There has long existed a debate in intellectual circles in the West regarding the question of the extent to which Soviet and Tsarist Russia shared essential features? Or were they radically different political regimes? Those who romanticize Tsarism or Communism might be accused of a type of fanaticism on behalf of either one, while those who postulate that Russia has not essentially changed are blind to the extent to which it has. A surface reading of the first 20 chapters of Sohlzenitzyn's In the First Circle reopens this question, but also beckons us to attempt to see the answer beyond the perspectives offered by Western life.

For while authoritarianism and a system of oppression can indeed be said to have been characteristic of both political systems, Sohlzenitzyn's prose seem to open up the possibility that the difference between the two systems was not something to be discovered by judging them from a Western point of view, but rather it was that in practice, the Soviet system - despite being built upon the great lie- gave birth to an austere form of spiritual truth while the Tsarist system - despite its nominal Christianity- wrought a nihilist people who pushed their state into anarchy, revolution and finally a more sophisticated despotism because God had long ago died in their hearts. In this sense one could say that Bolshevism was no revolution at all, but merely the fulfillment of the nihilism already eating away at the Russian soul in the twilight years of Tsarism.

The juxtaposition between the tales of the Zeks, whose entire experience consisted mainly of the wars, the concentration camps, the gulags and Lubyanka with the lives of Stalin and his Bolshevik comrades provides this odd insight. For like Bobynin, the Zeks as a whole truly have nothing to lose and are thus truly free. Bobynin is an extreme case, but the Zeks as a whole are closer to Bobynin than to those Bolsheviks and revolutionaries who suffered under Tsarist times.

While it is possible to reduce this to a difference between human types; to claim that Sohlzenitzyn's Zeks, with their conscientious reaction to suffering, are simply not the sociopaths that Stalin and his Bolsheviks were, a longer historical view seems to argue against this psychological reductionism. The real culture under Tsarism gave us Bolshevism. The real culture under Bolshevism - because it carried the principles of evil to their most extreme form - gave us a culture of men and women who in the end authentically had nothing to lose but their chains and for whom the method of political change was incidental. Stalin and his Bolsheviks had blackmail and expropriation because their ambition was outward. The Zeks, content to accept suffering and evil, had no outward ambitions - they sought a spiritual peace in their souls. This shook the foundations of Soviet culture far more thoroughly than any kind of neo-revolutionary activity could have.

The suffering may have  been the same, but the effect upon Solhzenitzyn's generation is very different than the effect upon Stalin's: Solhzenitzyn's generation is not motivated by the refined materialist ambitions of the Bolsheviks. The Zeks, each in their own way, seek truth and a life of integrity. The Zek's suffering has purified their souls; The suffering of Stalin and his generation hardened their hearts. The Revolutionaries believed that they were gods and undertook to  step down from their crosses to please the crowd and thus please themselves. Sohlzenitzyn's generation seems to have decided to stay awhile, to find their home on the cross.

"Christ has risen!" - this is the initial reaction to the 1917 revolution as Sohlzenitzyn has it. Paradoxically, it is in the biography of Stalin which the author of In the First Circle briefly consolidates for us, that we can see why the fall of Tsarist Russia could evoke such ecstatic reactions: Tsarist Russia seemed (in retrospect of course) at the time in essence similar to the Soviet Russia which followed on its heels and in its demise - for a brief moment - it was thought that some miracle had taken place akin to the miracle of Soviet collapse.

Stalin's tale; a promising young clergyman confronted by a people for whom God is dead, embracing the only truly democratic institution of the time - the revolution - only to become disillusioned and, under duress, turn to become a Tsarist informant, convinced that the end had come during his final Siberian exile only to be thrown into the whirlwind of the First World War and torn from it into the hurricane of the Bolshevik revolution: Stalin's early life is a microcosm of the Hell that washed over the nations that would become the Soviet Union. 

But Stalin's reaction to this Hell, the reaction of his generation of revolutionaries, was very distinct from that of Solhzenitzyn's generation. Sohlzenitzyn's ideal - the ideal of the suffering Russian people as encompassed in the writer's work - is radically at odds with Western ideals such as security, material plenty, honor, recognition and individual indulgence. It is likewise at odds with the Bolshevik materialism that characterized Stalin and Stalinism. This may indicate the fundamental flaw in our thinking with regard to Russian culture. This flaw in Western optics is to be expected of those who had no experience of communism, for whom Sohlzenitzyn's irony is as foreign as his philosophical integrity.

It has rightly been said that after Tsarism and Communism, finally the former Soviet nations are allowed to pursue their own authentic development. It has wrongly been thought that the goal of this development would necessarily be the Western modes and orders. How could it be? After traversing the path taken in the XXth century, whatever comes of Russian culture and the cultures of the post-Soviet nations - will be unique on the world stage - and if the Russian future will mirror Solhzenitzyn's view of the development of the Russian soul, it will be a future wherein the spiritual wealth of the human being and the stubborn pursuit of truth and love overshadow all else.

Pictured: I suspect this picture if Stalin mat be the one Sohlzenitzyn refers to in his book as the dictators favorite self-portrait in his popular biography: "He (Stalin) himself suggested that this photograph be added to his biography. There he was, pictured from the side. He does not have a beard nor a moustache...he simply had not shaved in a long time and his whole face was covered in a manly five o'clock shadow. He was ready to fly, he just did not know where..." (chapter 20) 


  1. Perhaps it will be interesting for you.

    Pablo Lopez Herrera

  2. Thank you.No doubt one of the three is a good occasion to practice my French.