In autumn of 2017, The New Criterion published an article about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s “cathedrals“, his Gulag Archipelago and a series of epic ‘novels’ known as the Red Wheel series. I delayed posting this until I was finished with the trilogy, and promptly forgot about it.
“In taking literature so seriously, Solzhenitsyn claimed the mantle of a ‘Russian writer,’ which, as all Russians understand, means much more than a writer who happens to be Russian. It is a status less comparable to “American writer” than to ‘Hebrew prophet.’ ‘Hasn’t it always been understood,’ asks one of Solzhenitsyn’s characters, ‘that a major writer in our country . . . is a sort of second government?’ In Russia, Boris Pasternak explained, ‘a book is a squarish chunk of hot, smoking conscience—and nothing else!’ Russians sometimes speak as if a nation exists in order to produce great literature: that is how it fulfills its appointed task of supplying its distinctive wisdom to humanity.”
“Like Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gulag is literary without being fictional. Indeed, part of its value lies in its bringing to life the real stories of so many ordinary people. When I first began to read it, I feared that a long list of outrages would rapidly prove boring, but to my surprise I could not put the book down. How does Solzhenitsyn manage to sustain our interest? To begin with, as with Gibbon, readers respond to the author’s brilliantly ironic voice, which has a thousand registers. Sometimes it surprises us with a brief comment on a single mendacious word. It seems that prisoners packed as tightly as possible were transported through the city in brightly painted vehicles labeled ‘Meat.’ ‘It would have been more accurate to say “bones”,’ Solzhenitsyn observes.”
“Real people do not resemble the evildoers of mass culture, who delight in cruelty and destruction. No, to do mass evil you have to believe it is good, and it is ideology that supplies this conviction. ‘Thanks to ideology, the twentieth century was fated to experience evildoing on a scale of millions.’
One lesson of Gulag is that we are all capable of evil, just as Solzhenitsyn himself was. The world is not divided into good people like ourselves and evil people who think differently. “If only it were 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.”