Solzhenitsyn: The Power of Truth

As I was researching and writing the four-part series in December on “The Collapse of the USSR,” a thought occurred to me. If many of these young Russians who are now protesting against the corrupted election results of the December 4th parliamentary election are like their American counterparts, they probably have little knowledge of their recent history. I doubt that many of them – or many Americans — know much about the underground movements of the 1970s and 1980s that monitored human rights and religious freedom violations or about the key role played by some leading dissidents, including religious leaders. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was one — his writings were of strategic importance in undermining the Soviet regime. I decided to remind both my American and Russian readers of his historic contributions.

Solzhenitsyn’s Early Life

Solzhenitsyn in 1953 after his release from the prison camp at Ekibastuz

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was born in 1918 and, shortly after his birth, his father died. The tragic consequences of the death of his father, who was killed in a hunting accident, were made even more difficult for his family because of the Russian Civil War that was tearing the country apart. Aleksandr was raised by his widowed mother and aunt in poverty, in part a result of their family property being forcibly turned into a collective farm.

As a young boy, he was encouraged to pursue his interests in literature and science and was also raised in the Russian Orthodox faith by his mother and other relatives.

After studying mathematics at Rostov State University, he took correspondence courses from the Moscow Institute of Philosophy, Literature and History. During these years, he became committed to the ideology of the Soviet regime.

World War II changed his life forever. While serving in the Red Army in East Prussia, he wrote letters to a friend critical of the conduct of the war by Joseph Stalin and, despite being decorated twice for his bravery in the war, his letters were intercepted by the NKVD (the security service – a predecessor to the KGB) and lead to his arrest. He was accused of anti-Soviet propaganda and sentenced in July 1945 to an eight-year term in a labor camp.

During his eight-year sentence, Solzhenitsyn was moved between various work camps and one of these “special camps” was for political prisoners. The camp was located in the town of Ekibastuz in Kazakhstan and, while in this camp, he worked as a bricklayer and miner. It was this experience that lead him to write One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

Following the completion of his eight-year sentence in 1953, Solzhenitsyn was sent to internal exile in the northeastern corner of Kazakhstan, which often happened to political prisoners. During this decade of imprisonment and exile, Aleksandr rejected the Marxist ideology that he had embraced during his university days and gradually rediscovered his Christian roots.

When Khrushchev attacked Joseph Stalin in his “secret speech” in 1956, Solzhenitsyn was freed from exile and returned to Russia where he taught in a secondary school during the day and secretly pursued his passion for writing at night. He later commented that until 1961 he was convinced that he would never “see a single line of mine in print in my lifetime.”

The Writing and Publication of “One Day”

Solzhenitsyn later noted that the idea for his book, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, came to him during a dreary workday in Ekibastuz in the winter of 1950-51. When he decided to finally write the story in 1959, he said it “simply gushed out with tremendous force” and took only forty days to complete.

The story focuses on a single individual, a fictional character who served in the Red Army, was captured by the Germans, but later escaped and returned to the USSR. As happened to many Soviet soldiers who were captured by the Nazis, the Communist regime subsequently accused him of being a Nazi spy and sentenced him to ten years in a Soviet prison camp,

The book tells the story of a single day in the life of Ivan. The incredible suffering that he experienced and the brutality of the prison camps laid bare the true nature of the Soviet regime under Stalin’s leadership. By 1951, the period described in this book, the total population of the forced labor camps is estimated to have been approximately 10 million – that is no fewer than one sixth of all Soviet adult males.

As I re-read this 175-page story, I was stuck once again by the moral character of Ivan, who took pride in his work as a bricklayer in the bitter cold and endured long years of imprisonment by maintaining his integrity and self-respect despite his degrading, violent surroundings. I was particularly interested in Ivan’s comments about his fellow-prisoner, Alyoshka the Baptist. The faith of Alyoshka impressed Ivan because he saw how this Christian’s conduct demonstrated that the human spirit can triumph over unjust suffering.

When Khrushchev decided to allow the publication of this book in 1962, seeing it as a helpful tool in his campaign to discredit Stalin, he had no idea the impact it would have on the USSR and beyond. Solzhenitsyn’s short novel was published on November 20, 1962, in Novy Mir, a monthly Soviet literary magazine and it was an immediate literary sensation. Within a day, all 95,000 copies of the magazine were sold and additional press runs followed. Overnight Solzhenitsyn became known worldwide and his book was translated and circulated around the globe.

The political impact of the book was recognized immediately and it is now clear that this work of fiction, together with his nonfiction The Gulag Archipelago, contributed substantially to the unraveling of the Soviet regime. As David Remnick notes, it was “the pen against power” and Solzhenitsyn’s writings were one of the first tools used in undermining the Soviet dictatorship.

There is history here that must be understood, if Russia is to heal the wounds of its seventy years under the Communist Party’s brutal control. The power of truth, the power of the pen, reminds us of the old adage, “the pen is mightier than the sword.” Speaking the truth is more effective in bringing down unjust rulers than any other action.

NOTE: For an excellent introduction to the life, writings and Christian beliefs of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, see The Soul and Barbed Wire: An Introduction to Solzhenitsyn by Edward E. Ericson, Jr., and Alexis Klimoff (ISI Books, 2008).  Some of the reflections I shared came from this helpful source.