I remember reading One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in a second-hand bookstore. I didn't have much money at the time, but I bought it anyway. The book would change my life forever.
I'd known collective life in a boarding school, a rather bad one as I would later come to learn by way of comparison, for it was not the only one I would attend. The bullying, the toadying, the arbitrary cruelty, the pettiness. Only here it was, given fullness of form, the endpoint of the human condition, where survival was paramount and no indignity was too disgraceful. Hundreds of miles from home, in Africa, there was no running away from the school, though one boy tried. We endured it, and the tales of our suffering were not believed.
My father sent me the Gulag Archipelago, then newly-translated into English. If One Day was the novel, here was the back story, the facts of the matter. The whole rotten, stinking corpse of Communism, its pathetic excuses stripped away, dangling at the end of a meat hook. No longer could the Tweedy Types defend the thing: its ends and means were now apparent.
It has always perplexed me: how did the USSR ever survive as long as it did? The answer may lie in its defenders, one of whom was once Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn himself. Had he not been caught up in the scythe and bails of the Gulag for an idle remark about "Old Whiskers" Stalin, Solzhenitsyn would have gone on with his life, as did so many others. He would later renounce Marxism and become the deadliest enemy the Soviet Union would ever know, but Solzhenitsyn's work only comes to us by proxy. There were other heroes, the cellist Rostropovich who hid Solzhenitsyn in his own home: much of the Gulag Archipelago was written in Rostropovich's house. The hundreds of prisoners whose accounts are faithfully preserved in the Gulag Archipelago risked their lives to tell the tale, especially in the third volume. The dozens of people who hid parts of the manuscript, several of whom were caught, are as much contributors to the work as Solzhenitsyn himself.
We are presented with a dark riddle in the life of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. When does man rise up against evil? Usually when he becomes its victim. While evil happens to others, no matter how many others, we go on with our lives for our chief priority is survival. But in the frozen camps of Siberia, survival was no less a priority, conformity and subservience and tattling for the temporary heaven of an extra ration of food the stuff of life itself. But in the camps, nobody cared if you called Joe Stalin "Old Whiskers". It was the only place in the Soviet Union were you could speak your mind. You could shout whatever you like at the top of your lungs.
Solzhenitsyn turned to prayer, as I have turned to prayer. I shout at the top of my lungs, into the empty sky, into the blogosphere, not knowing if I am heard. Solzhenitsyn's precise dissection of the facts shaped much of what I would become as a thinker and writer. But it was his character, his faith in God which sustained him and sustains me. Only those who have not suffered can afford to sleepwalk through life, blind to the suffering of their fellow men.
In the so-called Land of the Free, we are running secret prison camps in far-away places, where law is impotent and torture is rampant. We do not much care about these things, except in some abstract way. When Joe Stalin died, he was sincerely mourned, and many people feel the inhabitants of our gulags in Guantanamo deserve their fates. There is a limit to this sort of thing: we cannot lock up everyone who hates us. There will come a day when we are called to account for the Gitmo Archipelago we have built both here and in secret locations around the world. All our fine talk about the Bill of Rights and La-dee-da American Values and Country First will be stripped and hung on the meathook on which Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn hung the USSR, and it cannot come soon enough for me.