Brave words broke taboos and shook Soviet empire

WHEN Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich appeared in the literary magazine Novy Mir back in November 1962, taboos were shattered. Secrets were unearthed. And the Soviet Union was shaken to its foundations.

Solzhenitsyn’s novel described a day in the life of a carpenter in the Soviet Union’s secret network of slave labour camps, where starvation, bitter cold and punishing work regimes were the rule.

The author was working as a provincial maths teacher, and his greatest work, The Gulag Archipelago, was still to come. But One Day was to shock the USSR and the world.

Some of the crimes of the dictator Josef Stalin were exposed following a secret speech by Communist party leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1956, as part of his campaign to reform the Soviet system.

But Solzhenitsyn’s novel, based on seven years he spent as a prisoner, was the first real exposé of the gulag. He went on to win the Nobel prize for literature but was exiled from his homeland because of his work.

The gulag was, Solzhenitsyn wrote, the “human meat grinder” for processing what Stalin sneered at as “wreckers”, vermin and “enemies of the people” who allegedly sabotaged Soviet progress to the workers’ paradise. The process started, typically, with a knock on the door late at night, an arrest on charges of trivial or imaginary crimes, condemnation by a secret tribunal and incarceration in the camps.

The prisoners built railroads, worked in mines and cleared forests in some of the world’s most inhospitable terrain. The gulag is believed to have ground down some 29 million souls.

“If the Soviet Union’s elite were to accept that the portrait of Ivan Denisovich was authentic, that meant admitting innocent people had endured pointless suffering,” wrote Anne Applebaum in Gulag: A History.

“If the camps had really been stupid and wasteful and tragic, that meant the Soviet Union was stupid and wasteful and tragic too.”

Solzhenitsyn’s novel would never have been published if Khrushchev hadn’t hoped it would undermine support in the Kremlin for neo-Stalinist policies. But perhaps in part because of the novel’s publication, Khrushchev was ousted by Communist party leaders in 1964. The gulag, meanwhile, continued to incarcerate enemies of the people until two years before the Soviet collapse.

When Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize in 1970, Soviet authorities refused to let him go to Stockholm to accept the award.

In the text of the speech he could not deliver, Solzhenitsyn recalled an old Russian proverb: “One word of truth shall outweigh the whole world.”

But Solzhenitsyn was not a storybook hero for his admirers in Europe and the US. Many, especially in the West, found his political judgments as distressing as his literature was inspiring.

After he was stripped of his Soviet citizenship and expelled from the USSR, in 1974, he settled in bucolic Cavendish, Vermont. There, he became frustrated with what he regarded as the West’s shallow obsession with individualism and liberty — which, in his view, had degenerated into narcissism. In his view, democracy had brought paralysis in the form of affluence.

After his return to Russia in 1994, Solzhenitsyn was outraged to find a Kremlin, in his view, unable to stop the looting of Russia’s vast resources by politically connected tycoons and unwilling to stand up against what he saw as the encroaching threat of Nato and other Western institutions.

Mikhail Gorbachev, the communist reformer, restored Solzhenitsyn’s Soviet citizenship in 1990 and dropped treason charges against him.

President Boris Yeltsin, who dismantled the Soviet system, tried to woo the author.

Solzhenitsyn blamed Gorbachev and Yeltsin for Russia’s economic crisis, its military weakness and what he regarded as subservience to the West.

When Yeltsin awarded Solzhenitsyn Russia’s highest honour, the Order of St Andrew, in 1998, the writer refused to accept it.

In the 1990s, Solzhenitsyn’s views were regarded by Moscow’s political elites and some disillusioned western supporters as old-fashioned, out of step with Russia’s march toward integration with the West. In time, however Solzhenitsyn’s views would be echoed in the halls of the Kremlin.

The author at first seemed wary of President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer. But hegradually warmed to Putin, as the Russian president reigned in the oligarchs, reclaimed state control of some of Russia’s natural resources and adopted a more assertive relationship with the US and the west.

On June 12, during the Day of Russia holiday celebrations in the Kremlin, Putin presented Solzhenitsyn with a state prize for his “humanitarian” contribution to the nation.

Solzhenitsyn said he hoped Russians’ experience during the “cruel and troubled years” of the Soviet era would help avert more suffering.

Solzhenitsyn had become, once again, a symbol of Russia: a nation caught between its tragic past and its uncertain future; between its faith in state power and its fear of new repression.

Excerpts from Solzhenitsyn’s works

* ”Arrest is an instantaneous, shattering thrust, expulsion, somersault from one state into another. We have been happily borne — or perhaps have unhappily dragged our weary way — down the long and crooked streets of our lives, past all kinds of walls and fences made of rotting wood, rammed earth, brick, concrete, iron railings. We have never given a thought to what lies behind them. We have never tried to penetrate them with our vision or our understanding. But there is where the Gulag country begins, right next to us, two yards away from us. In addition, we have failed to notice an enormous number of closely fitted, well-disguised doors and gates in these fences. All those gates were prepared for us, every last one! And all of a sudden the fateful gate swings quickly open, and four white male hands, unaccustomed to physical labour, but nonetheless strong and tenacious, grab us by the leg, arm, collar, cap, ear, and drag us in like a sack, and the gate behind us, the gate to our past life, is slammed shut once and for all.”

- The Gulag Archipelago, published 1973

* ”Power is a poison well known for thousands of years. If only no one were ever to acquire material power over others! But to the human being who has faith in some faith that holds dominion over all of us, and who is therefore conscious of his own limitations, power is not necessarily fatal. For those, however, who are unaware of any higher sphere, it is a deadly poison. For them there is no antidote.”

- The Gulag Archipelago

* ”We have to condemn publicly the very idea that some people have the right to repress others. In keeping silent about evil, in burying it so deep within us that no sign of it appears on the surface, we are implanting it, and it will rise up a thousandfold in the future. When we neither punish nor reproach evildoers, we are not simply protecting their trivial old age, we are thereby ripping the foundations of justice from beneath new generations. It is for this reason, and not because of the weakness of indoctrinational work, that they are growing up indifferent. Young people are acquiring the conviction that foul deeds are never punished on earth, that they always bring prosperity.

“It is going to be uncomfortable, horrible, to live in such a country!”

- The Gulag Archipelago

* ”Shukhov enjoyed it. He liked people pointing at him — see that man? He’s nearly done his time — but he didn’t let himself get excited about it. Those who’d come to the end of their time during the war had all been kept in ‘pending further orders’ — till ‘46. So people originally sentenced to three years did five altogether. They could twist the law any way they liked. When your ten years were up they could say good, have another ten. Or pack you off to some Godforsaken place of exile.

“Sometimes, though, you got thinking and your spirits soared: your sentence was running out, there wasn’t much thread left on the spool! Lord! Just to think of it! Walking free, on your own two legs!”

- From One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, written in 1959 and published in 1962

* ”Standing there to be counted through the gate of an evening, back in camp after a whole day of buffeting wind, freezing cold and an empty belly, the zek [Soviet labour camp inmate] longs for his ladleful of scalding hot watery evening soup as for rain in time of drought. He could knock it back in a single gulp.

“For the moment that ladleful means more to him than freedom, more than his whole past life, more than whatever life is left to him.”

- One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

* ”Shukhov felt pleased with life as he went to sleep. A lot of good things had happened that day.

“He hadn’t been thrown in the hole. The gang hadn’t been dragged off to Sotsgorodok [socialist settlement]. He’d swiped the extra gruel at dinnertime.

“The foreman had got a good rate for the job. He’d enjoyed working on the wall. He hadn’t been caught with the blade at the search point. He’d earned a bit from Tsezar that evening. And he’d bought his tobacco. The end of an unclouded day. Almost a happy one.

Just one of the three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days of his sentence, from bell to bell.

“The extra three were for leap years.”

- One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

More in this section


Select your favourite newsletters and get the best of Irish Examiner delivered to your inbox