On good and evil humans

August 11, 2008

Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s funeral last week deservedly received much media attention in Russia and around the world. Regrettably, events over the past days have pushed further reflection on the dissident’s life and writings out of mind. Even before the outbreak of hostilities around South Ossetia, scant notice was given to the role his Christian faith played in his courageous stand against the atrocities of the soviet system. 

John Hess, of YWAM Poland, has worked in eastern Europe since the 1970’s, and offered this tribute to a man who, to most of those born after 1989, remains a mystery.

JH: Solzhenitsyn’s passage to eternity on August 4 is, in my mind, an appropriate opportunity to celebrate God’s sovereignty and His ability to speak the Truth through one person in such a way as to change the course of history.  

Solzhenitsyn was born in 1918, right after the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. His father had been killed in the Great War, leaving his mother to raise him in exceptionally tumultuous times. He converted as a youth to Marxism-Leninism, rejecting the faith of his Orthodox mother. However, an indiscreet remark about Stalin in a letter he wrote during World War II, while serving as an artillery officer in East Prussia, dramatically changed his circumstances. He found himself interned in a concentration camp, a part of a vast system of camps which he rendered unforgettable through his works, The Gulag Archipelago.

It was in the Gulag itself that Solzhenitsyn came to faith. That faith completely transformed his understanding of his imprisonment, of human life and the universe:

It was granted to me to carry away from my prison years…this essential experience: how a human being becomes evil and how good.  In the surfeit of power I was a murderer and an oppressor.  In my most evil moments, I thought I was doing good.  It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties but right through every human heart. This line shifts. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bright bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains… an unuprooted small corner of evil. I say without hesitation, ‘Bless you, prison, for having been in my life.’ 

I quote from a verse in this same passage of a poem he wrote celebrating his return to God:
And now with measuring cup returned to me
Scooping up the living water
God of the Universe!  I believe again!

Though I renounced you, you were with me!

Unlike millions, Solzhenitsyn survived the camps miraculously.  Sent to internal exile, he sent the manuscript of a short book to a former prisoner colleague, who impressed by it, submitted it for review to the editor of the official (thus only) publisher in the USSR.  The editor, in turn, wanting to publish what he recognized was excellent literature but impossible to publish, went (Esther-like) directly to Party Secretary Khrushchev, knowing his own future now was absolutely dependent on the reaction. Khrushchev allowed the work, One Day in The Life of Ivan Denisovich, to be published-as remarkable perhaps as Cyrus allowing the Jews to return to Israel after the Babylonian captivity! The first edition of one hundred thousand sold nearly overnight (without the benefits of ads!) and a million more were published in the second run.  

Now the cat was out of the bag! Thrust into the international spotlight, he received global literary acclaim, and the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970. His acceptance speech beautifully expressed-in my opinion-a Christian view of the arts. In his ongoing battle against the KGB, he exploited consummately the protection he now had of being in the West’s eye.   

Over the next years, he began a secret project to be a memorial to those who died in the camps. He wrote in the early hours, committed entire sections of this project to memory by use of mathematical formulation, and buried parts of the manuscripts in the forest. When his secretary committed suicide, broken by the KGB, he ordered his confidant in the West to publish The Gulag Archipelago.  

This one book produced of shift of worldview wherever it was read, a shift that would change the world. If any one event was responsible for the tearing down of the Berlin Wall (and the demise of Communism), it was the publishing of this work.

Shortly before he was exiled to the West in 1974, he wrote an influential tract clandestinely reproduced throughout Eastern Europe by hand, typewriters and ditto copiers. Live not by Lies was exceedingly influential among millions longing for change in Eastern Europe. It exhorted people in a system built on lies to live in small ways by the truth as the means of battling the lie.  

Once in the West, rather than praise the virtues of Western democracy and life as many expected, he castigated its elites for lack of courage and moral fiber. In his 1979 commencement address at Harvard University-a prophetic word to America’s elites in my perception-he went to the heart of the problem, the rejection of God. (Google: ‘A World Split Apart’). Has anything really changed since?

Solzhenitsyn was not a man of despair; his faith gave him a remarkable hope. His life and works testify what God can do through ‘those whose hearts are completely His.’ 

John concluding advice is: Do take the time to read Solzhenitsyn if you haven’t already. He’s not easy to read, yet his writings are suffused with a Biblical view of reality, the goodness of God’s creation, man’s fallenness and Christ’s redemption. Reading Solzhenitsyn is an education-in the true meaning of the word.

Thanks John for this timely reflection!

Till next week,

Till next week,


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