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A Gulag Prisoner’s ‘Difficult but Happy Life’ Friday, 15 August, 2008

Posted by Farbod in Features.
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Thu, 14 Aug 2008 15:14:16 GMT
by Monavar Khalaj, Press TV, Tehran

If one is forever cautious, can one remain a human being? These words are from a writer whose books One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago opened the eyes of the world to the torment, pain and suffering of the millions enslaved in Stalin’s labor camps.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who died August 3 at the age of 89, was not only a great author but also a remarkably courageous man. Given his unusually tough life, the fact that he lived until the age of 89 seems like fiction, or a miracle.

The Russian genius had a ‘sense of responsibility to God and society’ that demanded he reveal the tyranny of Stalin’s Communism society. He was a true human being who dared to tell the truth, in spite of knowing that he would suffer.

“He was one of the first who spoke aloud about the inhuman Stalinist regime and about the people who experienced it but were not broken,” the former president of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, was quoted by Interfax as saying after his death.

Solzhenitsyn’s books make us think about a new aspect of life. They prompt us to reconsider our social values, and just how difficult life can be if you dare to tell the truth.

“It’s not just the West that doesn’t know our history; we ourselves have lost it. Recent events, both pre- and post-Revolutionary, have been wiped out. The documents have been burnt, the witnesses killed. So I have been working to reconstruct the truth, all the truth about my own country,” Solzhenitsyn said in 1974, speaking to the BBC.

Born into a family of Cossack intellectuals in Kislovodsk in the North Caucasus region of Russia in 1918, Solzhenitsyn lost his father before his birth.

As the prominent writer said in his last interview with Der Spiegel in 2007, “I am not afraid of death any more. When I was young, the early death of my father cast a shadow over me — he died at the age of 27 — and I was afraid to die before all my literary plans came true. But between 30 and 40 years of age my attitude to death became quite calm and balanced. I feel it is a natural, but no means the final, milestone of one’s existence.”

After graduating in mathematics from Rostov University, he was drafted into the army following the Nazi invasion in 1941.

He was decorated for his bravery, but four months before the end of the war in 1945, Solzhenitsyn was arrested and sentenced to hard labor for writing a letter criticizing Stalin.

During eight years of labor camps, Solzhenitsyn learned many things, one being not to ‘break.’ “When I was arrested, I was always optimistic. And I held to and was guided by my views. Of course, my views developed over the course of time. But I have always believed in what I did and never acted against my conscience.”

After spending his eight years in the Soviet prison system, or Gulag, he was exiled to Kazakhstan where the writer served as a teacher. Solzhenitsyn was successfully treated for stomach cancer there.

Eight years of forced labor and three years in exile allowed Solzhenitsyn to write a short novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

The book was allowed to be published in Russia in 1962 because of Nikita Khrushchev’s anti-Stalin position. The book minutely describes a day in the life of Ivan Denisovich, a Gulag prisoner.

The final paragraphs of the book are some of the most moving parts of the bitter novella.

“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. 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 3,653 days of his sentence, from bell to bell.

The extra three were for leap years.

Two years after the book’s publication, Khrushchev was replaced by Leonid Brezhnev. In 1964, performances of Solzhenitsyn’s work were halted and his unpublished novel The First Circle was seized.

When in 1970 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The First Circle and The Cancer Ward, Solzhenitsyn wasn’t allowed to travel to Sweden to accept his prize.

He did manage, however, to secretly send his acceptance speech to Stockholm. Reading his address lets us know how responsible he felt toward his country, human beings and their rights.

An excerpt of the address:
“At various times and in various countries there have arisen heated, angry and exquisite debates as to whether art and the artist should be free to live for themselves, or whether they should be forever mindful of their duty towards society and serve it albeit in an unprejudiced way. For me there is no dilemma.”

Solzhenitsyn’s monumental work The Gulag Archipelago was first published in Paris in 1973. The massive attempt of Solzhenitsyn at truthfulness recounts the story of the millions who suffered in Stalin’s concentration camps. The work, published in three volumes, is the story of the probably 30 million Soviet citizens who went through the camp system, of whom between 8 to 10 million died.

Through his words, Solzhenitsyn exposed human right abuses committed by the Stalin regime. His struggle for truth cost the writer dearly. He was branded as ‘traitor’ in his homeland. They termed him a man “choking with pathological hatred for the country in which he was born.” He and his family received death threats. Solzhenitsyn was later arrested and stripped of his citizenship. He spent his next 20 years in exile, first in Germany and then in southern Vermont, in the United States.

Although most of the Western media focused on Solzhenitsyn’s denunciation of Communism, his repudiations were equally divided. He denounced Western materialism, the pursuance of ‘the pleasures of the flesh’ and a failing to remember ‘the spiritual calling of mankind.’

“When modern western States were created, the following principle was proclaimed: governments are meant to serve man, and man lives to be free to pursue happiness. Now at last during the past decades technical and social progress has permitted the realization of such aspirations: the welfare state. … one psychological detail has been overlooked: the constant desire to have still more things and a still better life and the struggle to obtain them imprints many Western faces with worry and even depression, though it is customary to conceal such feelings. Active and tense competition permeates all human thoughts without opening a way to free spiritual development.”

Solzhenitsyn returned to Russia in 1994. He initially refused to return home upon the collapse of the Soviet system in 1992.

When Solzhenitsyn returned to Russia, he seemed a stranger, an old-fashioned prophet, in a country flooded with signs of consumerism.

The morning after his death I was reading his letter to the Congress of the Soviet Writers Union in which he wrote: “No one can bar the road to truth, and to advance its cause I am prepared to accept even death.”

As I was reading his life story and that sentence, I was haunted by the question: am I ready to stake my life to tell the truth for the sake of being human?

I dare say few in our world, including me, can do this.

And when I was reading excerpts from his two most important books, I was pondering about the role a man, an artist, a thinker can play in the promotion of human rights.

With his death I began reading about him. Before, I had believed an individual could do nothing in fighting against the systematic abuse of human rights.

Now I believe even a single person can accomplish a great deal for his/her fellow human beings and for the promotion of human rights.

We all can take lessons of humanity from Solzhenitsyn’s ‘difficult but happy life.’ He remains for us a true example of those thinkers who devote their lives selflessly to serving the people and the ideals of freedom and justice.



1. JohnMcCain - Sunday, 14 September, 2008

Very interesting site. Hope it will always be alive!

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