Solzhenitsyn’s lamentation: the art lost to the Gulag

The great Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is often labelled as a man who took on Communism and beat it. His writings, especially One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago were instrumental in informing people, especially in the West, about the atrocities perpetrated by the Soviet government in the Gulag camp system. The Gulag Archipelago in particular is an assault on Communist ideology on every level. But Solzhenitsyn learned many lessons through his tortuous experiences in the Gulag camps, not merely that Communism was a bad idea. The book is in many ways an invaluable addition to the philosophical and literary canon. We must wrestle with this wicked, ironic twist of fate: had Solzhenitsyn never been subjected to the Gulag, we never would have gotten to read his book.

I will not, now, attempt to surmise all or even many of the arguments put forth in Solzhenitsyn’s masterwork The Gulag Archipelago – to do so would be most unwise and immodest. Even a thorough reading of the tome in all three volumes leaves the reader baffled and perplexed by the vicious course history took in the early twentieth century. It’s a beast of a book. However, a work of such incalculable breadth, scope, and depth can and should inevitably be portioned off for ease of digestion. Though in totality it has the characteristics of a complete and thorough masterwork, it can also be viewed as a collection of essays, short stories, historical accounts, literary critiques, memoirs, and diaries, all interwoven into a flowing narrative. My goal is to pull from the seemingly innumerable pages of Gulag one of Solzhenitsyn’s more philosophical arguments, relegated in the text to a full-page footnote. In only a few hundred words, Solzhenitsyn thoroughly lays out the entirety of human literature into a framework defined by the “haves,” the “have-nots” (my quotes), and the understandings and misunderstandings which define the gap between the two. This should not give the impression that Solzhenitsyn takes a Marxist exploiter vs. exploited vision of society. Not even a fool could get through the first page of Gulag and still think Solzhenitsyn favored a Marxist worldview. Rather, the author tries to wrangle his own literary output, which exploded years after he was freed from the Gulag camps and from exile, as he ponders the fate of those who did not live to tell the tale as he did.

To quote Solzhenitsyn’s dedication which opens the book:

I dedicate this
to all those who did not live
to tell it.
And may they please forgive me
for not having seen it all
nor remembered it all,
for not having divined all of it.

Solzhenitsyn was one of few political prisoners who not only survived the Gulag, but dared to write about his experiences in the camps and to criticize the regime which sent him and millions of people there to die. His work was not written in a time like ours, when controversial opinions and scathing reviews are commonplace on daytime TV and on every bookshelf. A time where reporters are eager to jump into the front lines, if to only get so close. I recall the unfortunate downfall of Brian Williams who insisted that his helicopter was hit by an RPG, when he in fact “misinterpreted” events to make it seem like he was in more danger than he actually was. Why did he feel the need to lie?

By speaking for the millions of voices silenced by Soviet power, Solzhenitsyn risked assassination at the hands of the KGB (or worse – being sent back to the camps). But we detect a fair amount of survivor’s guilt throughout the book. Solzhenitsyn spent a lot of time compiling interviews of hundreds of people who had been to the camps, many of whom he had known while on the inside. Many of his acquaintances did not live long enough to conduct an interview. Thus the contents of the book are the recollections of hundreds of voices. That seems like a lot – and it is – but there are literal millions of voices we never got to hear.

The footnote in question begins on page 489 of Vol II.

Solzhenitsyn begins by roughly segmenting all of mankind from all time into the “upper” and “lower” strata. This is a crude distinction – he merely means those who had real power to affect change (those who never had to work to survive) and those who necessarily formed the bulk of the population: the poor, hungry farmers, peasants, and tribesmen whose existence was the problem of surviving another day, week, or year.

Many of the rulers or upper strata had access to education – almost taken for granted by us, but for most people in most times, inconceivable. Russia only abolished serfdom in 1861, barely 50 years before the Russian Revolution brought Communism into the ideological forefront. People had family members who had literally been serfs – property along with the land they lived on. These people likely couldn’t read, much less do complex math, much less spend much time thinking about philosophical questions of why?, how?, and what does it all mean?. They were the silent majority, in the most literal sense.

Solzhenitsyn writes of the peasants, when they too were deported to Siberia:

Before it came the wave of 1929 and 1930 […] which drove a mere fifteen million peasants, maybe even more, out into the taiga and the tundra. But peasants are a silent people, without a literary voice, nor do they write complaints or memoirs. No interrogators sweated out the night with them, nor did they bother to draw up formal indictments-it was enough to have a decree from the village soviet. This wave poured forth, sank down into the permafrost, and even our most active minds recall hardly a thing about it. It is as if it had not even scarred the Russian conscience. And yet Stalin (and you and I as well) committed no crime more heinous than this.

Vol. I, part I, chapter 2, page 24

Now, let’s follow Solzhenitsyn’s thought. Literature/art/ideas can therefore be segmented into four categories:

  1. The upper (writing on, portraying) the upper
  2. The upper on the lower
  3. The lower on the upper
  4. The lower on the lower

The vast majority of all modern Western art would fall into the first “sphere.” We are almost all (if you can read this) certainly in the upper strata of history – I would be so bold to suggest that even our most disenfranchised, oppressed people have more means of self-expression and artistic creation than at any other time in human history. Russian serfs could not afford to be “starving artists,” nor could they idle about in downtown city centers. Their choices were more simple: harvest enough food, or my family will not survive the winter.

Our movies and books are mostly about people like us; educated, ambitious people who live in democracies and who have a say in their lives. Our artists have the free time to create art, and they write/portray what they know: their own lives. We obsess over articles written about people of wealth and status, written by people of lesser wealth and status (who nevertheless have time to write articles about Kim Kardashian’s ass, or some criminally little-known Russian book). This is to be expected. Those with means can empathize with and understand the experiences of others with means, even if it can only be a rough approximation. When I read American Psycho, I can kind of imagine what it might be like to be Patrick Bateman. When I watch Strictly Ballroom, I recognize the politics, the backroom dealings of small-time competitions. There is an overall sheen of familiarity. I have solid footing under me at all times.

Solzhenitsyn would then seem to support the “tortured artist” theory: the truly greatest works came from those who suffered somehow in their personal lives, even though they did come from a (historically) privileged class. He recalls Dostoevsky, another Russian writer sent to prison and exile. We recall Kurt Cobain, who unfortunately devolved into the stereotypical definition of a man tortured by his own fame. But undeniably great art came from both those men, even if you’re sick of Smells Like Teen Spirit or just can’t stand people quoting The Brothers Karamazov over and over again. Just think of all your favorite writers, filmmakers, actors, musicians – did any of them have normal, happy, carefree lives? Perhaps a few – but the best among them certainly didn’t. Bohemian Rhapsody correctly identifies that the key formula to crafting a compelling biopic is to focus in on the personal anguish of the genius, a trope which has been so done-to-death (Amadeus, Walk the Line, Ray, even The Dirt) that none of us need to even see the upcoming Rocketman. And yet, tropes and cliches exist because they are true.

Jumping down to the fourth sphere, we see the lower “writing” on the lower – though, more likely, this is an oral tradition, as these people often didn’t have written means. This folklore of the world are stories which have been honed, refined, and reinterpreted by countless hard-working people:

But the actual creators of it were innumerable, and they were almost always oppressed and dissatisfied people. Everything created then passed through selection, washing, and polishing a hundred thousand times over, passing from mouth to mouth and year to year. And that is how we have come to possess our golden store of folklore. It is never empty or soulless – because, among its authors there, were none who were unacquainted with suffering.

Vol II, part III, chapter 18, page 490

These were people who regularly lost children in and after childbirth, a pain modern medicine has mercifully made rare. These were people whose loved ones died regularly from diseases, accidents, war, famine – these were old men and women who broke their backs, but kept working anyway.

According to Solzhenitsyn, the lower rarely created great art in looking “up from below” (the third sphere) as this vantage only inspired hate and envy, “sterile feelings which do not create art” (what a lovely idea). From this position, the faults of the upper classes are a class characteristic, not general human characteristics which have been given the means to take root.

But it is the second sphere which concerns us. The upper stratum takes a great interest in the lower – often from a place of empathy. Sometimes, from a place of condescension and disgust. Sometimes both, a contradiction present in socialist behavior which Orwell noted in The Road to Wigan Pier. We see this in our society all the time. The intellectuals feel the need to deal with the poor and oppressed people of the world. This same urge compelled Lenin’s vanguardist doctrine, in which the Bolshevik party was to serve as a shining progressive light for the dumb masses to follow. The Bolsheviks, in other words, knew what was best for the peasantry, and it was out of compassion that they chose to lead the world revolution. Intelligent people see people suffering and wonder what they can do to help eliminate it. If we need evidence for cases where they actually do more bad than good, see the above quote from Volume I.

But for Solzhenitsyn, this sphere is inherently, to use a more recent term, problematic.

The upper stratum cannot understand the harsh practicality of living a repressed life. They exist and operate on a conceptual and critical level – linking ideas in a logical, intelligent fashion. Seeing symbols and correctly identifying archetypes. Intellectuals spend so much time thinking that they perhaps are guilty of overthinking, or overestimating their ability to empathize. You cannot know what it means to be starving and on the verge of death until you find yourself in the arctic tundra, stuffing frozen prehistoric fish – specimens invaluable to the study of natural history – into your mouth with relish.

If you disagree with this point, you disagree with a man who found himself held in the most detestable conditions against his will for years – a man who became a slave and a prisoner, but whose background was one of education and intellect. Even so, the idea that those of privilege cannot know what it’s like to be one of the silent, oppressed masses will not stop our journalists from trying. We commend them, as long as they don’t go too far, but that’s the point – they can only go so far. We watch Anderson Cooper running around on Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake in 2010. But, at the end of it, he no doubt went home to a warm comfy couch, and maybe a book (which he was able to read). Christopher Hitchens underwent a voluntary waterboarding and was barely able to last a few seconds. It is not the fault of these people that they were not born to the rough circumstances and conditions they would go on to cover with rigor. I’m glad we live in a world where people can choose to have harsh experiences. But let’s not pretend that voluntarily subjecting yourself to hardship is even in the same classification as enduring it at gunpoint. Most journalists would readily admit to this. They can only do so much without having to go to the Gulag and risk freezing in the ice of Siberia.

Solzhenitsyn therefore argues that in the Twentieth Century, Russia conducted upon itself a perverse social experiment in literature and art: what happens when you take your brightest minds, take freedom from all of them, and force them to work at hard labor in the most brutal conditions imaginable? To force them to dig canals in the hard frozen ground, literally using their hands as shovels? To force them to pile dead bodies around their tents to try and keep the cold out? To drive them to cannibalism in some places, murder in others? To bring out the lowest, most sickening, and most human tendencies among them? To remove “privilege” from their vocabulary, while letting them retain their intellectual capabilities?

Well, the sad irony of the whole thing is that while the Gulag gave us Solzhenitsyn and others – Shalamov, among a few dozen noteworthy survivors – of all the rest, the entirety of a generation of Russian, Eastern European, and Central Asian thought – hardly anyone made it out. They died along with their accounts of what happened. And even those who did make it out had to take on the Soviet state security apparatus just to get a word published! And so, one of the great bodies of world literature is only a shadow, in whose darkness we find the soul-crushing dirge of The Gulag Archipelago. Luckily, thankfully, we have many Holocaust survivors to tell us of the horrors of those camps. Their memoirs are encouraged and welcomed by all those who opposed the Nazis – so, pretty much everyone. But as Communism drifts in and out of favor with Western intellectuals, so too do those literary voices who can and are willing to tell us what ideology did to their bodies. Solzhenitsyn knew what it was to be a slave. He knew what kinds of people went to the camps. The “thieves,” the common criminals, rapists, murderers – they were there too. But it was the “political prisoners” – people who dared to speak against the state – who bore the brunt of its wrath.

I’m not sure if we should view the footnote as a self-justification for the book. Solzhenitsyn, as a firsthand survivor of the camps, doesn’t need any more reason to write his account, nor need he justify writing the history of Gulag of which so little has been written. I do however think this footnote, from the chapter titled “The Muses in Gulag,” helps explain how camp affected intellectuals and artistic-types. They never knew they would have experiences worthy of their artistic talents. Certainly not like this.

Evidently man’s nature is so egocentric that this transformation can only take place, alas, with the help of external violence. That is how Cervantes got his education in slavery and Dostoyevsky his at hard labor. In the Gulag Archipelago this experiment was carried out on millions of heads and hearts all at once.

Vol II, part III, chapter 18, page 491

Our (humans’) great art often comes from our darkest moments, and it’s a pity that the Soviet secret police, the KGB, and western Communist sympathizers did so much to keep us from seeing what great art is still buried out there beneath the snow.

Whitney, Thomas P., translator. “The Muses in Gulag.” The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: an Experiment in Literary Investigation, vol I,II, and III by Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr Isaevich, Harper and Row, 1974

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