Category: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

worse than thou

by Andrea Elizabeth

Another thing I’ve been thinking about lately is when one person’s sufferings trump another person’s sufferings, do the lesser sufferers get to compare their experience? Some people say, no, how dare you compare yourself to this much esteemed person and all the literal hell they went through? You have no right to complain, or think your experience is in any way similar.

On one hand suffering is suffering, no matter to what degree. If it is the most intense thing a person has experienced, it seems to be really horrible, no matter how much more intense another person’s was. When we hear of another person’s greater suffering, we have a frame of reference, even if it is to a lesser degree, so that we can relate. We can also imagine to some extent what it would be like to go through something worse, especially if the story was told well. We can commiserate, as it were. But we wouldn’t know exactly what it would be like unless we lived through it to.

When is the comparison legitimately offensive? I suppose if it is wrong, in that if one believes their lesser suffering is actually greater. Even then, I think one can be sympathetic to delusion and recognize that one is deluded about himself too. If the delusion is to a lesser degree, it is debatable if one should believe that about himself.

The end of Volume 1

by Andrea Elizabeth

At the end of Gulag Archipelago and in his speech at Harvard, Solzhenitsyn says that he does not envy modern society with all of its frivolous, materialistic cares. After all the deprivation he experienced, when he found a transit camp that had a little better conditions, he was content and even happy. This was after he had come to terms with his capture and resigned himself that his life had been taken away from him. But people who haven’t had their lives taken away can’t have the same appreciation for being allowed to sleep, on a bunk, with a meal in their stomachs. After reading Gulag maybe they can. We can learn vicariously to some extent. But at the same time, most of us aren’t called to leave our homes and families and go camp out in prison, unless one is single and has monastic yearnings. Bernie Madoff also feels relief in prison, but when he left his family and everyone else in such a pickle, I don’t think it’s justified. I think the lesson Solzhenitsyn learned was to try to be content in whatever circumstances we find ourselves in. We have to find a way to come to terms with where we are and who we are with. I can sense the freedom of spirit that Solzhenitsyn gained by letting go of having to have things his way. You can tell he admired the ones who fought back, and wondered if it was cowardice not to. But when prisoners give up their meager bread in order to make a point about something else, what kind of gain is that really? There are gains to be made by fasting, but if it’s just for some material comfort or for an ounce of respect, then it seems a futile battle. We should be willing to fast to gain the Holy Spirit, as St. Seraphim says.

Involuntary suffering is inhuman, and we need to hear the cries of those who are experiencing it. But I think there is a tendency to feel sorry for and glorify people just for the fact that they suffered. The glory that can be gained through suffering isn’t for sufferings’ sake, but because it somehow releases us from earthly cares to make us available, if we will let it, for heavenly ones.

a paradoxical comparison

by Andrea Elizabeth

Others, [prisons] like the one in Suzdal, required new equipment, and the monastery arrangement had to be remodeled, but, after all, self-incarceration of a body in a monastery and its incarceration in a prison by the state serve physically similar purposes, and therefore the buildings were always easy to adapt. (The Gulag Archipelago, p. 479)

And thus it is that we have to keep getting banged on flank and snout again and again so as to become, in time at least, human beings, yes, human beings…. (p. 549)

1 Corinthians 9:27

King James 2000 Bible (©2003)
But I roughly treat my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be disqualified.

American Standard Version
but I buffet my body, and bring it into bondage: lest by any means, after that I have preached to others, I myself should be rejected.

nominalism, the second for today

by Andrea Elizabeth

I’m reading The Gulag Archipelago more intently today because my life is calming down for the moment, and I don’t want to have to recheck it from the library a third time. In addition to individuality, since letting myself get sucked back into caring about a sports team, I’m also thinking about identification with groups. A universalist would say there exists a higher concept of the idea of “group” even. I say groups exist voluntarily, even if you aren’t the one who volunteered yourself, someone else did. Your parents, and theirs, are responsible for where you are born which makes you affiliated with others in a certain location. There are many choices in the past that are variables in the idiosyncrasies of a certain geographic group making it possible to make some generalizations. People still have a choice as to whether to keep these traits or adopt new ones. Some people keep their accents, for example, while others don’t.

Last week while the Rangers looked like they would win the World Series for their very first time, I would have talked more about the ontological qualities of Texans that made it possible. While I wont do that now, I have a lingering impression that a name has a tremendous psychological effect, which is why there are podiatrists named Dr. Foot. The Rangers seemed to be overcoming their franchise’s traditional reputation, though not entirely. There was greatness in the ’70’s that the Oakland A’s kept trumping, but it was there. I don’t want to blame Micheal Young for the defeats last week, but it did not bode well with me when he said before the first game that people need to quit saying the Cardinals are mediocre and look at all the World Series wins they’ve garnered and show some respect. He brought traditional reputation, not present individual ability, not that that was lacking, to the forefront, and I think it had a daunting effect. He’s their morale spokesperson so he sets the tone. Therefore I think the Rangers identification with how they’ve never been able to rise to the very top influenced how they played. I don’t think it had to be that way. But if you are a winner, tapping into a winning reputation can be a momentum booster, especially if it’s the other team reminding you of it, Michael!

A name is like a habit. Sometimes it’s good, and sometimes it needs to be overcome. A person has a choice.

the one and the many

by Andrea Elizabeth

The Soviets disregarded individual humanity in favor of collective humanity, which really doesn’t exist. I suppose this makes me somewhat of a nominalist, but I think it really goes back to the ordo theologiae where person should come before activities and before essence, rather than the reverse. This view taken to the extreme can be a call for anything goes type of freedom, but that isn’t the answer either. There is a right way to be, after all. But this is based on what is good for one, not many, though when people agree, there is ontological beneficial unity, as the many are created in one Image. The Soviets went about this backwards and sought to destroy the Image, as iconoclasts do.

Gulag update

by Andrea Elizabeth

I’ve reached page 450 of The Gulag Archipelago Volume 1. I probably wouldn’t have been able to get into this book before recently because of the technical content. I wouldn’t have now if Solzhenitsyn in his experimental way hadn’t made it literary instead of dry. He has a feel for when to add sensory descriptions to his names and dates. Even though the descriptions are of torture, it is then he makes eye contact. He doesn’t go into as much detail as modern authors would, and I’m thankful for that. It’s a delicate balance where an author respects his audience to know what they need to know and to trust them to gain proper appreciation without extraneous detail. Spielberg went too far in Schindler’s List, in my opinion. It feels as if it is a therapeutic retelling of his ordeal in prison, but he also tells the story of Russia as a country being taken over by the Soviets, and of many other individuals’ plights. It’s quite an accomplishment. There is a thread of “if only”, but not as much as I get from other accounts of regret of what could have been done to stop it. Maybe because he had hope in the revolution in his youth. He obviously comes to believe that things were better under the Tsars before that. I’m afraid to speculate about Russia, not only because of my ignorance, but because any kind of critique that finds anything positive about the Revolution seems to lend some justification for all the tortures. Better to be a backwards, in the worst judgments, Tsarist, or Orthodox for that matter, than to be a savvy, competitive,  torturing, murderering atheist.

While driving home from Church I read aloud to George Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard lecture containing his critique of the west. Some of the militant predictions seem to not be coming true, but his critiques of materialism are.

Who to write about?

by Andrea Elizabeth

I’ve heard descriptions of writers being mainly observers. As if they are removed from the dynamic in the room. There is also the idea that being observed changes things. I may have that wrong as I think it may have to do with point of view rather than adding an extra dynamic to what is taking place. But in my sensitive state, I can’t think of a writer as someone removed from the action. Maybe less self-conscious ones are able to disappear and strictly observe something removed from them. There are also the comic situations where an observer thinks they’re invisible, but they are really painfully obvious. The hopping bush in the cartoons, for example.

One of the sideshows in the streets of San Francisco was a guy with a bush right on the sidewalk who would jump out at unsuspecting passers-by. It was amazing how many people were startled even though a bush is very out of place there, and that there was a crowd all around with eyes pointed right at it. I guess knowing how to hide is how writers get by with it. But the conspicuous-feeling writer, even if successful in hiding, is worried about the Candid Camera moment when the observed realizes the gag. It’s not nice to embarrass people. So this writer can only safely write about him or herself, but life is too complicated with connecting variables to make this a safe venture either.

There is probably a loving way to expose people, but you see the difficulty in one who would choose the word, expose. Solzhenitsyn was lucky in having a bonefied villain, the impersonal Soviet Union, to expose. Naming the names of the victims is a bit less clean-cut. There is a certain embarrassment to being a victim. It is a position of weakness. Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago describes how he, and I assume others, spent much of their prison time second-guessing themselves and identifying their own mistakes. ‘If only I…, I wouldn’t have been arrested.’ Even if it was totally unjustified, the human mind wonders if God is punishing him or her for something else. I think many victims feel guilty. And I think this can be preyed upon. There is so much emphasis on forgiveness, but isn’t there room for a bit of justice? I wish more was said instead about how people in a position of strength should treat those weaker than themselves, or in a lower position, rather than how those in the lower position should forgive and love abusers.

People don’t like hard feelings though. Maybe they want so badly to get rid of them that they’ll sweep reality under the rug and let bygones be bygones. It is true that one can be consumed by bitterness and resentment, but maybe there’s a better way to deal with it than blind forgetfulness and blame assuming. Solzhenitsyn felt it noble to not sign the imposed confessions of false guilt. Neither did he like the idea of the abusive soviets having nice retirements. I don’t either. But like I said in another post, I don’t know about forgiveness.

who is evil?

by Andrea Elizabeth

So after he tells about the atrocities of the state, he tells about his own cold-heartedness before his arrest.

That is what shoulder boards do to a human being. And where have all the exhortations of grandmother, standing before an ikon, gone! And where the young Pioneer’s daydreams of future sacred Equality! (The Gulag Archipelago, p. 164)

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? (p. 168)

But Solzhenitsyn had rejected NKVD training because it made his heart sick. There seems a difference, but what do I know?


by Andrea Elizabeth

In The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn also wants to identify the innocent. Their crimes were exaggerated and mischaracterized. Some if the conclusions reached did have a certain logic, though. Such as the one about intent being equal to planning being equal to execution. Anyone can be found guilty of intent. And weren’t the accused indeed anti soviets? Good reasons aside. The lack of freedom to hold such views is the “inhuman” part. Solzhenitsyn regrets his recklessness, but isn’t silence playing into their hands?

Back to innocence. Coercively controlling behavior and keeping some strict order in which everyone must continuously praise the leadership is made out to be worse than rebellion against authority. Nowadays it’s fashionable to criticize. Surely though there are respectable leaders who inspire heartfelt praise. This is the ideal situation. Not one where people have to stifle their criticism, nor one where criticism is all one can come up with. But if things are bad, and they obviously were, criticism is a way to find an answer. I think the answer is in Orthodoxy. I have wondered at the exalted silence in Orthodoxy. Spontaneous originality isn’t the most sought after thing. My conclusion is that Orthodox prayers are what one would say if everything were right. Even the ones about problems indicate that the praying person is seeking the right remedy. Most other conversation is trying to get ones self or others to that place. If one has accepted that that is where they need to go.

Innocence isn’t exactly emphasized in Orthodoxy either. But neither is punishment. Love and compassion are what is sought after. The arrested (good word. those whose life as they knew it stopped), thought they were innocent, but mostly thought that they should be treated fairly and with compassion. That they should be allowed to work and have families, and have their bodily and psychological needs provided for. Solzhenitsyn talks about the narrow, delicate set of needs, sleep for example, that a human requires in order to keep his personality intact. The rights of prisoners is one subject. The rights of a population another, but maybe not so different. Who is really innocent? But the difference is that the Father is compassionate. Orthodox aren’t as wimpy about the wrath of God as the Universalists, but maybe the emphasis is more on what grieves the Holy Spirit than what makes him mad and makes him want to destroy everything. We expect our parents and even our country’s leaders to have compassion on us. To nurture us and provide a space for us to grow. Innocent or not, this is what we consider a human right. Even prisoners should be given space to improve. Forgiveness is a matter I’m not qualified to speculate about, but I think there is a way to improve relations between God and man. But it seems those on top have to provide it. Be they parents or nation’s leaders. Those who don’t provide a safe place to improve, fail. Not because the “subjects” were innocent, but because they are made in God’s image and have a point of view. Interesting that Solzhenitsyn talks about having a point of view as a right. Orthodox may not stress individuality as including a right to be one’s own Pope, but there is a respect for a person’s freedom. Their point of view is not violently squelched. It is considered the fumbling attempts of a child to walk in God’s footprints. Most children want to. When paths diverge, well, I guess that’s where criticism comes in, and it seems to me that compassion is more in order from the top down, than the other way around. This is why Solzhenitsyn had such a hard time recalling his interrogators. He had boundless compassion for his fellow prisoners. He doesn’t even down-talk the actual criminals who were arrested. But the state representatives were barely human to him. The state treated them as “rats”, so how can a rat have compassion for the real people? To expect Solzhenitsyn to have compassion for the Soviets is beyond my expectation. He seemed to make some peace with the situation in that it allowed him to co-suffer with others who would have remained nameless and invisibly disposed without his exposé. We can see that such treatment may have had some positive spiritual results for the country as Metropolitan Kyril pointed out (see previous post), but to expect a compassionate condescension to Lenin, Stalin, and their operatives seems to be to rewound their victims. The Soviets so provided for themselves that they have their reward in full. To be so good at extracting blood from turnips is what they’ll have to satisfy themselves with.

A measure for rehabilitation of someone who has taken another’s life is how much they can identify with their victim’s suffering. Solzhenitsyn put a lot of energy into writing about the suffering of the Soviet’s victims. Not for the perpetrators to learn to identify with those they treated in the coldest, cruelest manner, but for those “innocent”, good people to realize what was going on while they were “on their nice vacations”. He just wants free people to willingly walk in his and his fellow inmates’ shoes. Not the people in authority who sold themselves to the devil. They have made themselves invisible.

What for?

by Andrea Elizabeth

The first chapter and 100 pages of The Gulag Archipelago identifies who was rounded up by the Soviets. Pretty much everyone. There was no way to please them except to become an informant. Better them than me? The victims didn’t feel that way. Better me than my family is how many of them signed coerced confessions. The scale of what happened is staggering, as I am one of the last to find out in detail. Here is what Metropolitan Philaret said last January on the second anniversary of his becoming Patriarch of Moscow about the present and the Orthodox who suffered and died under the Soviets.

Just as the Church opposed the atheism of the past and canonised the New Martyrs and Confessors who withstood torture and massacre, the Russian Orthodox Church has taken a clear stance against the tide of liberal secularism, sweeping in from the Western world and creating the ‘apocalyptic tension’ of which he spoke. Depravity leading to abortion, Alcoholism and mafiatype Corruption are the names of the three-headed demon haunting post-Soviet Russia. The Patriarch is clearly aware that the time we have is short and precious, having been bought for the Orthodox Evangelisation of the whole world by the sacrifices of the New Martyrs and Confessors.

… Who is rebuilding Russia? It is the Russian New Martyrs and Confessors who are rebuilding Russia by their prayers, for their prayers have at last been asked for and accepted on Earth. The glorification and canonisation of the New Martyrs and Confessors is a gift of God made through the Church for the spiritual enrichment of the whole Orthodox Church, of all the Orthodox Christian peoples. (Archpriest Andrew Phillips, Colchester, England. h/t fb friend. Rest of article here)


One more thing about the book. I am conscious of Solzhenitsyn’s desire to identify. He states that he is focusing mainly on the victim’s political identification such as what national or labor group they belonged to. He also identifies them by if they lived in the city or country, their family associations, and which neighbor turned them in. In the second chapter he identifies methods of torture. Throughout he seems keenly interested in identifying motivation. This was the only thing he could utter upon his own arrest. “What for?” This is a common question among victims of tragedy. “Why me?” Such circumstances can cause a person to dig really deep to find answers. So far his tone towards the perpetrators is mostly sarcastic – Of course! The people, he says, acted out of fear. The operatives out of greed. He is also incredulous that the glorious leader had such poor judgment and that many seemed to actually respect him.

What is this blinding charisma that these leaders have? Bravado is attractive to many. They want a strong leader, even if it comes with abuse. Why does it seem that so often the choice is between strong and mean or weak and good? We must not know goodness.