Editor’s note: This piece by Daniel J. Mahoney appeared in the Dec. 19, 2005, issue of National Review. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn died this weekend at the age of 89.
Solzhenitsyn’s massive Gulag Archipelago was published in English in three volumes between 1974 and 1978. It is one the indispensable books of the last fifty years not least because it undermined the moral and political legitimacy of the entire Communist enterprise. This unique experiment in literary investigation” brilliantly wove together Solzhenitsyn’s personal experience and the testimony of 256 former prisoners with historical research and spiritual reflection. It allowed readers on both sides of the Iron Curtain to encounter totalitarian oppression as though for the first time, “to hear and see what it was all like: search, arrest, interrogation, prison, deportation, transit camp, prison camp … hunger, beatings, labor, corpses,” to cite the words of the Russian writer Lydia Chukovskaya. Moreover, Solzhenitsyn’s multifaceted, often sardonic authorial voice served as powerful instrument for indicting Communism and all its works.
At their root was mankind’s and Solzhenitsyn’s nemesis: ideology. Unlike the conventional analyses of academic historians and political scientists, Solzhenitsyn’s understanding never treated the Soviet Union as merely one tyranny among others. Rather, it was an ideological regime built upon the twin pillars of violence and lies. It was “thanks to ideology” that the 20th century experienced “evildoing on a scale calculated in the millions.” Ideology allowed tyrants and intellectuals alike to justify the unjustifiable and to amplify violence to nearly unimaginable levels.
This central focus of Solzhenitsyn’s work made it much more difficult to blame the Soviet tragedy on Stalin’s “cult of personality” or on local conditions that were somehow peculiar to an “authoritarian” Russia. As the late Martin Malia argued in an analysis profoundly indebted to Solzhenitsyn, every Communist regime has manifested a nearly identical “genetic code.” Despite important cultural differences between Russian, Asian, and Caribbean Communism, every Communist experiment has been marked by a single-party regime based on a mendacious ideology that demonizes real or imagined enemies of socialism. Solzhenitsyn’s insight was to highlight the insidious nature of ideology, and to make its absurdities fully visible to the Western imagination.
Gulag takes aim at the Manicheanism inherent in every project for the revolutionary transformation of man and society. The ideologist denies the permanence of the imperfection inherent in the human condition. Using the full force of his artistry Solzhenitsyn defends the timeless distinction between good and evil against its pernicious replacement by the ideological dichotomy between Progress and Reaction. The bitter experience of the Soviet camps led Solzhenitsyn to recover the age-old insight that “the line between good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either–but right through every human heart.” More broadly, Solzhenitsyn returned to the wisdom of philosophical Christianity through reflection on his personal experience of human nature in extremis.
The Gulag Archipelago established beyond any doubt that 20th-century totalitarianism originated with Lenin, the founding father and spiritual icon of the Bolshevik party-state. Faithful to his Marxist inspiration, Lenin initiated a nihilistic project for (in his words) “purging Russia of all sorts of harmful insects.” In this, he was faithfully followed by Stalin. In Gulag Solzhenitsyn shifts the attention away from the high-profile Communists who were victims of Stalin’s purges and terror to those ordinary Russians and Ukrainians who perished by the millions as a result of the insane effort to create a new man and a new society. Solzhenitsyn provides a riveting account of the “metastasization” of Soviet terror from its beginnings in Lenin’s “Red Terror” and the first concentration camps on the Arctic Solovetsky islands. He rightly deems collectivization and the war against the independent Russian and Ukrainian peasantry to be the most terrible crime of the Soviet regime. The targeting of the “kulaks” was the first experiment in mass totalitarian democide — “one that was repeated by Hitler with the Jews and again by Stalin with nationalities that were disloyal to him or suspected by him.”
The second and third volumes of Gulag are animated by an invigorating and instructive tension between Solzhenitsyn’s appreciation of the prospects for spiritual “ascent,” even amidst the degradation of prison and the camps, and his equally profound recognition that ideological tyranny mutilates the bodies and souls of most human beings. Solzhenitsyn does justice to both the rare experience of spiritual growth through redemptive suffering and the pressing need to defend human dignity against every device of soul-destroying tyranny. Political liberty is by no means the most important thing for Solzhenitsyn. But, in his view, it is a crucial precondition for the moral development of human beings.
For this reason, Gulag has an indestructible place in our political, moral, and human self-understanding. To be sure, from the early 1920s through the late 1960s, there had been no shortage of books written about totalitarianism or the Soviet camp system. But none had come close to moving hearts and minds the way The Gulag Archipelago did upon its publication. Gulag is replete with facts and contains many instructive passages of historical, legal, and philosophical import related to the rise of the Soviet “sewage-disposal system.” But it took a great work of art to capture precisely what was entailed in the ideological deformation of reality.
There is every reason to welcome new works of historical scholarship that draw on previously inaccessible material from the Soviet archives. Solzhenitsyn has certainly done everything to encourage and support such endeavors. But an excellent work of recent scholarship such as Anne Applebaum’s Gulag: A History (2003) will never displace The Gulag Archipelago because they serve different, if complementary, purposes. Because Solzhenitsyn brought beauty as well as philosophical reflection to bear upon the truth, The Gulag Archipelago was able to convey the monstrousness of the ideological Lie. It illumined the truth about “the soul and barbed wire” precisely because it transcended the concerns of historical scholarship, narrowly understood. To his great credit, Solzhenitsyn understood that the elaborate ideological fictions that defined Soviet Communism were vulnerable to a truly artful rendering of “the soul of man under socialism.” With the publication of The Gulag Archipelago on December 30, 1973, Solzhenitsyn could plausibly maintain that this was the moment foretold by the “foul midnight hags” of Macbeth, the fateful moment “when Birnam Wood shall walk.” Having done its initial work, Gulag continues to be of much more than historical interest since it illumines enduring truths and serves as our best antidote against the recurrence of the totalitarian temptation.
— Daniel Mahoney is a professor of political science at Assumption College in Worcester, Mass. He is the author of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The Ascent from Ideology and of Bertrand de Jouvenel: The Conservative Liberal and the Illusions of Modernity.