Category Archives: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

A Few Loose Ends

Here it is again, that feeling of nausea that is pursuant realization of a recently uncovered, but deeply held truth. I don’t know why realization makes me nauseous. It’s a pretty significant indicator for me though. This is a little adjacent my typical focus. However, since that seemed to go over well enough in sprinkling in some astrology amidst my thoughts on literature, I’m rolling with it. Consider this in part astrology, in part spirituality follow-up to the Hesse novels, and in part why I do not anticipate finishing my review of The Gulag Archipelago. If you like frankly honest posts on personal insights and  karma – here we go.

I recently had an experience with a cluster of emotional triggers that completely upended me. These had wholly to do with my current life, but also, created an internal atmosphere where it was simpler to realize a few other details. First off, I’ll lay some ground work: I believe in past lives. I believe in karma. I believe, based on my astrological natal chart and my experiences thus far, that this time around I am here to resolve a few lifetimes worth of unresolved karma. Apparently this is supposed to happen in my twelfth house – the one related to the subconscious. So when things sneak up on me internally and I end up overwhelmed? Apparently I had it coming. I’m not going to get into the triggers. I will say though that I finally realized why I was so intrigued by Gulag. For me, it’s related to a past life. I’m not saying I was there, but I do remember freezing to death someplace. It’s like some part of me needed to know how the world could be so ugly that someone could be taken prisoner, starved, and then left to die by cold. (With typing that comes another wave of nausea.)

So here is the interesting thing about books… They say a reader lives a thousand lives. It’s one of my favorite quotes. A reader. Not just a reader though. I wonder if it is more accurate to say that a reader remembers a thousand lives. What draws me to Russian literature vs. Jane Austen? Where does that deeper draw come from? I think I know.

Now that it’s cold outside and beginning to drop below freezing at night, do I really see myself curling up with Archipelago? Do I want to resonate with that energy, now that I know why I just had to pick up those volumes on pain and anguish? Nope. Because now it makes sense and I don’t need to climb that entire three volume mountain. I needed that novel to help me remember what had been buried so that it could be acknowledged. It was horrible, but now it’s over.

Just like the things that triggered me earlier. It was horrible, but now it’s over.

I was thinking on my way to work, as I have many times before today, what is the point really to uncovering past lives and remembering karma? Well I think it is a lot like remembering things that happened in your childhood. If they happen and you bury them, then they affect you when you get older. You get triggered on the job, or watching television, or whenever someone forgets the cheese on your burger. It seems silly when you think about it, and yet feels so visceral when incidents spring up. Everyone has something that sets them off. Everyone has something that happened to them, that they excused somehow, or failed to acknowledge to themselves how they felt about it. So it festers, this deep pitting of the soul that so many of us just look away from so that we aren’t reminded of what hurt us. It rots.

I’ll say that all that rot can make a person irascible. The buildup of tension, anger, frustration, sadness and fear can be quite intolerable. And then, it seeps out from the pores and into words, into body language, and into the heart. It blackens. I’ve been a pretty irascible person. I’ve let things rot and then lashed out because of the pain. I think remembering serves the purpose of acknowledging that there is a wound so the hurt can be cleansed. As we heal, we become better people. That’s the point. Learning how to take better care of ourselves and by that art, other people. That’s the point, too. We don’t have to live with pain. We don’t have to be horrible.

The Gulag Archipelago is an excellent book. It served its’ purpose for Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn as he was able to express his own rot. It served its’ purpose for the Soviet Union, as it helped to air out the disease of communism under Stalin, thus preventing further rot of that kind. It served its’ purpose for me, even though I’m stopping at page 342 of volume one. I’ve acknowledged what I remember, and so I can be free. I highly suggest it to whomever feels drawn to reading it. I strongly support Solzhenitsyn for having written it. It is incredibly informative and blunt. At times, it is also quite nauseating. If you are ever interested in how circumstances can turn people (sometimes the same people) into monsters and victims, it’s an excellent read. Those with an interest in sociology might be especially intrigued.

For Hesse, I would hope that by sharing my revelation, readers may seek to acknowledge their own hidden truths. Sometimes the truth will follow us like the foe of a horror novel we thought was dead when we turned our backs. It’s important to validate ourselves. You don’t have to believe in reincarnation to embrace that. It’s important to give ourselves the credit we deserve. When we acknowledge the hurt, it does subside after a while, and isn’t that better than letting it turn you into something grotesque?

I hope so.

The Gulag Archipelago: Volume One (ch 4-6)

For those of you following along with me in The Gulag Archipelago, here is my next installment. I am about a chapter away from halfway through the first volume. I no longer need my notebook to scribble down pertinent facts to keep track of where I am at. The whole GPU, OGPU, NKVD, SMERSH issue is behind me. Essentially, whatever they called the Russian secret police at the time of the protagonists’ arrest, he’s imprisoned now and the letters mean little.

Now the alphabet comes in the form of V– or Y–, in the sense that secrecy was so extreme in the prison system that when the guards came to collect a prisoner for interrogation, they only did so by offering up the first letter of the name of the prisoner they were after. If they asked whether Volov was present in a particular cell, and he wasn’t, then the officials have admitted to prisoners in a non-related cell that Volov had been captured. As such, they inquired instead, “Is there anyone V– here?”

Volov? Victor? Vladimir? Captain of State Security Yezepov? Was there anyone with a Y–? As prisoners were being shifted about from cell-to-cell, prison-to-prison, and freedom-to-exile, the number two past time (the first being ignoring how hungry you are) was to glean whatever information you could from your fellow prisoners – especially when they were new to your cell. (If all I had to do all day was stare at a brick wall, shiver, and maybe get a book to read during the hours they allowed me my glasses, I’d probably get excited about someone new coming in the door as well.) However, it is also noted that the interrogators were given an allowance of cigarettes to give out in reward for confessions and information offered up from nasedka (stool pigeons). Someone was always listening. Even in prison, the pressures of interrogation and further punishment did not relent.

What I suspected of the bluecaps and being decent people overall though pressurized to immoral behavior by prevailing circumstances was mostly accurate. Apparently, low totals in the collection of new prisoners was not an option, for “Stalin could never be convinced that in any district, or city, or military unit, he might suddenly cease to have enemies.” If enemies could not be found in high enough numbers, then confessions enough to generate an appropriate number had to be concocted and claimed. If not, then interrogators whom did not meet their quotas could be arrested under Section 10 as subversive to the state.

One interesting point in chapter four was learning that works by authors such as Dmitry Merezhkovsky and Panteleimon Romanov, whose works were banned by the state, were available as reading material in prison.

The phrase “Ivan plen nicht” also stood out. It means “Ivan no prisoner” and was apparently used by German soldiers in reference to Russian POWs. Solzhenitsyn states that “There is war, there is death, but there is no surrender.” He explains this to mean that there was a sentiment in Russia that it was acceptable for soldiers to go to war and die in the service of their country. The country itself would remain. However, if those soldiers were to escape death and face captivity, then their only hope of returning home would be to face a conviction.

Why? Because it is impossible for anyone to disprove that they were colluding with the enemy while in a foreign cell.

As it was, prisoners at home were responsible for proving that they were not guilty. “As always, the interrogation began with the hypothesis that you were obviously guilty,” Solzhenitsyn states, about a hundred pages from noting that “it was clear to the interrogators at least that the cases were fabricated.” Accused, without the capability of leaving prison, could only gather witnesses among themselves by mail as a resource for proving their innocence. Apparently there was quite the campaign of inquiries and responses shuttling from institution to institution.

This segment of The Gulag Archipelago is getting a little convoluted. (The rationalizations within the text have always been, so I refer to the act of reading it here.) There are a few places were Solzhenitsyn’s running personal commentary in the form of footnotes takes up over three-quarters of the page. So if you’re wondering why I’m reaching for half-way, it is because of super teeny-tiny footnote text.

Regardless, the protagonist has made a couple “friends”, and it is oddly more comfortable spending time with him in his cell despite the living conditions. Chapter five is titled “First Cell, First Love”, insinuating that every cell a prisoner spends time in is always judged in comparison to their first. I find that I am getting a feel for the differences between incarcerations as well. The tone of the novel has side-stepped outrage a time or two, and is now seeming more informative. It is clear that for all of the neglect for human rights and needs this novel retells, that the individuals involved are treated as complex, multifaceted people even though the political philosophy of the time did not want to allow for that.

Surely with the lionshare of this work still to go, moral outrage has plenty of room to resurface.

The Gulag Archipelago: Volume One

I have not picked up a nonfiction so dense as The Gulag Archipelago since my genetics textbook. After two days of dedicated reading, I have made it 164 pages into volume one. (If this were Steven King, I’d have shelved over a thousand pages to my done pile, happily, and with an itch to replace the two books I read with new ones.) Much scarier than King though is this retelling of soviet life in the mid 1900s. Not that I don’t believe in things like cryptids and telekinesis mind you, but because the prevalence of terror and abuse in Russia was staggering.

I’ll avoid the details. Those of you whom would rather not shy away from it are more than welcome to pick up a copy and see it in Solzhenitsyn’s own words. After all, it was by the details that this author so severely undermined Stalin and the fascist regime of his home country. (Isn’t it weird how humans have to be shocked into paying attention?) If you are shy, but nonetheless curious, you can also try One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. This short story was tame enough to make it passed the government censors, and was also written by Solzhenitsyn.

So why is it that someone who will consume a book like hot dogs at an eating challenge suddenly takes it slow? First off, I never realized how many different forms of secret police existed in Russia. I challenge you to Google “soviet secret police agencies”. It all started with the Cheka, or Vecheka, also known as the All-Russian Extraordinary Committee to Combat Counter-Revolution and Sabotage. Five years later the Cheka evolved into the GPU (State Political Directorate) which was part of the NKVD (People’s Commiserate for Internal Affairs). One year after that, the GPU became the OGPU (Joint State Political Directorate), and then the GUGB (Main Directorate for State Security). The GUGB of the NKVD is separated out to the NKGB (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs). The NKGB was merged back into the NKVD, then separated out, then merged, separated, merged, separated… from 1941 to 1946. There was the MGB, KI, MVD, and finally the KGB. I started a notebook and under “Secret Police”, jotted out a whole bunch of letter soup.

Second, there are terms used freely that had meanings I wasn’t familiar with: Organs and insects, for example. Organs were individuals employed by the secret police, as though it was a biological entity that was effecting its’ will throughout the populace by forming new growths. Insects were individuals whose alleged purpose was to subvert the government. This infestation of insects was the basis upon which many citizens were exterminated under Stalin’s rule. I had to learn that “wrecking” was an actual offense in the Soviet Union criminal code. “Wrecking” has been translated in English to mean sabotage, but also, inflicting damage, harm, and undermining. Plainly stated, it was a way to imprison anyone guilty of, suspected of, or even innocent of not embodying Stalin’s ideal.

“Things were said innocently, but they weren’t listened to innocently”

-The Gulag Archipelago

Learning new terms that were heretofore completely unfamiliar with was my third challenge.

Extrajudicial Reprisal: The same body is in charge of investigation, arrest, interrogation, prosecution, trial, and execution of the verdict.

Social Prophylaxis: Removal of the intelligentsia, or educated persons amidst the populace. (We don’t want anyone thinking that what the government is doing is wrong.)

Kulak: A term originally coined to mean a “miserly, dishonest, rural trader” which was manipulated to refer to all those whom hired workers (e.g. had some standing in society), and then further adulterated to mean “all strong peasants” in general. This has been one of my favorite terms, because I think it examples how tradition can be used to manipulate a population into conferring historical prejudice against a convenient new target. (Chinua Achebe addresses this concept in Things Fall Apart, in explaining how religious missionaries utilized tribal beliefs to convert the natives.)

Tenner: Ten years imprisonment.

Article 58: The RSFSR (Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic) criminal code under which arrests were made.

Section 10: The section of Article 58 under which could be creatively applied to most any individual or circumstance, and referred to crimes regarding counterrevolutionary propaganda or agitation.

Unless you are an anti-government citizen, then it’s a tenner under Section 10 for you.

What I have found most intriguing about The Gulag Archipelago thus far are the euphemisms and the explanations of how this exposition of cruelty was allowed to commence. For instance, the verdict of “ten years without the right to correspond” meant that the accused was already dead. It would have been implacable to admit that an organ had shot a suspected insect whom was actually someone’s family member, so they found a different way to phrase why no letters would be forthcoming. Much of the beginning of Volume 1 is about uncertainty. After a tenner, maybe the accused didn’t write because they died in the gulag. Maybe they were exiled. Maybe they were set free, only to be sent to a different gulag. Nobody knew what tomorrow would bring. Solzhenitsyn describes it as a game of Solitaire where there are three piles in which to place any card: Arrest, Release, and Exile. To maintain imbalance, any given person could be randomly placed in any pile, at any time.

I couldn’t imagine living that way, though I believe that is Solzhenitsyn’s point.

A map of the Russian gulag system – There really were this many.

I will soon embark on chapter four (Yup, I’m only on four.) and learn more about the guards (or Bluecaps) of the gulag system. I’ll suspect that I will learn about how they were people too, placed in an impossible situation and struggling to find some way in which to survive the regime. I imagine their positions of authority will lead to further shady dealings. Solzhenitsyn states early on that he felt the time to cry out against injustice was at the very beginning. And yet, those whom did, died. Those who did not were carried away in a swift, deadly current of fate and circumstance. How much choice did any given individual have? What made the difference between a University student invited to NKVD school, and intelligentsia? How did anyone manage, when the constant stress and terror of being abducted in the middle of the night was not only plausible, but commonplace?

These are some of the questions I hope to gain answers to. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was exiled from Russia for his work, but also awarded the Nobel Prize because of it, I plan to work at it for as long as it takes.

A Study of Contrast

I am currently reading two of the greats: The (somewhat agreed upon) greatest work of fiction of all time and greatest non-fiction work of the twentieth-century (according to Time magazine). These two titles are À la Recherche du Temps Perdu by Marcel Proust (1871-1922) and The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008). The first was written in France by an aristocrat. Proust strikes me as a man whom, for lack of the labor and distraction that a more robust individual might have undertaken, had plenty of time to read literature and study people. He had the ability to interpret small gestures, subtle inflections of voice and social motives with a level of skill recognized and admired to this day. Solzhenitsyn was a decorated captain in the Soviet Army during WWII. After the rise of Stalin, he suffered both imprisonment in the Russian gulag and exile for privately sharing his disfavor of The Red Tsar. He risked his life to tell a detailed truth about what was going on in Russia under Stalin’s rule, and was subsequently awarded the Nobel Prize.

There is definitely no confusing one text for the other. I can listen to Proust while driving or doing chores about the farm. At my current place in À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, the main character is currently discussing how social rank is evidenced by whose drawing rooms one has visited for tea. A few pages back, Saint-Loup was summarily ignored by hostess Mme. de Villeparisis upon his departure from her residence for having committed some unintentional faux pas. (I can’t say that I even noticed what it was he did; only her response and his attempt to save face.) Tragic? I paused in The Gulag Archipelago at the phrase “Do what you want without me; I want no part of it” in describing the feelings of university students who were being coaxed into NKVD school. (NKVD was the Soviet secret police in 1943, an acronym for the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs. Eg: Gulag interrogators) Apparently it was generally suspected among Russians of the day, if not officially known in detail, that pursuit of this particular career path would lead to a tangle of shady ethics. When I read The Gulag Archipelago, it is with a notebook, pen, and Google.

So why pursue these titles simultaneously? Primarily, I have nearly four months to finish reading six books to hit my 100 book goal for 2021. I have been clocking 5-14 titles a month, so I have time to embark on novels that are going to slow me down. Also, one of the best things about Proust so far is the confidence that nothing altogether bad is going to happen. (At least, by my personal thermostat. If someone pretended to fall asleep while I was in the room to avoid the nicety of saying goodbye to me? I wouldn’t care. I was never in the popular crowd.) In The Gulag Archipelago, there is constant incidence of despair, injustice and pain. In a way, they balance each other out.

There is a greater aspect to this though. I started thinking about Les Miserables by Victor Hugo during Within a Budding Grove (À la Recherche du Temps Perdu part two.) In Les Miserables, Hugo goes into what seems like a realistic description of how the French peasantry lived due to the economic factors that led to the June rebellion of 1832. (Let’s just say that there was quite a bit of dirt and cholera involved.) A major theme at the culmination of the novel is the relationship between the bourgeoisie and peasantry. Proust was born about forty years after the June revolution, but with each pretty new dress, tidy plate of cookies, or servant bell tinkle he mentions, I was envisioning the urchin Gavroche from Les Miserables was somewhere down the street starving. I started to wonder how askew the French imbalance of resources were in Marcel’s day. Should I feel entertained by Proust, or disturbed by the aristocracy?

In The Gulag Archipelago, the preamble to the novel itself describes that any effort to distribute resources equally amidst a population is doomed to failure. It describes that France was in serious consideration of moving to communism up until Gulag was released. I wondered: Why is equality considered to be so impossible while history has proven that extreme stratification is also unsustainable? What is it about the utopia ideal that is inherently fallible?

Is revolution inevitable?

Even in the extreme dissimilarity between these two novels, there is at least one ubiquitous theme: The lies. Though “I could not see you for dinner because I went to visit my sick grandma” is not the same quality of falsehood as sentencing a thief further charges for “subversion of the camp system” because they tried to run away, it is nevertheless equivalent that self-serving misrepresentations of truth are present in each society. I wonder, if it were simple to directly admit “I do not want to introduce you to my grandmother” instead of “She is boring, you wouldn’t like her” (Proust), maybe the truth of “We’re eradicating most of our population” (Solzhenitsyn) would be easier to say. It’s a thought.

Then again, we are creatures of our circumstances. I can’t imagine Marcel Proust as capable of surviving what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn did. As Virginia Woolf once posited though, a woman would not have been able to write War and Peace because at the time, women were not soldiers. Solzhenitsyn admits that the lifestyle he enjoyed as a military official was far removed from that of basic training, and that he derived a rather perverse satisfaction in the use of his power after he had earned his stars. As his circumstances changed, so did he. Who is to say that Proust would not have made it through a soviet gulag, that Solzhenitsyn might have snubbed a plate of fluffy cookies to irritate a contemporary, or if Virginia Woolf would have made a great war captain? It’s just not how things turned out.

I suppose the aim from here will be to decide whether or not I can appreciate Proust for all the dilettantes, snobbishness and pretense while deciding whether Solzhenitsyn was right. If it prevents the whole lot of them from getting shot or sent into exile, is it then okay for the upper crust to dine while cholera washes away the rest? I’m going to let the dichotomy play out for now.