In The Gulag Archipelago Solzhenitsyn says that whenever people in the Soviet Union were arrested they all said the same thing: “Me? What for?” When he was arrested that’s what he said too. Then, when he was brought before an official, preparatory to being stuffed into an interrogation cell, he had some papers thrust under his nose which he was told to sign. He signed them, he says, because “I didn’t know what else to do.”
When reading this passage I think about a couple of things. First, I remember James Scott’s book Seeing Like a State and its emphasis on all the ways that modern nation-states make us “legible” to its functions – and, perhaps even more important, teach us to believe that such legibility is necessary and vital. Second, I remember the comment that the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss makes in Tristes Tropiques that throughout history the primary function of writing has been to enable slavery.
So into the belly of the beast Solzhenitsyn goes, and remains for several miserable years – but then, at a certain point, he begins what he calls his “ascent.” And the beginning of the ascent is marked by one of the most famous passages in all of twentieth century writing:
It was granted me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience; how a human being becomes evil and how good. In the intoxication of youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer, and an oppressor. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. And it was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains… an unuprooted small corner of evil.
Bless you, prison, bless you for being in my life! For there, lying upon the rotting prison straw, I came to realize that the object of life is not prosperity, as we are made to believe, but the maturity of the human soul.
If you want to know why Solzhenitsyn is truly great as a writer, you should take note of the very next sentence he writes: “(And from beyond the grave come replies: It is all very well for you to say that — you who came out of it alive!)”
It is after this that Solzhenitsyn begins to describe, not only the change in him, but the change in his relations with others. He no longer simply accepts the imposed and inflexible laws of the Gulag, he and his colleagues began to form strategies of resistance. When asked “Why did you put up with all that?” he answers that many of the prisoners did not – but it is absolutely essential, if you want to understand Solzhenitsyn, to realize that he was able to resist constructively only after he acknowledged his own personal guilt, only after he began a long process of repentance.
That is, Solzhenitsyn makes it quite clear that meaningful resistance begins with self-understanding. You can only make an intelligent attempt to alter your circumstances if you understand who you are, which means understanding that your own innate human nature is not different from that of your captors.