If called upon to name a hero (as happens never), I hold in my mind one name for ready retrieval: Alexander Solzhenitsyn. His was a name that was well known when I was in high school because his amazing and courageous book The Gulag Archipelago was published in the West during my high school years (1973). We read in English class his shorter novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and were introduced to the horrors of the Soviet Russian version of concentration camps.
His chronicle of testimonies from those who suffered under Stalin make The Gulag Archipelago such a necessary book. These lessons must be documented because they are so easily forgotten.
How does totalitarianism manage to enslave an unwilling populace? Through random terror. The black Marias drive up and the secret police snatch a family away in the night while everyone else hopes they won’t be noticed. A neighbor is concerned that the officers who have taken a family away have inadvertently left behind a crying baby. She goes to report this to the authorities. And she never returns from the trip. And so everyone minds their own business.
The torments forced on the prisoners of the gulag (those who made it to prison—many citizens are simply executed) are evil, but Solzhenitsyn documents the complicitness in evil that ensnares nearly everyone. He realizes how random circumstances can make one person an instrument of the state and another its victim. As he sits accused across from his interrogator (for he was denounced for writing in a letter something slightly negative about the war), Solzhenitsyn realizes that their roles could have easily been reversed, and were he the interrogator he would be as hard and as unyielding as his own was. It is at this realization that he writes that famous statement:
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….”
It is through the trials of his time in prison and in the gulag that he comes to a renewed faith in God. And he gains a courage that calls him to document the evil of Soviet Russia and totalitarianism. He manages to sneak the manuscript of The Gulag out of Russia, and it was translated and published in the West. And it put the lie to the belief many still held that Soviet Russia was a society to be emulated.
It is human nature to oppress others. We are not naturally inclined to sustain liberty for all.
Solzhenitsyn’s courage is an inspiration to me. He has much to say to us today. And here is a final quote attributed to him (though I cannot find the source of his saying or writing it):
You can resolve to live your life with integrity. Let your credo be this: Let the lie come into the world. Let it even triumph. But not through me.