Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The Price of Truth

Alexander Solzhenitsyn died this week in his beloved Russian homeland.

In 1945 Solzhenitsyn was arrested for writing critically (in a letter to a friend) about Joseph Stalin’s conduct of the war and sentenced to eight years in a labor camp and then to internal exile. While imprisoned and in exile, his beliefs changed from a Marxist worldview to a Christian perspective.

Starting in his early forties, he wrote several novels and books based on his experiences in the labor camps -- bringing into the open the Stalinist cruelties in which perhaps twenty to thirty million Soviets were imprisoned and ten million Soviets killed.

It has been reported, that in the 1960's Solzhenitsyn was monitored so closely by the KGB that he was never able to work with his entire draft of his book called “The Gulag Archipelago”. Instead, he hid portions of the manuscript at the homes of friends, and when he visited them, he would work on that section of the book.

In 1970 he won the Nobel Prize for literature and in 1974 he was deported from the Soviet Union. He spent the next twenty years living in exile in the West.

Three of his books greatly affected me when I read them in High School and college ("One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”, “The Cancer Ward”, and “The Gulag Archipelago”.

Below is one of my favorite passages from his novel, "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich"...showing some of the cruelties of the forced labor camp and the perspective of Christian prisoners. The passage begins as Ivan Denisovich (who is also known by the nickname "Shukhov") gets ready for bed in the prison barracks:

Head on the pillow, stuffed with shavings of wood; feet in jacket sleeve; coat on top of blanket and --Glory be to Thee, O Lord. Another day over. Thank You I'm not spending tonight in the cells. Here it's still bearable.

He lay with his head near the window, but Alyosha, who slept next to him on the same level, across a low wooden railing, lay the opposite way, to catch the light. He was reading his Bible again.

The electric light was quite near. You could read and even sew by it.

Alyosha heard Shukhov's whispered prayer, and, turning to him: "There you are Ivan Denisovich, your soul is begging to pray. Why don't you give it its freedom?"

Shukhov stole a look at him. Alyosha's eyes glowed like two candles.

"Well, Alyosha," he said with a sigh, "it's this way. Prayers are like those appeals of ours. Either they don't get through or they're returned with 'rejected' scrawled across 'em."

Outside the staff quarters were four sealed boxes--they were cleared by a security officer once a month. Many were the appeals that were dropped in to them. The writers waited, counting the weeks: there'll be a reply in two months, in one month...

But the reply doesn't come. Or if it does it's only "rejected".

"But, Ivan Denisovich, it's because you pray too rarely, and badly at that. Without really trying. That's why your prayers stay unanswered. One must never stop praying. If you have real faith you tell a mountain to move and it will move..."

(At this point in the book, Shukov questions Alyosha in several paragraphs if he had ever seen a mountain move).

..."Oh, we didn't pray for that, Ivan Denisovitch," Alyosha said earnestly. Bible in hand, he drew nearer to Shukhov till they lay face to face. "Of all earthly and mortal things Our Lord commanded us to pray only for our daily bread. 'Give us this day our daily bread.'"

"Our ration, you mean?" asked Shukov.

But Alyosha didn't give up. Arguing more with his eyes than his tongue, he plucked at Shukhov's sleeve, stroked his arm, and said, "Ivan Denisovich, you shouldn't pray to get parcels or for extra stew, not for that. Things that man puts a high price on are vile in the eyes of Our Lord. We must pray about things of the spirit -- that the Lord Jesus should remove the scum of anger from our hearts."

After some discussion about Orthodox priests, Shukov relied,

"Well," he said conclusively, "however much you pray it doesn't shorten your stretch. You'll sit it out from beginning to end anyhow."

"Oh, you mustn't pray for that either," said Alyosha, horrified. "Why do you want freedom? In freedom your last grain of faith will be choked with weeds. You should rejoice that you're in prison. Here you have time to think about your soul. As the Apostle Paul wrote: 'Why all these tears? Why are you trying to weaken my resolution? For my part I am ready not merely to be bound but even to die for the name of the Lord Jesus.' "

Shukov gazed at the ceiling in silence. Now he didn't know either whether he wanted freedom or not. At first he'd longed for it. Every night he'd counted the days of his stretch--how many had passed, how many were coming. And then he'd grown bored with counting. And then it became clear that men like him wouldn't ever be allowed to return home, that they'd be exiled. And whether his life would be any better there than here--who could tell?

Freedom meant one thing to him--home.

But they wouldn't let him go home.

Alyosha was speaking the truth. His voice and his eyes left no doubt that he was happy in prison.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn died on August 3, 2008. He was eighty-nine.

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