A century of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

December 11, 2018

Trent England

Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Born the year after the Russian Revolution, for the young Solzhenitsyn Communism was simply a fact of life. He was an officer in the Soviet army during World War II when he was arrested for criticizing Joseph Stalin in a letter. It was his entry point into the Soviet system of prisons and forced labor camps stretched across the U.S.S.R. like a chain of islands—the Gulag Archipelago.

Solzhenitsyn’s fiction reveals the facts of life under Soviet rule. His sweeping history, The Gulag Archipelago, is a monumental work made all the more extraordinary for being produced under persecution and at great personal risk. In the second volume of that work, he writes of power, good intentions, and evil.

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 retrained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains … an unuprooted small corner of evil.

Solzhenitsyn’s works are about far more than Soviet prisons or Communist cruelty. They are about being human in this fallen world. And so, they are timeless.

More about Solzhenitsyn is in City Journal and at National Review. His books are available on Amazon. EconTalk’s Russ Roberts has an ongoing series of podcasts about Solzhenitsyn’s In the First Circle.