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Falling in Love with an Easy Life

An excerpt from the concluding pages of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, Part II, recollecting time spent in the Butyrki transit prison of central Moscow. In particular, he here notes a contrast with the prisoners of his own generation—most of whom fought in the Second World War with some pride in their service for the Motherland—and the younger prisoners. This younger generation, while their peers were busy “falling in love with an easy life”, saw through the falsehoods of socialism.

Dawn of the Great Truth

Was it not here, in these prison cells, that the great truth dawned? The cell was constricted, but wasn’t freedom even more constricted? Was it not our own people, tormented and deceived, that law beside us there under the bunks and in the aisles?

Not to arise with my whole land
Would have been harder still,
And for the path that I have trod
I have no qualms at all.

The young people imprisoned in these cells under the political articles of the Code were never the average young people of the nation, but were always separated from them by a wide gap. In those years most of our young people still faced a future of “disintegrating,” of becoming disillusioned, indifferent, falling in love with an easy life—and then, perhaps, beginning all over again the bitter climb from that cozy little valley up to a new peak—possible after another twenty years? But the young prisoners of 1945, sentenced under 58-10, had leaped that whole future chasm of indifference in one jump—and bore their heads boldly erect under the ax.

In the Butyrki church, the Moscow students, already sentenced, cut off and estranged from everything, wrote a song, and before twilight sang it in their uncertain voices:

Three times a day we go for gruel,
The evenings we pass in song,
With a contraband prison needle
We sew ourselves bags for the road.

We don’t care about ourselves any more,
We signed—just to be quicker!
And when will we ever return here again
From the distant Siberian camps?

Good Lord, how could we have missed the main point of the whole thing? While we had been plowing through the mud out there on the bridgeheads, while we had been covering in shell holes and pushing binocular periscopes above the bushes, back home a new generation had grown up and gotten moving. But hadn’t it started moving in another direction? In a direction we wouldn’t have been able and wouldn’t have dared to move in? They weren’t brought up the way we were.

Our generation would return—having turned in its weapons, jingling its heroes’ medals, proudly telling its combat stories. And our younger brothers would only look at us contemptuously: Oh, you stupid dolts!

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, Vol.I, Part II.

Knowledge and History

We must remind ourselves, often, that ignorance of the past condemns us to its repetition. This past need not have disappeared into the mist of ancient history. Ignorance grasps us by default. We repulse it by constant effort. Today, we see many, indeed, “falling in love with an easy life”—unthinking consumption of the lotus flower. It comes today in many forms. Drugs. Pornography. Endless streaming entertainment. The promise of a universal basic income. The hope of automation. Simultaneously, others are realizing the inhumane consequences of taking a daily soporific. Meaningless distractions. Life without purpose. The sickness of pleasure for its own sake. “Good Lord, how could we have missed the main point of the whole thing?” You will find no freedom in such a love; only slavery.

Let us wake up, and remain alert.

(If you do not own the Gulag Archipelago, you can purchase all three volumes in paperback for $44—well worth it!)

Solzhenitsyn on Ideology

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (11 December 1918—2008 August 3) was a prolific author, primarily of fiction, whose account of suppression, corruption, and evil in the USSR’s prison system—the Gulag, through which uncountable millions were moved over the decades—exposed the deep rot at the core of socialist thinking. Here we present an excerpt from the first of three volumes, in which text Solzhenitsyn expresses how so massive an evil could be accomplished; namely, through ideology.

Expedited Evil: For the Cause

It is permissible to portray evildoers in a story for children, so as to keep the picture simple. But when the greater world literature of the past—Shakespeare, Schiller, Dickens—inflates and inflates images of evildoers of the blackest shades, it seems somewhat farcical and clumsy to our contemporary perception. The trouble lies in the way these classic evildoers are pictured. They recognize themselves as evildoers, and they know their souls are black. And they reason: “I cannot live unless I do evil. So I’ll set my father against my brother! I’ll drink the victim’s sufferings until I’m drunk with them!” Iago very precisely identifies his purposes and his motives as being black and born of hate.

But no; that’s not the way it is! To do evil a human being must first of all believe what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law. Fortunately, it is in the nature of the human being to seek a justification for his actions.

Macbeth’s self-justifications were feeble—and his conscience devoured him. Yes, even Iago was a little lamb too. The imagination and the spiritual strength of Shakespeare’s evildoers stopped short ad a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology.

Ideology—that is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination. That is the social theory which helps to make his acts seem good instead of bad in his own and others’ eyes, so that he won’t hear reproaches and curses but will receive praise and honors. That was how the agents of the Inquisition fortified their wills: by invoking Christianity; the conquerors of foreign lands, by extolling the grandeur of their Motherland; the colonizers, by civilization; the Nazis, by race; and the Jacobins (early and late), by equality, brotherhood, and the happiness of future generations.

Thanks to ideology, the twentieth century was fated to experience evildoing on a scale calculated in the millions. This cannot be denied, nor passed over, nor suppressed. How, then, do we dare insist that evildoers do not exist? And who was it that destroyed these millions? Without evildoers there would have been no Archipelago.

There was a rumor going the rounds between 1918 and 1920 that the [Petrograd and Odessa Cheka, the secret police organization which preceded the KGB—among others] did not shoot all those condemned to death but fed some of them alive to the animals in the city zoos. I do not know whether this is truth or calumny, or if there were any such cases, how many there were… How else could they get food for the zoos in those famine years? Take it away from the working class? Those enemies were going to die anyway, so why couldn’t their deaths support the zoo economy of the Republic and thereby assist our march into the future? Wasn’t it expedient?

That is the precise line the Shakespearean evildoer could not cross. But the evildoer with ideology does cross it, and his eyes remain dry and clear.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, i.1958–68: The Gulag Archipelago, 173-74.

A Brief Commentary on Ideology and Justification

Though we stand fifty years removed from the first publication of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, it seems the lessons have not yet been learned. Indeed, if anything, we seem even more ignorant. Human beings seek justification for their actions. This universal truth applies no less to evil actions. If anything, the evil action stands more obviously in want of justification. But an ideology—the more its doctrine abstracts from life, the better—can give justification to any act. Marxism and its derivatives, with their grand and sweeping historical narratives, sweep high above the facticity of real living. Believing in a system based upon such thinking, therefore, makes one especially prone to justifying unjustifiable acts.

This paradox—justifying the unjustifiable—requires a peculiar habit of mind. I will not dwell on this habit here (though it was discussed in this seminar). Suffice it only to say that appeal to vague or nebulously-defined causes as justification for any action merits suspicion of the actor. Such appeal demonstrates a readiness to do evil. I do not mean that evil follows inevitably. Indeed, the cause may even be a worthwhile one, only poorly understood. Nevertheless, we should be on the lookout for patterns of such appeal.

In short, the possession of an ideology—any belief in what ought to be irrespective of understanding what is—allows malefactors to perform the worst actions and yet maintain untroubled consciences. Look around at the world today, and ask: are we free of ideologies, today?