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!)