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The Pen that Toppled an Empire: Solzhenitsyn and The Gulag Archipelago

The Pen that Toppled an Empire: Solzhenitsyn and The Gulag Archipelago


In the 1838 play The Conspiracy, Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s character Cardinal Richelieu first coined the famous line, “the pen is mightier than the sword.” The adage is familiar to our ears and sounds convincing. Someone who has had the experience of sitting with pen and paper as armed security officers broke through the door would probably disagree. Unfortunately, brute force is generally more persuasive than even the most beautifully turned phrase.

But there is an exception to every rule, as the extraordinary life of Nobel Prize-winning author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn shows. Solzhenitsyn was born in 1918, just as the Bolshevik Revolution solidified its power over his Russian homeland. His life tracks almost perfectly the optimism, exuberance, arrogance, brutality, lunacy, and despair of the effort to put Karl Marx’s ideas into practice. Marx’s philosophy promised to bring about universal equality, full liberation, and worldwide community. Marxism vowed to fully conquer nature, relieving the human race of scarcity, contingency, alienation, and anxiety. Marx’s aspirations were so striking that vast numbers of people, including Solzhenitsyn, committed themselves to bringing them into being.

Solzhenitsyn abandoned his youthful idealism the hard way. While serving as an artillery officer in World War II, he was arrested, convicted, and sent to the Gulag (the Soviet forced labor camps) for criticizing Joseph Stalin. It was only in the camps that he realized that nothing had worked out as Marx predicted. In conversations with fellow prisoners, he learned that Lenin had initiated a ruthless security state, suppressing any opposition to Bolshevik rule. After Lenin’s death, the paranoid and sadistic Stalin gained power and began an effort to remake human beings in the communist mold. Property was confiscated, businesses nationalized, churches closed, farmers forcibly relocated to agricultural communes, and so-called “class enemies,” people from the upper or middle classes, whose only crime was being born into the wrong family, sent to the Gulag. It impossible to estimate how many people were executed by Stalin, but we know that working conditions in the camps were so poor that tens of millions died of starvation, disease, and exhaustion.

Solzhenitsyn spent almost seven years in these harsh conditions of captivity. Unlike most victims of communism, Solzhenitsyn found a method of retribution. He began to record the crimes of the Soviet government. Since he was not permitted paper and pencil, he chronicled Soviet misdeeds by memorizing thousands of lines of poetry. After serving his sentence, he edited the poems into the multi-volume Gulag Archipelago, an allusion to the vast chain of forced labor camps spread throughout the Soviet Empire like islands.

The Gulag Archipelago was more than a history of wrongdoing. Tyrants have existed throughout history, but the magnitude of Stalin’s ferocity was unparalleled. Why did people obey a maniac? How could human beings be so cruel? Marx claimed that once the Revolution occurred, there would be no need for the state. As a result, Marxists made no provision for limitations on government or checks on ambition, hoping instead that History would ameliorate conflict. When Stalin took over leadership of the Party, Solzhenitsyn shows, communists could not discern whether he was a psychopath or represented the true direction of progressive history. They were helpless to oppose his ruthless commands.

Solzhenitsyn displays with great force that Marxist ideology motivated both Stalin and his followers to perpetrate the greatest inhumanity in history. Marxists’ goals are idealistic but implausible. Human beings cannot be completely free; they need government to restrain their baser instincts. Nor can people be made equal, for there are differences in talent, ambition, and character. Perhaps most importantly, although humans can be selfless, it is imprudent to expect them to forego self-interest or ignore the good of their families and friends.

When The Gulag Archipelago was published in 1973, the effect was profound. The once powerful French Communist Party fractured and soon became politically irrelevant. Euro-Communism collapsed. Third world movements stopped aligning themselves with Soviet communism.

Even more, communism was discredited as a political ideal, both in the West and within the communist world. The Gulag reveals that the monstrous evil of the Soviet Union was not caused by the misapplication of Marx’s ideals, by Stalin’s pathology, or by Russian nationalism. The world’s most heinous tyranny was not an apparition or a deviation from Marxist ideals, Solzhenitsyn demonstrates; it was, rather, the inevitable consequence of expecting perfection from imperfect human beings. Wherever communism has existed or will exist, there will be victims. He explains:

The Archipelago was, the Archipelago remains, the Archipelago will stand forever! Without it, who can be made to suffer for the errors of the Vanguard Doctrine? For the fact that people will not grow into the shapes devised for them?

Solzhenitsyn’s mighty pen has ensured that the Archipelago will stand forever: as a monument, chronicle, and warning.

Looking for more about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn? Check out On the Road to Calamity: Solzhenitsyn’s The Red Wheel: March 1917.

Image: Cornell University – PJ Mode Collection of Persuasive Cartography