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July 7 Alexander Solzhenitsyn Repenting in the Gulag


The Russian writer Alexander Solzenhitsyn was sentenced in his absence to an eight year term in a labour camp in Siberia. He would be exonerated after Nikita Khrushchev denounced the cruelty of Stalin's regime. HIs books exposed the bankruptcy of this regime and deeply damaged the image of communism outside of Russia. The Gulag Archipelago sold over 30 million copies and he was awarded the Nobel Prize.


What was exceptional was the spiritual journey he went through in the harsh conditions of the Gulag . Repenting about what he saw as a Red Army officer in Prussia he abandoned his atheism and returned to the Christianity of his youth and wrote eloquently about the survival and strength of the human spirit.



Today in 1945 the writer Alexander Solzhenitzyn was sentenced in his absence to an eight year term in a labour camp in Siberia. During World War 2, Solzhenitsyn had served as the commander in the Red Army and was involved in major action at the front, and twice decorated. He was awarded the Order of the Red Star for the destruction of two German batteries. As the Red Army pushed the Germans back into East Prussia, Solzhenitsyn witnessed war crimes against local German civilians by Soviet military personnel. At the time he saw this as revenge for Nazi atrocities committed in the Soviet Union. However he was arrested while serving in East Prussia, for writing derogatory comments in private letters to a friend about the conduct of the war by Joseph Stalin, and was accused of anti-Soviet propaganda after interrogation in the notorious Lubyanka prison in Moscow, where he was interrogated. On 7 July 1945, he was sentenced in his absence by Special Council of the NKVD to an eight-year term in a labour camp. Surviving his ordeal in the camp, after his sentence ended, he was sent to internal exile for life in South Kazakhstan.

In the penultimate year of his sentence Joseph Stalin died. With a high number of excess deaths occurring under his rule, Stalin has been labelled "one of the most notorious figures in history." These deaths occurred as a result of collectivisation, famine, terror campaigns, disease, war and mortality rates in the Gulag. As the majority of these deaths under Stalin were not direct killings, the exact number of victims of Stalinism is difficult to calculate but estimates are between 6 and 20 million excess deaths. Of the 18 million people who passed through the Gulag system of labour camps from 1930 to 1953, between 1.5 and 1.7 million died as a result of their incarceration. Three years after his death, the new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, made what is popularly known as the "Secret Speech sharply critical of the rule of Stalin. With the formal title "On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences" he charged Stalin with having fostered a leadership cult of personality despite ostensibly maintaining support for the ideals of communism. The speech was shocking and there are reports that the audience reacted with applause and laughter at several points, whilst some of those present suffered heart attacks and others later committed suicide. In the West, the speech politically devastated the organised left; the Communist Party USA alone lost more than 30,000 members within weeks It was a major cause of the Sino-Soviet split by China (under Chairman Mao Zedong) and Khrushchev was condemned as a revisionist. However the speech was a milestone in what would become known as the Khrushchev Thaw allowed him to consolidate his control of the Soviet Union's party and government after political struggles with Stalin loyalists.


It was in this climate that Solzhenitsyn was freed from exile and exonerated. He had secretly been spending his nights secretly engaged in writing. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech he wrote that "during all the years until 1961, not only was I convinced I should never see a single line of mine in print in my lifetime, but, also, I scarcely dared allow any of my close acquaintances to read anything I had written because I feared this would become known." It became clear that during his decade of imprisonment and exile that Solzhenitsyn abandoned Marxism and became a philosophically-minded Eastern Orthodox Christian as a result of his experience in prison and the camps. He repented for some of his actions as a Red Army captain, and in prison compared himself to the perpetrators of the Gulag. This spiritual transformation is described at some length in the fourth part of The Gulag Archipelago ("The Soul and Barbed Wire"). "There is nothing that so assists the awakening of omniscience within us as insistent thoughts about one's own transgressions, errors, mistakes. After the difficult cycles of such ponderings over many years, whenever I mentioned the heartlessness of our highest-ranking bureaucrats, the cruelty of our executioners, I remember myself in my Captain's shoulder boards and the forward march of my battery through East Prussia, enshrouded in fire, and I say: 'So were we any better?'

His most famous book about the Soviet prison camp system, comparing them to a chain of islands was called the Gulag Archipelago. It discusses the system's origins from the founding of the Communist regime, with Vladimir Lenin having responsibility, detailing interrogation procedures, prisoner transports, prison camp culture, prisoner uprisings and revolts, and the practice of internal exile. It became one of the most influential books of the 20th century selling over thirty million copies in thirty-five languages. He was awarded the 1970 Nobel Prize in Literature "for the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature" However it was not published in the Soviet Union, and in 1971, the KGB attempted to assassinate Solzhenitsyn using an unknown chemical agent (most likely ricin) The attempt left him seriously ill but he survived. The members of the Politburo considered his arrest and imprisonment but in the end decided to deport him directly to West Germany before settling in the United States. Where even after two decades he had not become fluent in spoken English. He became a media star, which he resented and warned about the dangers of Communist aggression but also of the weakening of the moral fibre of the West. In 1978 he gave a commencement address at Harvard, condemning, among other things, the press, the lack of spirituality and traditional values, and the anthropocentrism of Western culture. Eventually in 1994, with his Soviet citizenship restored, he returned to Russia with his wife, Natalia, but their sons stayed behind in the United States


Solzhenitsyn argued that the Dechristianization of Russian culture was most responsible for the Bolshevik Revolution, famously saying "Over a half century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of old people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: 'Men have forgotten God; that's why all this has happened. Since then I have spent well-nigh 50 years working on the history of our revolution; in the process I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own toward the effort of clearing away the rubble left by that upheaval. But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous revolution that swallowed up some 60 million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: 'Men have forgotten God; that's why all this has happened.'"

When he was asked about the divisions within the Roman Catholic Church over the Second Vatican Council and the Mass of Paul VI, (see pod of ) He said I understand the fears of both those in the Orthodox and in the Catholic Church, the wariness, the hesitation, and the fear that this is lowering the Church to the modern condition, the modern surroundings. I understand this, but alas, I fear that if religion does not allow itself to change, it will be impossible to return the world to religion because the world is incapable on its own of rising as high as the old demands of religion. Religion needs to come and meet it somewhat."

When he was asked about the divisions within the Roman Catholic Church over the Second Vatican Council and the Mass of Paul VI, (see pod of Mar 7 ) He said I understand the fears of both those in the Orthodox and in the Catholic Church, the wariness, the hesitation, and the fear that this is lowering the Church to the modern condition, the modern surroundings. I understand this, but alas, I fear that if religion does not allow itself to change, it will be impossible to return the world to religion because the world is incapable on its own of rising as high as the old demands of religion. Religion needs to come and meet it somewhat."