Imagine sitting in a hut with a glass of vodka and nowhere to go. In the Siberian winter, more than the prison guards, it’s the wide expanse of snow that is forbidding. From 1918, when Lenin created it, to 1956, millions of Russians had similar experiences in a prison system that defied imagination. Most did not get the vodka. The world did not know about them.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who died in Moscow on Sunday, vividly described this vicious episode of Russian history in his book, The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation. Solzhenitsyn was a member of the lost generation of Russians who were imprisoned and denied basic liberties by a machine-like system.
In Stalin’s Russia, one could become a zek (a political prisoner) even before one uttered the word freedom. Protests over simple matters such as unavailability of bread, writing a poem or anything that caught the imagination of a bureaucrat, would result in an arrest. A quick trial would follow (often without a lawyer or even the accused person) and a one-way ticket to Siberia handed out. Solzhenitsyn had better luck: He was deported from the Soviet Union in 1974. He settled, ultimately, in snow-bound Vermont in the US. The choice was not coincidental. It reminded him of his motherland, Russia. He returned home in 1994, four years after his citizenship was restored.
Ice, empire, and harsh, remote places have been alleged Western tropes to describe tsarist and Stalinist Russia. They were much more than that. For millions of Russians, who were reduced to mere numbers on lists of prisoners, they represented a chronic loss of liberty.
Solzhenitsyn’s achievement lay in his moral courage in writing a damning book that exposed the Soviet Union for what it was. He was unbending to the diktats of a totalitarian regime. This removed the blinkers from the legions of Western liberals and Leftists, who believed in virtues of the Soviet Union and communism.
In the end, though, his achievement may be more circumscribed. Russia is yet to make a full transition to a liberal democracy and large swathes of humanity continue to endure totalitarian governments.
How will Solzhenitsyn be remembered? A champion for liberty or a prophet? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org