Solzhenitsyn and the Freedom of the Gulag (September 2012)

Seeing as I’m currently dealing with the idea of extreme indifference as the basis of true freedom in Evgenii Fedorov, I’ve had to revisit some ideas of spiritual ascension in Gulag writing. The Solzhenitsyn-Shalamov debate, now well-known, and perhaps over-wrought, comes into its own in Fedorov’s writing as he seems to eschew both points of view. Fedorov even begins to mock Shalamov’s aesthetic, philosophical and narrative choices in several of his camp tales from the 1990s which later came to form Bunt (1998). Interestingly, however, Fedorov does seem to share something in common with Solzhenitsyn’s views in Gulag Archipelago. Here I look back to Solzhenitsyn’s first attempts at camp verse in an effort to understand the similarities and differences in the two writers’ positions.

Although Solzhenitsyn’s belief in the prospect of moral elevation is discussed in Gulag Archipelago, it also receives attention in his camp verse.The 2004 edition of Dorozhen’ka contained not only the long poem of the same name, but also a further 28 poems divided chronologically into three sections, namely: prison, camp, and exile. The wide-ranging nature of his camp verse seems to correspond to Solzhenitsyn’s views on the possibility of ascent (voskhozhdenie) within the penal system. The poem cycle itself represents the freedom to think that Solzhenitsyn is concerned with in the fourth section of Gulag Archipelago, ‘Dusha i provoloka’. However, whilst in his philosophical work on the Gulag, Solzhenitsyn seems to privilege a singularly positive idea of voskhozhdenie, his poetry seems to suggest that it something is also lost in this process, as well as gained.

According to Solzhenitsyn, the possibility of moral elevation arises out of the perceived absence of guilt in the case of the political prisoners, as well as a need to ‘дожить любой ценой’ (Gulag Archipelago, p.570). However, the highly dangerous world of the camps, both in a physical and a moral sense, means that survival is not guaranteed. Leaving the problem of physical survival aside, Solzhenitsyn makes it clear that if you do survive physically, it may involve a loss of conscience due to the nature of camp survival. Furthermore, survival can be considered as reliant on change for Solzhenitsyn, at least to a small degree:

…эти три обстоятельства могут только объяснить, почему он остался в живых. Не было бы их — и он бы умер, но он бы не переменился. (А те, кто умерли — может быть, потому и умерли, что не переменились?)

(Gulag, p.571)

Solzhenitsyn then uses the example of the Italian writer, Silvio Pellico, to illustrate his point about the potential usefulness of transformation, ‘ всегда эти изменения идут в сторону углубления души’ (Gulag, p.572). Solzhenitsyn believes that this moral transformation arises out of the freedom to think in prison; the political prisoner under the Soviet system is forced to re-evaluate past deeds in the absence of guilt. The process of time also plays a role in this voskhozhdenie, as ‘изменимся неузнаваемо мы, и изменятся наши близкие — и места, когда-то родные, покажутся нам чужее чужих’ (Gulag, p.574). We are stripped of our previous relationships, both familial and social, and this frees us for deep self-reflection, which in turn leads to spiritual elevation. The disconnection between prisoners and those on the outside in terms of physical recognition has been dealt with Alexander Etkind in his 2009 Russian Review article, ‘A Parable of Misrecognition: Anagnorisis and the Return of the Repressed from the Gulag.’ This moral elevation brings with it a love for work, as well as a positive change in character. The process ofvoskhozhdenieseems to be too idealistic in Gulag Archipelago, and is in fact found to be more realistic in his camp poetry. The verse sees the anger of wrongful imprisonment, as well as his concern over the state of Russia under the Soviet system. It plays host to youthful nostalgia as well as a exploration of his relationship with God. But ultimately it provides an account of the epiphanic moments in Solzhenitsyn’s camp experience, which I believe are linked to his belief in voskhozhedenie.

Several of the poems in this cycle express a belief in the total transformation of man during the process of internment, that the prisoner becomes someone entirely new. For example, in the ‘prison’ poem ‘Oтсюда не возврашаются’, Solzhenitsyn explores the problem of life after the camps in an address to those outside. He is already conscious of a significant spiritual change:

Душу новую, как новое растенье,

Я ращу в себе в недоброй гнили тюрем,

И растеньем этим я доволен.


The advent of a ‘new soul’ for Solzhenitsyn is accompanied by a reassessment of his previous prejudices and beliefs, described by him in Gulag(Gulag, p.575), as well as a renewed attention to the world around him:

С каждым днём я научаюсь видеть

То, чего не видел вчера…

Вижу мелким то, что прежде чёл огромным,

И большим, чем прежде я небрёг;


Such is the power of this transformation that when he announces his release from the camps, he describes it thus: ‘Это было бы приходом новым, / Это вовсе не было б возвратом!’ (p.221). However, despite the fact that this new ‘life’ supersedes the old (‘С той поры прошедшим не живу’), Solzhenitsyn has already been rendered powerless to regain the vigour of his youth:

А уж телом, телом


Этих лучших лет не наверстать.

Solzhenitsyn tempers his spiritual rebirth inside the camps with the knowledge that the decline in health will prevent any renewed physical activity reminiscent of his youth. Solzhenitsyn focuses on a similar theme in the ‘prison’ poem ‘Вечерний снег’. The evening snow has disguised the jail sufficiently that the narrator is reminded of similar nights before imprisonment:


На шапки вышек лёг бело,

Колючку пухом убрало,

И в тёмных блёстках липы.


The reduction of the world before him into black and white (the night sky/snow) represents the moment of voskhozhdenie, because, as he watches the snow fall in the prison courtyard, it reminds him not only of freedom, but also of being with his lover on a similarly snowy night. The mixing of memories and the present allows him to temporarily rise above his physical surroundings:

Двором тюремным, как во сне,

Иду — и вспыхнули во мне

Все чувства молодые…


In this poem, the fleeting return of his past represents a certain moral elevation, as he is able to momentarily escape the reality of prison life, which, as Solzhenitsyn argues, is potentially necessary for physical survival.

However, these moments of ‘epiphany’ are not always positive in the sense of aiding the narrator to survive the camps. The moments of clarity that accompany the general process of voskhozhdenie also reveal the helplessness of the situation for the camp inmates. The ‘camp’ poem, ‘Каменщик’, illustrates this by building up a sense of powerlessness. There are the obvious hallmarks of a Soviet camp: barbed wire, dogs, machine guns. But this is followed by a further attention on the prisoner’s inability to resist what is happening not only to him but also around him, including the interrogations, the walls rising around him, the amount of food he will receive. This is finally compounded by the final six lines of the poem:

А с лесов, меж камня — камер ямы чёрные,

Чьих-то близких мук немая глубина…


И всего-то нить у них — одна, автомобильная,

Да с гуденьем проводов недавние столбы.

Боже мой! Какие мы бессильные!

Боже мой! Какие мы рабы!


The point of view from outside the camp constitutes the moment of clarity, revealing the depths to which it also possible to sink in the camps. It is important to highlight the fact that this voskhozhdenie is not guaranteed, it is only one of many possible outcomes for the prisoners. After all, Solzhenitsyn is keenly aware that the majority of those who ended up in the camps under Stalin were corrupted by the realities of prison life (Gulag, p.593). However, other poems follow a similar pattern to ‘Каменщик’ including ‘Седьмая весна’, which focuses on the narrator’s resignation to his time in prison, and eventually the realisation of what he has lost in the process. In the second stanza, the narrator contrasts his position with typical images of spring before confessing: ‘А мне — себя не жалько, / И никаких желаний нет во мне’ (p.229). This acceptance of his position eventually ends with a confession of his own corruption (rastlenie):

Всевидящее! Кротко голубое!

Лишь ты одно свидетелем тому,

За эти годы чёрствые — какое

Я чувство погубил в себе святое,

Принесенное юношей в тюрьму.


Solzhenitsyn’s concept of voskhozhdenie therefore is open to movement down the axis of spiritual evolution, as well as up it. In fact, it seems as if the camp verse details this very wavering along the dividing line of elevation/corruption.

This idea of ‘negative epiphany’ is expanded upon further in the final poem of the collection, ‘Смерть — не как пропасть…’, which finds Solzhenitsyn confessing his distance from God in the final lines: ‘Больше не видеть тебя мне распятой, / Больше не звать Воскресенья тебе…’ (p.246). However, this ‘loss of faith’ is tempered with a positive vision of death as elevation for Solzhenitsyn: ‘А смерть — как гребень,/ Кряж, на который взнеслась дорога’ (Ibid.). This is accompanied by a prophetic vision of Russia itself, as Solzhenitsyn combines his fate with that of his country’s. However, it is the nature of the vision, the transcendental quality of Solzhenitsyn’s sight that suggests the possibility to simultaneously rise up, as well as sink down:

Вижу прозрачно — без гнева, без клятвы:

В низостях. В славе. В житье-колотьбе…


Having placed this poem in the ‘exile’ section, Solzhenitsyn has seemingly achieved true objectivity via previous suffering. He clearly sees his position in relation to God, as well as possessing an all-encompassing view of Russia. But, despite his suffering and apparent elevation, he is no closer to God.

Although Solzhenitsyn’s belief in the possibility of moral elevation through the extreme suffering of the Soviet penal system finds expression in his verse, it never draws attention away from the extreme adversity of the situation. For example, in one lyric we find him reconciling his Christian faith (‘Акафист’), yet in the final poem he is confessing his spiritual alienation precisely because of his new-found prophetic-like vision. It is this constant contradiction which suggests the influence of the camp system: it completely destabilises the inmate’s personal spirituality through the hardships and decisions they are forced to make. Yet the defiance of the final lines of ‘Ванька-встанька’ suggest Solzhenitsyn’s ability to resist: ‘Кто ж мне душу такую сделал, / Что опять могу смеяться?’ (p.215). Daniel Mahoney expands on this idea in his Ascent from Ideology (2001), ‘Human nature cannot be overcome, but rather in the course of confronting its sometimes deadly efforts, some are led to rediscover the meaning of human existence’. The peaks and troughs of camp life expressed in Solzhenitsyn’s verse, as well as the ambiguous final poem, would suggest that although this rediscovery of the meaning of human existence is possible, it comes at a price. For Solzhenitsyn in 1953, it seems to be the stability of his faith.


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