Our Muzzled Freedom: Why Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago is More Relevant Than Ever

16 July 2021

10.3 MINS

“To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law. Fortunately, it is in the nature of the human being to seek a justification for his actions… Ideology that is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination.”
— Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago

Solzhenitsyn book

The seminal work by Solzhenitsyn.

Rarely does a book have the power to change the course of history the way the Bible, the Quran, the Communist Manifesto or Martin Luther’s 95 Theses have done. But the three volumes of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago (1973) comprise just such a book.

It is a hybrid experiment of journalism, history and biography that puts a human face on the tragedy of torture, death and mass execution. Psychologist Jordan Peterson in his foreword to the abridged version of The Gulag Archipelago astutely concludes,

“It was Solzhenitsyn who demonstrated that the death of millions and the devastation of many more were, instead, a direct causal consequence of the philosophy (worse, perhaps: the theology) driving the Communist system. The hypothetically egalitarian, universalist doctrines of Karl Marx contained hidden within them sufficient hatred, resentment, envy and denial of individual culpability and responsibility…”

History tells us that 25 million people died by internal oppression in the Soviet Union. Strikingly, however, it remains acceptable in polite company to praise Marxist and Communist philosophy. 60 million died in Mao’s China. The killing fields of Pol Pot’s Cambodia saw 2 million raped and bludgeoned to death. In Cuba, it is now illegal to attribute the death of a child to starvation.

Not a single political experiment has been tried so thoroughly and failed so catastrophically.

In Part IV of his book ‘The soul and barbed wire’, in a chapter titled ‘Our muzzled freedom’, Solzhenitsyn outlines ten consequences of a totalitarian society. These acts as warnings to those who have embraced the modern zeitgeist. Each section is like reading a passage written for our time.

1. Constant Fear

“The aggregate fear led to a correct consciousness of one’s own insignificance and of the lack of any kind of rights.”

The terror of the Soviet Union began with arrests. Solzhenitsyn describes being arrested as a shattering thrust from one state into another which breaks down the world of an individual. It was so instantaneous that for some who had buried their dead children, the ‘jurists’ would dump them and their coffin to the ground and search the corpse.

For those left behind, weeks of waiting in lines for information received only “no right of correspondence” with their loved ones, probably meaning they were dead. Yet what strikes through the hysteria and unimaginable pain caused by the events that led up to the Gulags was the relief and happiness some found in being arrested. During the mass arrests, you must sit and wait,

“… when all around you they were hauling in people like yourself and still had not come for you; for some reason they were taking their time. After all, that kind of exhaustion, that kind of suffering, is worse than any kind of arrest, and not only for a person of limited courage…”

Fear eradicates rights and courage. The challenge Solzhenitsyn suggests for the reader is to not give in to those fears, and to manifest the courage that can only be achieved by sharing the truth.

2. Servitude

“It was an insane piece of daring to protest.”

The Gulags relied on servitude to keep the lies of utopian communism alive. The wolf needs a sheep to stand still in order to make a meal of it. The silent populace in contemporary Western societies lack that same courage to not fall into servitude. Solzhenitsyn offers a striking rebuke against those who give into servitude, and trade courage for ignorance and passivity:

“A person who is not inwardly prepared for the violence against him is always weaker than the person committing violence.”

The renowned 19th century author Anthony Trollope points out the same sin of servitude to evil:

“They who do not understand that a man may be brought to hope that which of all things is the most grievous to him, have not observed with sufficient closeness the perversity of the human mind.”

In a similar way, the reader should guard himself against the perversity of the human mind. If not, one’s own ignorance becomes servitude to tyranny.

3. Secrecy and Mistrust

“The secretiveness of the Soviet person is by no means superfluous.”

The era of Stalin became a period of secrecy. Solzhenitsyn tells a haunting story of how this played out in the life of one woman who had to lie about her husband’s arrest in secrecy from her own family:

“The wife of the arrested man, taking advantage of the fact that they lived in different cities at the time of his arrest, hid his arrest from her own father and mother so they would not blurt it out. She preferred telling them and everyone else that her husband had abandoned her.”

Sometimes the more comfortable lie is the one that is more painfully concealed. The truth remains the only antidote to such pain. Again, Solzhenitsyn challenges the reader to fight against secrecy, and instead forge a world built on trust.

4. Universal Ignorance

“Informing one another of nothing, neither shouting nor groaning and learning nothing from one another, we were completely in the hands of the newspapers and the orators.”

Solzhenitsyn makes it clear that universal ignorance is not a passive state, but one that is actively willed. All one has to do is say nothing and let the truth be overcome by lies:

“Truth, it seems, is always bashful, easily reduced to silence by the too blatant encroachment of falsehood.”

To inform, to read and to talk openly about the truth is a resistance. Do not let the news and orators control it, Solzhenitsyn urges us, or else the encroachment of falsehood takes centre-stage.

5. Squealing

“Beyond the purposed weakening ties between people, there was another purpose as well. Any person who had let himself be recruited would, out of fear of public exposure, be very much interested in the continuing stability of the regime.”

Over 35 million people served a sentence in the Soviet Gulags. Each of these was reliant on the squealing of pigeon messengers who acted as everyday spies for the government.

Almost 1 in 5 were informants, and nearly every person was at one time asked to become one. As a result, even if one was scared of the knowledge that he might be getting reported to the police, the scarier truth was that he did not know if it was his wife or children who did the reporting.

6. Betrayal as a Form of Existence

“The mildest and at the same time most widespread form of betrayal was not to do anything bad directly, but just not to notice the doomed person next to one, not to help him, to turn away one’s face, to shrink back.”

In a totalitarian state, even one’s own thoughts are not safe. Another story in the book describes the effect this had on daily life:

“As Tanya Khodkevich wrote: You can pray freely but just so God alone can hear. (She received a ten-year sentence for these verses). A person convinced that he possessed spiritual truth was required to conceal it from his own children! In the twenties the religious education of children was classified as a political crime under Article 58-10.”

It started with the government’s overreach into education, priming children for indoctrination. It ended in mass arrest and murder for a utopian cause that even family members used as justification to target each other.

7. Corruption

“In a situation of fear and betrayal over many years people survive unharmed only in a superficial, bodily sense. And inside… they become corrupt.”

In a society built on lies, false criminal charges were the norm:

“Thence arose the most practical conclusion: that it was useless to seek absolute evidence for evidence is always relative or unchallengeable witnesses — for they can say different things at different times. The proofs of guilt were relative.”

Relative truth’ is a dangerous lie. The collective guilt that was brought to bear on individuals was the backbone of Russian concentration camps.

8. The Lie as a Form of Existence

“Whether giving in to fear, or influenced by material self-interest or envy, people can’t nonetheless become stupid so swiftly… Nothing forces them to speak truth so clearly in reply, but no one allows them to keep silent! They have to talk! And what else but a lie? … The permanent lie becomes the only safe form of existence.”

One of the most sobering and pertinent stories in the book comes from those people who chose to tell the truth. The result for one woman who prayed the wrong prayer was to be put into the Gulags.

“She was charged with having “prayed in church for the death of Stalin.” (Who could have heard that prayer?!) Terrorism! Twenty-five years! … There existed a very simple standardized collection of charges:

  • Discrediting the Leader
  • A negative attitude toward the collective-farm structure
  • A negative attitude toward state loans (and what normal person could have had a positive attitude!)
  • A negative attitude toward the Stalinist constitution
  • A negative attitude toward whatever was the immediate, particular measure being carried out by the Party Sympathy for Trotsky.”

9. Cruelty

“Once you have been steeped in blood, you can only become more cruel.”

The torture in the Soviet Union was barley imaginable. Here is a small list I gathered from the book:

  • Men’s genitals were put into an iron vice and slowly squeezed; the same was done with their skulls.
  • Isolation cells were deliberately made so small that you could never sit, stand or comfortably be in any position so you would build bruises on every part of your body from the walls around you.
  • Guards would beat the imprisoned when they closed their eyes to sleep until they signed their own confessions.
  • Others were starved then made drunk by wine to then sign their own confession and death sentence.
  • Some people were put into cells where bugs had been feeding on a mattress for weeks and then would nibble at the prisoner for over eight hours until they gave up trying to wipe them off their body because of sheer exhaustion.
  • Priests were lined up and told to swear allegiance to Stalin and renounce God. If they refused, they were shot, and the brains of the priest would splatter onto the face of the next clergyman standing behind him. He was then asked the same question.

The list of cruelties goes on. May the reader never again imagine this could not happen — because it did. Be reminded that similar ideologies are being promoted today without regard for the cruelty which has been writ large in the history of communism.

10. Slave Psychology

“And we do not even shudder in revulsion. We have become accustomed to these figures setting dogs onto people as if they were the most natural things in the world. Setting the dogs onto us…”

One of the most remarkable outcomes for a society that propagates the aforementioned nine attributes, is how perversely regular and normal violence becomes. It is as if engaging in it was like seeing the sun come up in the morning. A culture characterised by apathy becomes a culture plagued by violence.

Our Muzzled Freedoms Today

Of course, in our own setting, the overreach of the Australian government does not match the abuses of the Soviet Union. However, new Victorian legislation has made it a crime to pray. It has created major problems for people of faith.

It is now illegal to pray for someone consenting to prayer for a change in sexual behaviour.
This also extends to children and the home, as prayer and counselling for children who want help with sexual attraction to the same sex is now considered domestic violence.
Offenders can effectively be sent to re-education camps.

Like the women who was sent to prison for praying the wrong prayer and was sent to the aforementioned gulags, so too Christians today can be sent to re-education camps in Victoria.

As a result, betrayal will become a form of existence. Already in Canada, a father is in prison for ‘misgendering’ his young teenage son. The way freedoms are being restricted today is beginning to mimic greatest catastrophes of the 20th century. If we do not want to repeat history, it would be wise to learn from the mistakes of the past.

What the ‘Red Terror’ used as justification was not the sins of one person, but of a whole people group. In the words of Solzhenitsyn, “the proofs of guilt were relative”. Today, the sins of a few evil people have been projected onto subsets of the population, with white males bearing the brunt of this.

Indeed, terms like “white privilege”, “white guilt” and “intersectional oppression” are all relative forms of guilt, because a person does not have to commit a crime to receive a punishment.

Research by Professor Augusto Zimmerman outlines why this lie is no justification for the months of violence seen in America last year:

  • In the United Kingdom, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC)… has revealed that white boys from poorer backgrounds “suffer the worst start in life as they continue to fall further behind every other ethnic group at school – with their chances of a successful and prosperous career decreasing as a result”.
  • The white ethnic group was the one least likely to enter university, with only 28 percent obtaining places compared with 58 percent for Chinese, 41 percent for Asians generally, 37 percent for Black students, and 32 percent for those from a “mixed race”.
  • Female students make up the majority demographic in higher institutions of learning in Western societies.
  • According to UK official figures, women between the ages of 22 and 29 will typically earn £1,111 more per year than their male counterparts.
  • White men in America are more likely to face discrimination when applying for jobs than women, according to a US study of 3,000 job applicants.
  • White males have a suicide rate which is much higher than those for any other gender-ethnic group.

It is a sobering fact that in Australia, 76 percent of suicides are male. We should not succumb to the trend of attacking white men as a group and being blind to them as individuals. The same is true for any other group. The Soviet Union shows us that the victimhood of a few leads to the condemnation of many.

The Soul and the Barbed Wire

In his 1983 Templeton address, Solzhenitsyn saw only one reason for the catastrophic events of the 20th century:

“Men have forgotten God, that’s why all of this has happened.”

Ultimately, communism was the result of sin. Godlessness masquerades as goodness. Tyranny uses lies to muzzle freedom. Remaining silent only aids such societies because “a submissive sheep is a find for a wolf”.

The people of Israel faced the same problem in 1 Kings 18, when the prophet Elijah called on them to have courage; to stand up to the lies of false idol worship; and to choose to worship God:

“‘How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him; but if Baal is God, follow him.’ But the people said nothing.”

In the end, there is only one truth that can eradicate falsehood. What drove Solzhenitsyn was his faith in Christ. He survived the Gulags and the pain of torture and starvation because of a greater hope.

His book was written on the premise that outside of the pain inflicted by other humans lies a greater purpose — one found in the historical figure of Jesus who really did come to seek and save the lost. Christ offers us a choice:

“If anyone is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when He comes in His Father’s glory.”

Faced with these choices, the legacy of The Gulag Archipelago is a resounding plea for the reader to choose truth over lies. May we choose wisely.

[Photo by Steve Harvey on Unsplash]


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One Comment

  1. Glenn Bowen 16 July 2021 at 4:47 pm - Reply

    Hi Luke, a very good piece. Thought provoking.

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