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The Last Circle

However much a farcical shade of his former self Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn has become, there is nothing he can do to erase the great monument to moral courage and humanity for which his name will always be known. The Gulag Archipelago … Read More

By / March 16, 2007

However much a farcical shade of his former self Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn has become, there is nothing he can do to erase the great monument to moral courage and humanity for which his name will always be known. The Gulag Archipelago has been called the most important book of the 20th century. None of us will ever read enough of what the rest of that grim century had to offer to be able to confirm the judgment with anything beyond a fingers-crossed metaphysical belief, but still, you get the idea. The phrase this essay in the Times Literary Supplement by

Solzhenitsyn once dedicated his life to the fight against the regime in which the state security machine made everyone feel an accomplice in turning the country into a prison camp. He has now become part of a society where the mass media are reduced to self-censoring impotence, Soviet style; dissident artists and writers are regularly beaten up; journalists who expose corruption and the abuses of centralized political power are murdered. And yet Solzhenitsyn is silent; silent even when his most cherished idea of saving Russia by strengthening the independence of local government, Swiss-style, was first ridiculed in the press and then trampled over by a presidential decree that reinstalled the central authority of the Kremlin over the whole of Russia. On the whole, Solzhenitsyn avoids public appearances these days and refrains from public utterances. And yet, he found the time and energy to express his approval of the recent cutting off of gas supplies to Ukraine for a discount price “because that country tramples over Russian culture and the Russian language and allows NATO military manoeuvres on its territory”. Oh well. My country, right or wrong.

Now it's worth remembering that Solzhenitsyn once observed and wrote like this, describing how one writer-turned-state-stooge, Maxim Gorky, failed to perform the writer's duty upon touring the Solovetsky Island labor camp:

The chiefs were alarmed too: as best they could, they hid the monstrosities and polished things up for show. Transports of prisoners were sent form the kremlin to distant work parties so that fewer would remain there; many patients were discharged from the Medical Section and the whole thing was cleaned up. And they set up a “boulevard” of fir trees without roots, which were simply pushed down into the ground. (They only had to last a few days before withering.) It led to the Children’s Colony, opened just three months previously and the pride of USLON, where everyone had clothes and where there were no socially hostile children, and where, of course, Gorky would very interested in seeing how juveniles were being re-educated and saved for a future life under socialism.

Only in Kem was there an oversight. On Popov Island the ship Gleb Boky was being loaded by prisoners in underwear and sacks, when Gorky’s retinue appeared out of nowhere to embark on that steamer! You inventors and thinkers! Here is a worthy problem for you, given that, as the saying goes, every wise man enough of the fool in him: a barren island, not one bush, no possible cover—and right there at a distance of three hundred yards, Gorky’s retinue has shown up. Your solution? Where can this disgraceful spectacle—these men dressed in sacks—be hidden? The entire journey of the great Humanist will have been for naught if he sees them now. Well, of course, he will try hard not to notice them, but help him! Drown them in the sea? They will wall and flounder. Bury them in the earth? There’s no time. No, only a worthy son of the Archipelago could find a way out of this one. The work assigner ordered, “Stop work! Close ranks! Still closer! Sit down on the ground! Sit still!” And a tarpaulin was thrown over them. “Anyone who moves will be shot!”

[...]

They went to the Children’s Colony. How decent everything was there. Each was on a separate cot, with a mattress. They all crowded around in a group and all of them were happy. And all of a sudden, a fourteen-year-old boy said: “Listen here, Gorky! Everything you see there is false. Do you want to know the truth? Shall I tell you?” Yes, nodded the writer. Yes, he wanted to know the truth. (Oh, you bad boy, why do you want to spoil the just recently arranged prosperity of the literary patriarch? A palace in Moscow, an estate outside Moscow…) And so everyone was ordered to leave—and the boy spent an hour and a half telling the whole story to the lanky old man. Gorky left the barracks, streaming tears. He was given a carriage to go to dinner at the villa of the camp chief. And the boys rushed back into the barracks. “Did you tell him about the mosquito treatment?” “Yes.” “Did you tell him about the pole torture?” “Yes.” “Did you tell him about the prisoners hitched up instead of horses?” “Yes.” “And how they roll them down the stairs? And about the sacks? And about being made to spend the night in the snow?” And it turned out that the truth-loving boy had told all…all…all!!!

But we don’t even know his name.

On June 22, in other words after his chat with the boy, Gorky left the following inscription in the “Visitors’ Book” which had been specially made for this visit:

“I am not in a state of mind to express my impressions in just a few words. I wouldn’t want, yes, an d I would likewise be ashamed [!], to permit myself banal praise of the remarkable energy of people who, while remaining vigilant and tireless sentinels of the Revolution, are able, at the same time, to be remarkably bold creators of culture.”

On June 23 Gorky left Solovki. Hardly had his steamer pulled away from the pier than they shot the boy.

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