Lessons from the gulag

Editorial Notebook

August 09, 2008|By Glenn McNatt

For reasons I can't precisely remember, I began reading Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn's monumentalaccount of the Soviet penal labor camps, The Gulag Archipelago, in the late 1980s. I was working for a company that published long histories of wars and other pivotal events; my job was to churn out, in a breezy but authoritative style, captions for the book's photographs. Perhaps I thought that reading Mr. Solzhenitsyn, whose novels mingled lyrical descriptions of the suffering human soul with a profound sense of moral outrage, would help me find my own voice as a writer.

Mr. Solzhenitsyn, who died last week, began his history of the gulag with the stark, incontrovertible reality of arrest by secret police who arrive in the dead of night, and the victim's baffled, terrified response. It describes in excruciating detail the imprisonment, interrogation, beatings, torture and personal humiliations calculated to break the will of helpless captives.

But what was the point of this passionate recital of human suffering if in the end it was all meaningless?

I got through the first volume of the book without finding out. Then, three-quarters of the way through the second volume, I stumbled across this sentence: "Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts."

It was a revelation. Mr. Solzhenitsyn had been preparing me for the crushing moral lesson of his work, that every one of us is responsible for defending that shifting line in our heart of hearts, and that we all can fail no matter how fervently we believe in the righteousness of our cause.

Mr. Solzhenitsyn was talking about the dark struggle between good and evil played out in the souls of Soviet bureaucrats and assassins. But I saw the same moral blindness in every totalitarian regime. How else could Germans have feigned ignorance of Hitler's crimes? Or the Chinese overlook the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, or Serbs deny massacres in Kosovo?

History repeats itself, sometimes as farce but often as just more of the same dreary tragedy. I wonder whether we ever really learn anything. I'm not talking about obviously egregious failings such as those of the American guards at Abu Ghraib or the public's grudging acceptance of denying basic human rights to prisoners at Guantanamo. I mean the small, everyday incidents that seemingly are so trivial we accept them as normal and unavoidable and therefore don't feel responsible for them.

For example, when a political ad distorts a rival candidate's views to the point where it dishonors both the accuser and the accused, is that crossing a moral line? When a commentator or campaign spokesman spins a topic in a way that appeals to bigotry, is that a political or a moral issue? When citizens believe things they suspect are lies simply because it's easier not to rock the boat, is that a dereliction of one's duty to choose morally or just laziness?

For novelists, it is said, characters are everything. Mr. Solzhenitsyn showed us that character is also everything for each of us as individuals, as well as the only thing that really matters.

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