From Marxism to Christianity Through Suffering – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008)

On December 11th we marked the 100th Anniversary of the birth of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Russian author who must surely be ranked as one of the most important writers of the past century.

“A great disaster had befallen Russia… Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.”


by Douglas Kries on THE CATHOLIC THING – (shortened)

Remembering – and still Learning from Solzhenitsyn


It is easy to view Solzhenitsyn as merely the author of a powerful, two-part political exposé. Such a view, however, would be to overlook the true power and significance of his writing, for he did not simply tell us how terrible the Soviet camp system was, but explained why it was terribly wrong.

During his time in the archipelago [Gulag], Solzhenitsyn had slowly but forcefully rejected the Marxism of his youth and embraced Christian faith. This conversion was not achieved, however, without a great amount of personal suffering and an even greater amount of personal reflection.

Marxism claims that some groups and classes of human beings are good and others bad, so to perfect itself, humanity must isolate and eliminate the bad people. Solzhenitsyn came to realize instead that the dividing line between good and evil lies within every, single, individual human heart.

The Marxist position thus argued that humanity would be perfected through the inevitable progress of world history. If the dividing line is within all human hearts, however, then only limited improvement is possible in this life, and degeneracy is always equally possible. The Marxist position is to be rejected, it seems, because it overlooks the reality of Original Sin.

Moreover, the Christian conscience forces human beings to attempt a justification for their acts and gnaws at or even devours them if they cannot find such a justification. The Marxists, however, provided their adherents not with conscience but with an ideology that justified evil deeds in the name of an unattainable end. Such ideological justification pushed the Marxists beyond the normal threshold of wrongdoing and made the destruction of millions appear not abhorrent or unthinkable but necessary and acceptable.

Marxism not only misunderstood the origin of evil, but likewise misunderstood what is to be done with its effects – with suffering. Solzhenitsyn came to realize that while there was no correlation between what he and the other political prisoners in the camps were charged with and what they were made to suffer, the Christians within the archipelago – at least the best of them – learned how to make suffering redemptive. That is, they knew how to turn their suffering into a continuous penance stemming from a continuous confession.

From there, they could turn to spiritual ascent through what Solzhenitsyn often called “self-limitation.” In his later years, he warned the West – in his lecture at Harvard and Nobel Prize speech – that the “free world” was embracing a materialist slavery of its own. That process is far more fully developed now than during Solzhenitsyn’s lifetime.

Such self-limitation begins to sound a lot like the self-limitation of Christ, who did not grasp at equality with the unlimited, but willingly limited himself and became human, accepting human form and human suffering, and proffering divine mercy thereby.

There’s a pointed lesson here for us today – because these are deep truths Solzhenitsyn uncovered for us that should govern every regime – every human life.


Comment with quotes

No one did more than Solzhenitsyn to expose the horrors of the failed communist experiment in Russia by describing in excruciating detail the carnage in Stalin’s gulags.

Solzhenitsyn is an inspiration to many because of the suffering he endured and the effect it had on him. Here is an unforgettable quote from a man whose whole life had been one of the greatest suffering and yet was capable of transforming the lesson learnt through his suffering to good, namely humility and gratitude. After his imprisonment in the Russian gulag of Joseph Stalin’s “corrective labour camps” Solzhenitsyn wrote:

It was granted to me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience: how a human being becomes evil and how good. In the intoxication of youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer and an oppressor. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. 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…. That is why I turn back to the years of my imprisonment and say, sometimes to the astonishment of those about me: “Bless you, prison!” I…have served enough time there. I nourished my soul there, and I say without hesitation: “Bless you, prison, for having been in my life!” (The Gulag Archipelago: 1918-1956, Vol. 2, 615-617)

O that we would be done with murmuring against our own tiny prisons. Lord, grant us greater faith to live in the coming day when we will say, “Bless you, all hardship and pain; all suffering, disappointment and loss; all the hurt from unjust criticism and humiliation! May I too have the fortitude to give thanks to you my God for everything that comes my way, transforming ‘stones’ into gifts of great value.”

More wisdom from Alexander Solzhenitsyn:

“What about the main thing in life, all its riddles? If you want, I’ll spell it out for you right now. Do not pursue what is illusionary property and position: all that is gained at the expense of your nerves decade after decade, and is confiscated in one fell night. Live with a steady superiority over life – don’t be afraid of misfortune, and do not yearn for happiness; it is, after all, all the same: the bitter doesn’t last forever, and the sweet never fills the cup to overflowing. It is enough if you don’t freeze in the cold and if thirst and hunger don’t claw at your insides. If your back isn’t broken, if your feet can walk, if both arms can bend, if both eyes can see, if both ears hear, then whom should you envy? And why? Our envy of others devours us most of all. Rub your eyes and purify your heart— and prize above all else in the world those who love you and who wish you well. Do not hurt them or scold them, and never part from any of them in anger; after all, you simply do not know: it may be your last act before your arrest, and that will be how you are imprinted on their memory.”
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago

“Human rights’ are a fine thing, but how can we make ourselves sure that our rights do not expand at the expense of the rights of others. A society with unlimited rights is incapable of standing to adversity. If we do not wish to be ruled by a coercive authority, then each of us must rein himself in…A stable society is achieved not by balancing opposing forces but by conscious self-limitation: by the principle that we are always duty-bound to defer to the sense of moral justice.”
Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, Rebuilding Russia: Reflections and Tentative Proposals

Let us take note of Solzhenitsyn’s closing words here: “… the global media is in the hands of [Bolshevism]”, the same perpetrators that wrought such terrible evil in Russia!

“The meaning of earthly existence lies not, as we have grown used to thinking, in prospering but in the development of the soul.”
Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, Cancer Ward

Thank you, God, for the life and work of Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

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5 Responses to From Marxism to Christianity Through Suffering – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008)

  1. Mary Salmond says:

    Thank you. I was planning to read Gulag. Now I know I must!


  2. Mary Anne says:

    Yes, thank you for him, God ……


  3. Crow says:

    Thank you for posting this – wonderful!


  4. johnhenrycn says:

    All these thank you(s). So little time in which to appreciate why. Can the earlier posters say what exactly it is about this piece which they found especially significant? Our American friend in Germany is always thanking an Abbot in New Mexico for his Lectio Divina sermons, and he too (our American friend) just offers effusive praise without saying why. Is politeness better than insight?

    This piece may be a good one (haven’t read it yet) but why comments that resemble genuflecting?


  5. johnhenrycn says:

    But I got a handwritten “Thank You” letter yesterday from a nun – so who am I to judge? She sent it to me for a book of Advent reflections I gave her – God With Us (not impossible but difficult to find on the internet). The return address on the envelope of the convent where she now resides:
    1921 Snake Road. Who says God does not have a sense of humour?


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