Solzhenitsyn and the recognition of evil
Rosh Hashanah bids us to imagine a world in which Hashem's sovereignty is firmly established, a world from which all evil has been banished. That exercise is a challenge for most of us, for the world we would contemplate seems so far from the one that we know.
But we can contemplate a world that is the opposite of the ideal — one in which every effort has been made to exile awareness of Hashem from the human heart — and by focusing on that evil, arouse our desire for a world filled with knowledge of Hashem. Precisely such a goal of extirpating any connection to Hashem was at the heart of both the Nazi and Bolshevik regimes.
Few have looked so resolutely into the face of evil as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a prisoner in the Soviet Gulag for seven years and the greatest chronicler of Stalin's state terrorism. Solzhenitsyn's experiences and their impact upon him are the subject of a brilliant essay by Gary Saul Morson, "How the Great Truth Dawned," in the current issue of The New Criterion.
The Czarist regime, at the height of its battle with revolutionary forces between 1905 and 1908, executed about 45 prisoners per month (fewer than the number of Czarist officials killed by the revolutionary forces) — or approximately 2,200 over a four-year period. Torture of prisoners to extract confessions was rare. Nor were families of those accused punished.
In comparison, from 1917 to 1953, the Soviets murdered 2,200 human beings on an average day. As Stalin once remarked dryly, "The death of a single person is a tragedy; the death of a million, a statistic." The most horrible tortures imaginable were routinely applied. Lenin famously advocated arbitrary executions of innocent people as a means of keeping the population terrified and submissive, and Stalin followed that advice in setting quotas for executions and arrests.
Of life under Stalin, Solzhenitsyn once commented that had the characters in the plays of Anton Chekhov, who are always speculating on what the future holds 40 years hence, had a glimpse of life under the Bolsheviks, they would have checked into mental hospitals immediately.
As with the Nazis, ym"sh, ideology made possible the murder of millions by the Bolsheviks, and specifically an ideology designed to uproot all traditional morality associated with religion. "To do evil," Solzhenitsyn pointed out, "a human being must first of all believe that what he is doing is good.... It is the nature of a human being to seek justification for his actions."
Morson describes the pull of ideology, as it emerges from Solzhenitsyn's writing: a theory that provides a sense of one's moral superiority for being on the right side, that purports to explain everything, and which makes a high principle of the refusal to consider the point of view of one's opponents or victims.
Shakespearean villains, like Iago and Macbeth, never murdered more than a handful and remained fully aware that they were doing evil. The Bolsheviks, by contrast, justified the deaths of millions in terms of an ideology of scientific materialism that allowed the executioners to look in the mirror convinced that they were acting in accord with iron laws of history. In comparison to an infinite future of a Soviet paradise of perfected people, what were a few deaths, even the deaths of every living human being?
Both the Nazis and the Bolsheviks defined their enemies in terms of group identity rather than individual deeds. For the Nazis it was the Jews; for the Soviets, the bourgeoisie or the wealthier peasants (kulaks). Every interrogation began with group identity. "We are never closer to evil," wrote Solzhenitsyn, "than when we think that the line between good and evil passes between groups and not through every human heart."
Bolshevik ethics — and this is crucial — began and ended with atheism, Morson emphasizes. "We reject any ethics based on G-d's commandments, abstract principles, timeless values, universal rights," said Lenin. Concepts such as the sanctity of life, he proclaimed, are anathema to the scientific materialist, as nothing but religion in disguise.
Why, for instance, did the Bolsheviks extract confessions from every prisoner, employing the cruelest forms of torture? Except for a handful of show trials, those confessions were never used or made public. And the jailers could have just shot the prisoners with impunity. Rather, the point of the torture was to uproot from the torturers their instinctive compassion. Mercy, kindness, compassion — these were explicitly anti-Soviet traits. Only the good of the Party, as the vehicle of the proletarian class struggle, counted.
In response to the atheism of the Bolsheviks, many Russians began to look for absolute standards of right and wrong. Solzhenitsyn's writing is filled with such "conversion" stories. Each prisoner would face, at some point, the challenge of surviving at any cost — e.g., by stealing food or shoes from a weaker prisoner. And even the atheists in the camps were forced to admit that the only ones who successfully resisted the temptation were the believers.
The decisive moment for Solzhenitsyn in the camps was a conversation with a pale Jewish prisoner, Boris Gammerov. Solzhenitsyn asked him, "Do you believe in G-d?" Gammerov responded tranquilly, "Of course." At that moment "the great truth dawned" that all he had been taught about nothing existing beyond the laws of nature was false, and that it is the life of the spirit that counts. For the knowledge that the struggle with evil is within every human being, the years in prison were worth it.
When he was expelled from the Soviet Union, Solzhenitsyn was originally hailed as a hero. But soon he began to make Western intellectuals profoundly uneasy. He, in turn, was filled with contempt for all those in the West who insisted that life is about nothing but the pursuit of human happiness and their "trivializing of human nature to the notion that man is at the center of all that exists, and that there is no Higher Power above him." Western intellectuals, he wrote, found it somehow impolite to refer to "evil" without irony.
Long before group identity politics had come to dominate the political thought of Western intellectuals, and the tolerance for the legitimacy of different opinions had become suspect, Solzhenitsyn saw in the irreligious humanism of the Western world a close cousin of Communism under the Bolsheviks. And that kinship explained the longstanding sympathy of Western intellectuals for Communism.
May the great truth that dawned on Solzhenitsyn in the prison camps similarly dawn on all of us until we can fully envision a world in which fear of Hashem reigns over all that He has created, and as a consequence "iniquity will close its mouth and all wickedness will evaporate like smokes, when [Hashem] will remove evil's dominion from the earth."