Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, Essence and hów you live


I have read the Gulag Archipelago by Solzhenitsyn. It’s about the camps in communist USSR. It was very interesting, the horror meted out in meticulous detail, even though I read the abridged version of 500 pages instead of the original three-volume 1900 pages version. I recommend reading it.

The most interesting part for me was part IV “The Soul and Barbed Wire” though, where he describes what all this misery does to your soul, and then in particular chapter 1, where he describes the ascent of your soul in camp. So I made a detailed summary of part IV and a schematic summary of chapter 1.

Essence, not life; how to live, not the result

The red line I distilled from the first chapter is: you are in camp, and have loads of time to think, but about what, since you are not guilty? Because you are not guilty you get determined to survive, at first with the thought “at any price”. “At any price” means “at the price of someone else”. At this point the big fork, the big choice in camp life lies before you: Do you want to lose your conscience or your life? In this life it is the essence that counts, not life; it is how you live that counts, and not the result. If you make that choice by reconciling yourself with hard work, hunger and death, you become forgiving, merciful and mild; and you become proud and independent of what the bosses want to do to you.

In chapter two there are two examples:

Aunt Dusya Chmil. Guard: “Chmil, what is your article?” Chmil: “What term! … Till God forgives my sins – till then I’ll be serving time.” The Christians died most certainly, but they were not corrupted. Those who managed to see that things were not only bad for them, but even worse, even harder, for the neighbors.

Grigoryev. To guard: “I find it quite repulsive to talk to you. You will find many willing without me.” Guard: “You bastard, you crawl on all fours.” He left simply because he refused to wash the socks of the free bachelor construction supervisor. How many times did he select the worst and hardest lot, just so as to not to have to offend against conscience. Because of the astounding influence on his body of his bright and spotless human spirit, the organism of Grigoryev grew stronger in the camp.

O yeah, I want to become forgiving, merciful, mild, and independent. So I should not care about life and achievements, but focus on how to live. OK, will do. ☺. No, I am serious.


There is also this very interesting part of Solzhenitsyn having a discussion with somebody named Kornfeld. One of the things to think about in the camp is: what bad did you do in your life? Not according to the law, but according your own conscience. Kornfeld was of the opinion that no punishment was undeserved.

This was the first time that I sort of understood the Christian notion of “everybody is born into sin” and how that helps you. In a way it is true, I do many things I do bad or want to do better. On the other hand, accepting that this is so, it might be easier to accept life as it is, including the harsher realities.

Good and evil

The line of good and evil does not go through states, parties or classes. The line of good and evil goes through every human heart.

So there are no good and bad people. People take actions and you always need to look at the action to define whether it is good or bad. And you always need to look at your own actions as good or bad. That is – with yourself – where it starts.

This might be the answer to why having to study the bad. The bad is in you. It’s a personal thing to make the right decision.

De twintigste eeuw: onzekerheid en individualiteit

Ik heb “Vreemder dan je je kunt voorstellen, een alternatieve geschiedenis van de twintigste eeuw” van John Higgs gelezen. Ik vind het een slechte titel, maar een goed boek. Het is heel leuk om aan de hand van allerlei sleutelfiguren door zoveel aspecten van de twintigste eeuw geleid te worden. Knap werk.

Ik heb een beetje slordig uittreksel gemaakt en geprobeerd een rode lijn te vinden in wat de twintigste eeuw nou karakteriseert. Ik kom op twee rode lijnen: 1) geen zekerheid en 2) individualisme.

In de twintigste eeuw is alle zekerheid gaan schuiven. Er is geen centraal punt meer waar alles om draait, vanuit waar zaken bekeken worden of die de waarheid vertegenwoordigen. Alles kan gerelativeerd worden. Natuurkundige wetten blijken ook onzekerheid of een zekere mate van onvoorspelbaarheid in zich te dragen. De wereld word door een deel van de mensheid als absurd en betekenisloos beschouwd. Er is een continue vernieuwing gaande die doel op zich is geworden.

En het individu is heel belangrijk geworden. Het gaat veel meer om “ik wil” en “ik voel”, gekoppeld aan de “ik wil geld”. Bedrijven zijn moeilijk te verantwoording te roepen en bestaan om te groeien zodat er meer geld voor de aandeelhouders wordt verdient. Wat die groei voor het niet-economische deel van de wereld betekent wordt niet beheerst.

Nou ja, nogal zwart/wit natuurlijk, en beperkt. Sorry daarvoor.

Het boek eindigt met een halleluja conclusie dat het met het internet en de sociale netwerken die daardoor ontstaan allemaal goed komt. Dus dat is goed nieuws ;-).