“…but at what price”

These days, one Curt’s research interests is resurrection as a Russian cultural theme. Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Tolstoy, Berdayev, et al. are the obvious starting points of such an investigation, but the interesting question is whether and to what extent resurrection, despite its Christian heritage, survived (and maybe even informed?) the Communist revolution/regime as a viable and relevant idea and if it influences Russian culture even to this day (this is, obviously, a simplistic summary on my part).

Given that I’ve been reading The Gulag Archipelago, Vol. II recently, it was inevitable that I would come across some citations that I (perhaps presumptuously) thought might be relevant; that led to an email exchange that I think is interesting more generally (and might, perhaps, inspire some interesting discussion in the comments), so I’ve unilaterally decided to reproduce it here.


The guy Solzhenitsyn mentions that I told you about is Mikhailovsky. Apparently he was crazy, but still gained some fame for a while. The relevant citation is from THE GULAG ARCHIPELAGO, Part III Chapter 10 (pg. 311 in Vol. II of the Westview edition):

It is worth noting how they got rid of him [Valentin Feliksovich Voino-Yasenetsky]. He had been sent to his second exile (in Archangel in 1930) not as a 58, but “for inciting to murder.” (This was a nonsensical story, according to which he had brought influence to bear on the wife and mother-in-law of the physiologist Mikhailovsky who committed suicide–and who, when already insane, had been engaged in injecting into corpses solutions which had allegedly stopped the disintegration of tissue, about which the newspapers had made a big to-do as a “triumph of Soviet science” and artificial “resurrection.”)

Also, check out Part III Chapter 19 (Vol. II pgs. 523-4 of the Westview edition):

An ancient example of native [i.e. natives of the Zek Nation, that is, prisoners of Gulag] trustfulness was the hope placed in Gorky’s arrival on Solovki. But there isn’t any need to go that far back. There is an almost permanent and almost universal religion in the Archipelago; this is the faith in the so-called Amnesty. It is difficult to explain just what this is. It is not the name of a goddess, as the reader might have thought. It is something akin to the Second Coming among Christian peoples, it is a burst of such blinding radiance that the ice of the Archipelago will melt and even the islands themselves will dissolve, and all the natives will be swept on warm waves to sunny regions where they will immediately find their nearest and most beloved. Probably this is a somewhat transformed faith in the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. This faith, which has never yet been confirmed by one single real miracle, is nonetheless very much alive and persistent. And just as other peoples connect their important rituals with the winter and summer solstices, so, too, the zeks mystically await (always in vain) the first days of November and May. If a south wind blows on the Archipelago, they will immediately whisper from ear to ear: “There’s bound to be an amnesty! It is already under way!” And when the winter winds set in in earnest, the zeks warm their numbed fingers by breathing on them, rub their ears, stamp up and down, and encourage one another. “That means there will be an amnesty. Otherwise we’ll freeze to ——! [Here there is an untranslatable expression.] Evidently it’s going to come now.”

The harmfulness of every religion has long since been demonstrated and proved–and we see the same thing here too. These beliefs in Amnesty seriously weaken the natives, inducing in them an uncharacteristic state of dreaminess, and there are periods of epidemic when necessary and urgent government work quite literally falls from the zeks’ hands–which, practically speaking, is the same effect as that produced by the opposite kind of rumor about ‘prisoner transports.’ For everyday construction work it is much more advantageous for the natives not to experience any ups and downs of feeling.

And the zeks also suffer from a certain national weakness, which in some incomprehensible fashion they retain despite the whole structure of their life. This is their secret thirst for justice.

(note Solzhenitsyn’s incredibly dark, if not quite cynical, sense of humor that comes through in this passage, as well as the implicit juxtaposition of the zek belief in rebirth via Amnesty with his own beliefs in a sort of Stoic spiritual regeneration. It’s also interesting that he goes on from here to cite Chekhov. In the above, all words between asterisks were italicized in the original; the first set of brackets is mine, the second is, presumably, the translator’s.)

Not sure how useful that will be for you, but it seemed like it might be relevant, so I figured I’d send it along.



Ah, thanks for sending this to me, although one doesn’t get the sense from these passages that Solzhenitsyn exactly condones mysticism. Maybe he’s drifted since then to a stronger embrace of Russian Orthodoxy. Actually, these passages remind me of another book, and one you might check out if you find any of these half as interesting as I do, called “W ou le souvenir d’enfance,” by Georges Perec, which I read last year in France (it’s available in English as “W or the memory of childhood”). I wrote about it on the website last year, and it’s a very interesting book, which juxtaposes random memories of childhood during the war with a description of a society that has created a quasi-Olympic culture based on the worship of athletic competition, which is gradually revealed to be…well, I won’t ruin the revelatory quality of the horrifying dénouement, which is remarkable even though you see it coming from a mile away. Suffice to say, definitely parallels the gulag prisoners’ belief in “amnesty.” The book is a bit too rigidly structured, and some of the ruminations are tedious, but you should definitely check it out for the section on “W,” and it’s quite short. Most of Perec is maybe inaccessible in translation since he was a linguistic experimentalist (he once wrote an entire novel without using the letter “e”), but this one is quite easy I think. Anyway, thanks again, talk to you later,


Well, I’d say he’s certainly become more mystical since ’68, but there are definitely strains of mysticism even then. But you also have to keep in mind that his use of extremely dark sarcasm is practically omnipresent in THE GULAG ARCHIPELAGO. For example, when he says “The harmfulness of every religion has long since been demonstrated and proved…” he’s not being serious; unless I’m seriously misreading him, he’s parroting the Communist line to demonstrate its absurdity. Also, you have to read his thoughts on amnesty in the context of Part IV Chapter 1 (“The Ascent”), which presents the camp life as an opportunity for mental freedom and spiritual rebirth, provided that one does not accept the notion of life at any price. For example:

But it is a lie [the maxim that “the result is what counts”]! Here we have been breaking our backs for years at All-Union hard labor. Here in slow annual spirals we have been climbing up to an understanding of life–and from this height it can all be seen so clearly; It is not the result that counts! It is not the result–but the spirit! Not what–but how. Not what has been attained–but at what price.

(Vol. II, pg. 609 of Westlake edition)



True, but you could (and this is the reason I mentioned “W”) read this as evidence of the way that superstitious fatalism can imprison men far more effectively than any coercion. The prisoners, with their belief in “Amnesty,” put all their hopes upon the whim of the authorities. Maybe Solzhenitsyn sees an existential consolation in hope springing up without any foundation, but that position implicitly cedes to the authorities the same power and authority that the Greek gods had over Sisyphus. And that passivity is of course one of the major hallmarks of belief in resurrection. But anyway, thanks for the heads-up, talk to you later,


Maybe I’m misreading what you’re saying, but Solzhenitsyn doesn’t agree with the baseless hope in amnesty, either. To coin a phrase, he is (or, at least presents himself in GULAG as) a mystic realist. His perspective on the Gulag is that the prisoner will best serve himself by accepting what has happened, knowing that amnesty is a fantasy and that, most likely, he’ll be sentenced to a second term after the first is up. Within those bounds, however, he has the freedom to think and say more or less as he pleases, which is more than people “in freedom” can say, since they must constantly monitor their speech and even thoughts to avoid being reported to the authorities. That’s the realist part. The mystical part comes from Solzhenitsyn’s belief that a person who accepts that reality, who refuses to mortgage his conscience for more food, easier work or even his life and, most importantly, recognizes that, although he isn’t guilty of any valid crime against the state, he is not innocent of sin can achieve a sort of spiritual rebirth in the form of self-knowledge.

[Dr. Boris Nikolayevich Kornfeld’s last words before having his skull bashed in in a Gulag hospital bed early the next morning:] “And on the whole, do you know, I have become convinced that there is no punishment that comes to us in this life on earth which is undeserved. Superficially it can have nothing to do with what we are guilty of in actual fact, but if you go over your life with a fine-tooth comb and ponder it deeply, you will always be able to hunt down that transgression of yours for which you have now received this blow.”


And so it happened that Kornfeld’s prophetic words were his last words on earth. And, directed to me, they lay upon me as an inheritance. You cannot brush off that kind of inheritance by shrugging your shoulders.

But by that time I myself had matured to similar thoughts.

I would have been inclined to endow his words with the significance of a universal law of life. However, one can get all tangled up that way. One would have to admit that on that basis those who had been punished even more cruelly than with prison–those shot, burned at the stake–were some sort of super-evildoers. (And yet…the innocent are those who get punished moest zealously of all.) And what would one then have to say about our so evident torturers: Why does not fate punish them? Why do they prosper?

(And the only solution to this would be that the meaning of earthly existence lies not, as we have grown used to thinking, in prospering, but…in the development of the soul. From that point of view our torturers have been punished most horribly of all: they are turning into swine, they are departing downward from humanity. From that point of view punishment is inflicted on those whose development…holds out hope.)

But there was something in Kornfeld’s words that touched a sensitive chord, and that I accept quite completely for myself. And many will accept the same for themselves.

In the seventh year of my imprisonment I had gone over and re-examined my life quite enough and had come to understand why everything had happened to me: both prison and, as an additional piece of ballast, my malignant tumor. And I would not have murmured even if all that punishment had been considered inadequate.

Punishment? But…whose?

Well, just think about that–whose?

I lay there a long time in that recovery room from which Kornfeld had gone forth to his death, and all alone during sleepless nights I pondered with astonishment my own life and the turns it had taken. In accordance with my established camp custom I set down my thoughts in rhymed verse–so as to remember them. And the most accurate thing is to cite them here–just as they came from the pillow of a hospital patient, when the hard-labor camp was still shuddering outside the windows in the wake of a revolt.

When was it that I completely
Scattered the good seeds, one and all?
For after all I spent my boyhood
In the bright singing of Thy temples.

Bookish subtleties sparkled brightly,
Piercing my arrogant brain,
The secrets of the world were…in my grasp,
Life’s destiny…as pliable as wax.

Blood seethed–and every swirl
Gleamed iridescently before me,
Without a rumble the building of my faith
Quietly crumbled within my heart.

But passing here between being and nothingness,
Stumbling and clutching at the edge,
I look behind me with a grateful tremor
Upon the life that I have lived.

Not with good judgment nor with desire
Are its twists and turns illumined.
But with the even glow of the Higher Meaning
Which became apparent to me only later on.

And now with measureing cup returned to me,
Scooping up the living water,
God of the Universe! I believe again!
Though I renounced You, You were with me!

Looking back, I saw that for my whole conscious life I had not understood either myself or my strivings. What had seemed for so long to be beneficial now turned out in actuality to be fatal, and I had been striving to go in the opposite direction to taht which was truly necessary to me. But just as the waves of the sea knock the inexperienced swimmer off his feet and keep tossing him back onto the shore, so also was I painfully tossed back on dry land by the blows of misfortune. And it was only because of this that I was able to travel the path which I had always really wanted to travel.

It was granted 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 success 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. And 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 politial parties either–but right through every human heart–and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmend by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains…and unuprooted small corner of evil.

Since then I have come to understand the truth of all the religions of the world: They struggle with the evil inside a human being (inside every human being). It is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it within each person.

And since that time I have come to understand the falsehood of all the revolutions in history: They destroy only those carriers of evil contemporary with them (and also fail, out of haste, to discriminate the carriers of good as well). And they then take to themselves as their heritage the actual evil itself, magnified still more.

The Nuremberg Trials have to be regarded as one of the special achievements of the twentieth century: they killed the very idea of evil, though they killed very few of the people who had been infected with it. (Of course, Stalin deserves no credit here. He would have preferred to explain less and shoot more.) And if by the twenty-first century humanity has not yet blown itself up and has not suffocated itself–perhaps it is this direction that will triumph?

Yes, and if it does not triumph–then all humanity’s history will have turned out to be an empty exercise in marking time, without the tiniest mite of meaning! Whither and to what end will we otherwise be moving? To beat the enemy over the head with a club–even cavement knew that.

“Know thyself!” There is nothing that so aids and assists the awakening of omniscience within us as insistent thoughts about one’s own transgressions, errors, mistakes. After the difficult cycles of such ponderings over many years, whenever I mentioned the heartlessness of our highest-ranking bureaucrats, the cruelty of our executioners, I remember myself in my captain’s shoulder boards and the forward march of my battery through East Prussia, enshrouded in fire, and I say: “So were we any better?”

When people express vexation, in my presence, over the West’s tendency to crumble, its political shortsightedness, its divisiveness, its confusion–I recall too: “Were we, before passing through the Archipelago, more steadfast? Firmer in our thoughts?”

And 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!”

Lev Tolstoi was right when he dreamed of being put in prison. At a certain moment that giant began to dry up. He actually needed prison as a drought needs a shower of rain!

All the writers who wrote about prison but who did not themselves serve time there considered it their duty to express sympathy for prisoners and to curse 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!”

(And from beyond the grave come replies: It is very well for you to say that–when you came out of it alive!)”

(Part IV, Chapter I; Vol. II, pgs. 612-617 of Westlake edition)

Again, I may be misunderstanding you, but, if not, that should give you the basic idea,



No, I agree, but maybe this is just one of those misunderstandings that develop around certain words. For me, the process of self-regeneration that Solzhenitsyn is describing (and maybe what Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky had in mind as well) is practically the opposite of mysticism. It seems to me that mysticism, which my computer’s dictionary defines as the “belief that union with or absorbtion into the Diety or the absolute, or the spiritual apprehension of knowledge inaccessible to the intellect, may be attained through contemplation and self-surrender” is essentially superstitious, pretty much passive by definition. In mysticism the means of transformation are outside, in what Solzhenitsyn seems to have in mind they are inside.
It seems to me that what he is describing is almost stoic, existentialist (only think how similar his description of the prisoners’ sense of guilt resembles Kafka’s description in “The Trial”!), an internally motivated process, not self-surrender but rather self-creation. Maybe it is this diffusion into the metaphorical that has made the concept of resurrection so tenacious and, like Christianity itself, impossible to bring to a critical moment. In any case, in Solzhenitsyn, just as in Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, the idea of resurrection has become rationalized, or at least humanized. Anyway, later,

(note that somewhere along the way Westview became Westlake in my citations)

My response is that, given the definition of mysticism cited above, Solzhenitsyn is a mystic, as he does indeed believe that “spiritual knowledge…may be attained through contemplation and self-surrender.” The contemplation part is evident given what I’ve quoted above; the more controversial aspect of this contention is that self-surrender is a component of Solzhenitsyn’s “Ascent”. In fact, this probably boils down to which you think has temporal priority in Solzhenitsyn’s model: the zek’s acceptance of his punishment or his (more or less rational) re-examination of his life. I would tend to argue that neither has absolute priority over the other, but rather that the two are ongoing processes that operate in parallel and, therefore, that the re-examination Solzhenitsyn talks about requires that the zek has (at least to some extent) already started to accept his punishment.

Either way, though, there’s no doubt in my mind that what Solzhenitsyn’s talking about is primarily self-creation and so does contrast with the self-denying mysticism of, say, Saint John of the Cross. → 1. Though it’s important to note that even Saint John’s mysticism isn’t entirely passive; the “amada” still has to climb that “secreta escala disfrazada” on her own
2. Of course, to paraphrase the cliché, every act of creation is also an act of destruction, so one can’t entirely disentangle self-creation from self-denial
And I would also agree with the assertion that Solzhenitsyn’s version of mysticism (or spirituality, if you reject my self-surrender argument) is a rationalized and almost stoical variant (and, hence, his conception of resurrection is also rationalized).

One Response to ““…but at what price””

  1. Curt Says:

    I don’t know, I would say that acceptance of punishment is not self-surrender but rather surrender of everything outside the self, but it would seem that we agree on the essentials at any rate.

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