Friday, 20 October 2017

"Bless You, Prison, For Having Been My Life"

Authentic Voices Which Heal

Life in the Soviet Gulags was so divorced from ordinary human existence that those outside could not comprehend or even imagine the evils within.  Those within could not hope that any outsider would possibly understand, despite the many hundreds of Gulag memoirs which were written by prisoners.

When he was eventually released, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn taught for a time in a school--and, more importantly, he began to write about the camps.  What was most unusual, however, is that his early novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was published and printed in the Soviet Union in 1962 whilst Khrushchev was in dictator (for reasons which are not clear).  Its plot was simple: it recorded an ordinary day in the life of an ordinary prisoner in the Gulag.

Applebaum explains what was so different about Ivan Denisovich:

"It" directly described life in the camps, a subject which had not, until then, been discussed in public.  At the same time, Solzhenitsyn's style--particularly his use of camp slang--and his descriptions of the dullness and unpleasantness of prison life, made a stunning contrast to the usual empty, phoney fiction then being published.  [Anne Applebaum, Gulag: A History of the Soviet Camps (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), p. 467.]
She records the impact of the novel within the camps themselves (it was published in November issue of the magazine, Novyi Mir). It was read by former prisoners.  Eventually, it found its way into some of the camps themselves.  Appelbaum first makes mention of the reaction of the former prisoners who read it:
. . . they were overjoyed to read something which actually reflected their own feelings and experience.  People afraid to breathe a word of their experiences to the closest friends suddenly felt a sense of release.  One woman wrote to describe her reaction: "My face was smothered in tears.  I didn't wipe them away because all this, packed into a small number of pages of the magazine, was mine, intimately mine, for every day of the fifteen years I spent in the camps."

Another letter addressed Solzhenitsyn, "Dear friend, comrade and brother . . . . Reading your story I remembered Sivaya Maska and Vorkuta . . . the frosts and blizzards, the insults and humiliations . . . I wept as I read--they were all familiar characters, as if from my own brigade. . . . Thank you once more!  Please carry on in the same spirit--write, write . . . " [Ibid., p.469.]
Months and months later Denisovich came into the hands of prisoners in the camps.
Finally the zeks got hold of a copy and held a group reading.  Sitko remembered that prisoners listened without breathing:
After they read the last word, there was a deathly silence.  Then, after two, three minutes, the room detonated.  Everyone had lived the story in his own, painful way . . . in the cloud of tobacco smoke, they discussed endlessly . . . And frequently, more and more frequently, they asked: "Why did they publish it?" [Ibid. Emphasis, ours.]
Reading these reactions helps explain why "Truth and Reconciliation" processes and Commissions have proved to be effective in enabling peoples and nations to "move on", as the saying goes.  The key, of course, is whether the voices are able to be authentic, capturing realistically the horrors and injustices.  Fobbing off never heals; it only adds to the hurt, brokenness and bitterness.

Solzhenitsyn had become a Christian in the camps.  Doubtless the removal of bitterness from his own soul and the healing of Christ Himself had facilitated his ability to write honestly and dispassionately,  without rancor.  This, in turn, would have helped the zeks to respond in a similar way.

[Solzhenitsyn's account of his conversion in the camps is itself a remarkable story.  It is told here.  Particularly striking is the following profession:
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 my life!"]

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