Climbing up in slow spirals to an understanding of life…


“One word of truth shall outweigh the whole world.”  Nothing summarizes the life and work of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn better than this Russian proverb, which he included in the speech he wrote on receiving the 1970 Nobel Prize for Literature.  But Solzhenitsyn was unable to go to Stockholm to receive the prize—he was afraid he would not be allowed back into his homeland, the Soviet Union.  Instead, the speech was delivered in writing to the Swedish Academy.


Although raised in a religious home, young Solzhenitsyn became a committed Marxist-Leninist by his late teens.  He attended university, majoring in physics and mathematics, and then joined the army.  Here, he ran into trouble with Soviet authorities because of a rather innocuous comment about Joseph Stalin in a letter to a friend.  Eight years in labor camps followed, even though he was still a loyal Communist.


When his prison sentence was completed in 1953, Solzhenitsyn was sentenced to internal exile in Kazakhstan.  The harsh and barely-human existence of the labor camps and the difficult years of exile dissolved his Communist loyalties.  He began to write about the brutality of the Soviet prison system, and he returned to the faith of his childhood.


A crucial element in Solzhenitsyn’s writing is what he called “the ascent”—“a climbing up in slow spirals to an understanding of life.” 


And as soon as you have renounced that aim of ‘surviving at any price’ and gone where the calm and simple people go—then imprisonment begins to transform your former character in an astonishing way. To transform it in a direction most unexpected to you.

And it would seem that in this situation, feelings of malice, the disturbance of being oppressed, aimless hate, irritability, and nervousness ought to multiply. But you yourself do not notice how, with the impalpable flow of time, slavery nurtures in you the shoots of contradictory feelings.

Once upon a time you were sharply intolerant. You were constantly in a rush. And you were constantly short of time. And now you have time with interest. You are surfeited with it, with its months and its years, behind you and ahead of you—and a beneficial calming fluid pours through your blood vessels—patience.

You are ascending…

Formerly you never forgave anyone. You judged people without mercy. And you praised people with equal lack of moderation. And now an understanding mildness has become the basis of your un-categorical judgments. You have come to realize your own weakness—and you can therefore understand the weakness of others. And be astonished at another’s strength. And wish to possess it yourself.

The stones rustle beneath our feet. We are ascending….

With the year, armor-plated restraint covers your heart and all your skin. You do not hasten to question and you do not hasten to answer. Your tongue has lost its flexible capability for easy oscillation. Your eyes do not flash over with gladness over good tidings, nor do they darken with grief.

For you still have to verify whether that’s how it is going to be. And you also have to work out—what is gladness and what is grief.

And now the rule of your life is this: Do not rejoice when you have found, do not weep when you have lost.

Your soul, which formerly was dry, now ripens with suffering.

And even if you haven’t come to love your neighbors in the Christian sense, you are at least learning to love those close to you. …



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 beneficial now turned out in actuality to be fatal, and I had been striving to go in the opposite direction to that 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 on to 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 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. And it was only when I lay there rotting on 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. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains … an unuprooted small corner of evil. …


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 Ascent,” an excerpt from The Gulag Archipelago (Part IV, Chapter 1), is included in The Solzhenitsyn Reader, edited by Edward E. Ericson, Jr. and Daniel J. Mahoney (ISI Books, 2006).  For an excellent overview of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s life and work, see Edward Ericson’s “The Enduring Achievement of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn,” a lecture published in Ave Maria Law Review (2007).



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