Why Alexander Solzhenitsyn Motivates Me as a Writer, and Why He Should Motivate You
Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn (11 December 1918–3 August 2008) was a Soviet Red Army Captain in World War II, a Russian novelist, historian, and a short story writer. After he was incarcerated for voicing minor dissent about Soviet military strategy against the Nazis while he was an artillery officer, he became an outspoken critic of the Soviet Union and Communism, and was one of the first people to raise global awareness of its Gulag forced labor camp system. The Soviet government — under Nikita Khrushchev— allowed him to publish only one work in the Soviet Union, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962). After Khrushchev was deposed, and a more conservative Politburo took power, he had to publish his work in the West, most notably Cancer Ward (1968), August 1914 (1971), and The Gulag Archipelago (1973). Solzhenitsyn was awarded the 1970 Nobel Prize in Literature “for the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature.” He was eventually expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974, but returned to Russia in 1994 after the Soviet Union’s collapse.
I studied Alexander Solzhenitsyn in my undergraduate program, both in literature and political science classes. Put it this way. The most succinct description of this guy is he was a devout Communist and — by all accounts — an outstanding Red Army artillery officer during WW II, who was arrested for “crimes against the state” for minor criticism of military strategy while he was on the front lines against the Germans.
They sent him back to Moscow where he was “convicted” and initially sentenced to 8 years in prison, then released and sent into “internal exile” in Kazakhstan. He would spend the rest of the Soviet Empire’s life philosophically dismantling the Soviet state, with works like One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Cancer Ward, and The Gulag Archipelago. He would eventually outlive the Soviet Union itself by 17 years.
But until today, I had never heard of one of his initial efforts, Dorozhen’ka, roughly translated, “The Trail.” It describes how Solzhenitsyn went from being a dyed-in-the-wool Communist to someone who became one of its most virulent opponents; as he recalled his military service against the Nazis and the atrocities committed in the name of the Soviet Empire, he wrote, “There is nothing that so 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?’”
“The Trail” is an autobiographical, epic poem, written between 1947 and 1952, of more than 7,000 lines, not published until 1999. Solzhenitsyn composed the poem under the worst of circumstances: as a prisoner of the Soviet state and without the benefit of pen and paper. That’s right; he “wrote” 7,000 lines IN HIS HEAD.
As he composed the poem, he memorized it using techniques memorably described in the third volume of The Gulag Archipelago. Utilizing a specially devised rosary as a mnemonic device, Solzhenitsyn accumulated 12,000 lines of verse during his time in a Special (Labor) Camp. This remarkable feat of memorization was a heroic effort on Solzhenitsyn’s part to hold on to those experiences that crucially shaped him in the years leading up to his arrest and incarceration in February 1945.
Only a few portions of “The Trail” have been translated into English, yet those passages unsparingly describe in stark and brutal detail the horrors of war, and they do it while somehow retaining some semblance of meter and rhyming —after being translated into English (I have no idea how he accomplished that).
Consider that this was “written” and remembered in the writer’s head, over a period of 5 years (a few of the 7,000 lines follow):
“Rough, that bridgehead at Yurkovichi-Sherstin.
Many boys we left there in its wake,
Near its aspen saplings quickly felled,
Near its houses, laid to utter waste.
Mines would rip our only bridge, our only flimsy
Artery. . . .
Every day we straightened and attacked full-bore
Only to dank burrows to retreat.
In the dark of autumn night, cut off from our army,
We were beaten, pushed, and pressured into that black river —
Operation to expand the bridgehead! —
Who can understand your anguish and your fear?
All the land lies open, dead, disfigured, torn in craters . . .
All’s dug up, all, all that can be dug,
There’s no log, no stump, no rounded scrap of wood
To close up the trench, above your head.
Day and night they pound, they pound, they pound
Our human mass,
And not one stray missile will lie down and
Pass. . . .
Ashen, pallid faces in red clay;
Ground’s too wet — our shovels cannot shape it.
Trapped here! What a sorry, wretched piece of turf,
Little more than one square mile of earth.
We are pecked and pecked from planes above,
We’re cut down, cut down by heavy mortars,
When the sixes hiss and hiss, the squeakers bark and bark —
Hug the ground! These, too, are aimed at us! . . .
Day and night our sappers patch the bridge,
And our signalmen in water catch their cables
While the Germans pour it, pour it on the bridge,
And there trickles from the bridge a pinkish water. . . .
Once the lines are patched, then from the Mainland
Pour and pour all cuss words known to man:
“Are ya stuck, ya
No-good mucking sacks?
Every single officer and soldier
MUST! A!! — TTACK!!!”
Not bad for a dude who didn’t have a pen or paper for five years.
This is a man who, in The Gulag Archipelago, writing from his own experience in prison, crafted one of the most prescient and accurate passages of 20th century literature, which is as important and relevant today as ever:
“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.”
Regardless our political affiliations or beliefs, we would all do well to heed his warning.