The power of one
By Michael M. Bates
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who passed away last week, meticulously documented Communist oppression in his books. The subject was one with which he was all too familiar.
In the final days of World War II, he wrote critically of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin in a letter to a friend. Describing the mass murderer as "the man with the mustache," he received an eight-year prison sentence for the impertinence.
Such was life in the Soviet Union. Secret police, neighborhood spies, knocks on the door in the middle of the night, false charges, clandestine tribunals, show trials, and long-term incarceration in an extensive prison and work camp structure named by Solzhenitsyn the Gulag Archipelago were all too real. The author estimated that 60 million people were swallowed up in the system.
In achingly specific detail, he chronicled it all. One incident included in the first book of his exhaustive Gulag Archipelago trilogy still remains with me more than three decades after reading it.
The scene is a Moscow Province district meeting of the Communist Party. Presiding is a new committee secretary, having just assumed the position after his predecessor had been arrested.
At meeting's end, the new secretary calls for a tribute to Comrade Stalin. Everyone rises and zealously applauds. It's an ovation that won't end, mainly because no one wants to be the first to stop clapping. After all, his loyalty might be challenged. Solzhenitsyn writes of the director of a local paper factory:
"Aware of all the falsity and all the impossibility of the situation, he still kept on applauding! Nine minutes! Ten! In anguish he watched the secretary of the District Party Committee, but the latter dared not stop. Insanity! To the last man! With make-believe enthusiasm on their faces, looking at each other with faint hope, the district leaders were just going to go on and on applauding till they fell where they stood, till they were carried out of the hall on stretchers! And even then those who were left would not falter. . . . Then, after eleven minutes, the director of the paper factory assumed a businesslike expression and sat down in his seat. And, oh, a miracle took place! Where had the universal, uninhibited, indescribable enthusiasm gone? To a man, everyone else stopped dead and sat down. They had been saved! The squirrel had been smart enough to jump off his revolving wheel.
"That, however, was how they discovered who the independent people were. And that was how they went about eliminating them. That same night the factory director was arrested. They easily pasted ten years on him on the pretext of something quite different. But after he had signed Form 206, the final document of the interrogation, his interrogator reminded him: "Don't ever be the first to stop applauding!"
Writing like that could have put him back in prison or worse. Instead, Soviet authorities did something that, to Solzhenitsyn, may have been even more punishing: They deported him from his beloved Russia.
The author then lived in Vermont for almost 20 years. The Solzhenitsyn family learned that liberals here have their own forms of political exile. In 2004, one of Solzhenitsyn's sons told the New York Times of what happened to him and his brothers in a private school the day after Ronald Reagan was elected president.
The school placed its flag at half-staff and held an assembly. There the headmaster lamented "'what America would become once the dark night of fascism descended under the B-movie actor." Asking the student body if it concurred, only three boys expressed dissent, the sons of Solzhenitsyn. On that November day, they were sent outside without coats for an hour to reflect on the error of their ways.
Years later, when the B-movie actor passed away, National Review quoted Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn:
"In July 1975, I concluded my remarks in the reception room of the U.S. Senate with these words: ‘Very soon, all too soon, your government will need not just extraordinary men - but men of greatness. Find them in your souls. Find them in your hearts. Find them within the breadth and depth of your homeland.' Five years later, I was overjoyed when just such a man came to the White House. May the soft earth be a cushion in his present rest."
Solzhenitsyn was a man of deep faith. One who had personally experienced and so concentrated on the horrors of totalitarianism would need a deep faith to survive. He said that as a child he'd asked his elders why so many terrible things had happened in his country and their answer was it was because men had forgotten God.
Then he said that if he were asked to what he attributed the Soviet terrors taking place in his own lifetime, he could do no better than to say it was because men had forgotten God.
The writer was critical of the West in general and the United States in particular. He expressed alarm over the erosion or moral and ethical ideals and the focus on materialism.
Solzhenitsyn served as an eyewitness to history during one of its most repulsively merciless epochs. He didn't recoil from the experience. Speaking for the millions who could no longer speak, he showed that a single person can help to change the world.
May the soft earth be a cushion in his present rest.
This Mike Bates column appeared in the August 7, 2008 Reporter Newspapers.
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