When somebody says “poetic justice,” what that really means is the kind of justice dished out by poets. In which case, you’d better hope the poet’s a person like Dante or T. S. Eliot, and not some maniac like Marinetti (who wanted to burn Italy’s libraries and museums, then start culture from scratch), or a nattering pedophile like “Scream” author Allen Ginsberg (who held, essentially, that one’s sex life begins at conception).
In the Inferno, Dante placed two men who betrayed their benefactors frozen side-by-side in the ice — the bloody-minded Archbishop Ruggieri and the equally treacherous soldier Count Ugolino. Since Ruggieri tricked Ugolino into surrendering, then imprisoned and starved him to death, Ugolino spends eternity chewing his enemy’s neck. Now that, my friends, is justice.
It’s a little dicier dealing out such rough justice when pairing off sinners and saints, since a holy soul isn’t likely to spend his eternity slumming in hell, dishing out fitting punishments to the monsters who tortured him on earth. One shouldn’t picture Thomas More sitting at a blazing fire, where King Henry VIII turns on a spit with an apple in his mouth, basting the king with honey-mustard sauce. (Although now, of course, you’re going to.) Not even St. Lawrence, who kidded the Romans as they roasted him alive, seems likely to take up such a pastime — although, let’s be fair, he is the patron saint of chefs.
The saints have better things to do, and we probably shouldn’t listen to rigorists such as Tertullian, who gloated that the Christians who died in the Colosseum would chuckle up in Heaven at the endless torments of their persecutors. Tertullian died a heretic, by the way — but I won’t gloat.
Still, it is right and just to counterpoise Josef Stalin, exemplar of Wrath, with his victim Alexander Solzhenitsyn as a paragon of the opposite virtue, Patience. A decorated war hero in the Red Army that beat back Hitler’s genocidal invasion of Russia, Solzhenitsyn ran afoul of the Soviet tyrant by writing a letter to a friend in which he criticized Stalin’s moustache.
Okay, Solzhenitsyn also said a thing or two about Stalin’s conduct of World War II, which the Russians nearly lost thanks to Uncle Joe’s secret crush on Adolf Hitler, who would never, never think of invading the Soviet Union — despite those hundreds of speeches where Hitler promised:
- to wipe out Bolshevism;
- to ethnically cleanse the whole of Russia west of the Urals; and
- to colonize the country with blond German warlords who’d “breed” with entire harems to repopulate the countryside with Aryans.
That was all intended ironically, Stalin insisted. There was no reason whatsoever in 1939 to prepare for the German Blitzkrieg, which Soviet spies and ordinary journalists constantly warned was coming. (Stalin actually executed Russian agents for reporting on German troop build-ups.) Which explains why the Germans captured most of European Russia in just a few weeks.
Having seen his friends butchered in combat, or taken prisoner by the Germans and then, at war’s end, sent to labor camps in Siberia for “treason,” Solzhenitsyn sent a single imprudent letter — and for that crime he was tortured and then sentenced to eight years in a labor camp and “internal exile” for life. During that exile, he contracted cancer and nearly died in a third-rate Soviet hospital. But along the way, in the years he spent chopping wood barefoot in the snow, living on fish-head soup, and witnessing brutal beatings of helpless prisoners by soldiers of “progress” and “liberation,” Solzhenitsyn re-discovered his childhood Christian faith.
In the major works he composed on scraps of paper while still in prison, or secretly, under surveillance, after his release, Solzhenitsyn depicts in stark and shocking prose the brutalities that attend upon Utopia. More importantly, he pictures the simple acts of faith, hope, and charity that ordinary “zeks” (political prisoners) performed for one another, to affirm their human dignity in the midst of a man-made hell. Nor does Solzhenitsyn give vent to righteous anger; he figures forth the guards and even commanders as fully human, with admixed motives, driven in part by ideology, partly by power hunger and greed, but most of the time by fear. They were, in their own way, victims of the Terror by which they reigned. Solzhenitsyn even reflects on his own part in advancing Stalin’s power: “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?’”
Despite, or in part because of, all his suffering, Solzhenitsyn crafted novels that will endure as literary masterworks. The First Circle sketches a milder part of the Gulag, which the Soviets ran to exploit the talents of convicts with scientific training. It includes a brilliant foray into the mind of an aging Stalin, who wonders foggily what became of the “Old Russia” of his youth. What happened to all the peasants and the priests, the dying tyrant mutters. Why is everyone around me such a sniveling, cringing coward? Solzhenitsyn has too much artistic restraint to offer the answer: Because all the bravest, most faithful people have been locked away in camps.
Cancer Ward sketches out Solzhenitsyn’s tentative gropings back toward faith; the unjustly neglected novel Lenin in Zurich explores in clinical detail the soul of one aspiring tyrant; while in his massive, multivolume historical novel of Russia, The Red Wheel, Solzhenitsyn seeks to explain how “Holy Russia” could fall into the hands of deluded ideologues. His answer is stark: the cynical stupidity of Tsarist bureaucrats, fueled by and feeding the irresponsible fantasies of intellectuals.
But Solzhenitsyn will always be best remembered for The Gulag Archipelago, which documents the lives and deaths of the millions who suffered in slave camps and whose very existence was doubted for decades by “fellow travelers” in the West. Its appearance in 1973 made Solzhenitsyn’s life in Russia almost impossible, and he was forced into exile in 1974.
It was in the West that Solzhenitsyn had to learn another side of Patience. First hailed by liberal anti- (and ex-) Communists, Solzhenitsyn soon became the target of their barbs. He sought for Russia a rebirth of Christian faith and traditional patriotism and didn’t look to the secular, childless West as a moral model. This made him, in the eyes of recent converts from some form of Marxism, a dangerous reactionary — even, some assert without real evidence, an anti-Semite. His books began to fall out of print; one volume of The Red Wheel, last time I checked, had still not been translated into English. But Solzhenitsyn’s reputation really began to darken in Western eyes when he made his infamous, prophetic speech at Harvard in 1978.
Trying to make friends with the media, he said:
Destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space. Society appears to have little defense against the abyss of human decadence, such as, for example, misuse of liberty for moral violence against young people, motion pictures full of pornography, crime and horror. It is considered to be part of freedom. . . .
Hastiness and superficiality are the psychic disease of the 20th century and more than anywhere else this disease is reflected in the press. . . . Without any censorship, in the West fashionable trends of thought and ideas are carefully separated from those which are not fashionable; nothing is forbidden, but what is not fashionable will hardly ever find its way into periodicals or books or be heard in colleges.
Next he celebrated Western consumerism:
The majority of people have been granted well-being to an extent their fathers and grandfathers could not even dream about; it has become possible to raise young people according to these ideals, leading them to physical splendor, happiness, possession of material goods, money and leisure, to an almost unlimited freedom of enjoyment.
So who should now renounce all this, why and for what should one risk one’s precious life in defense of common values, and particularly in such nebulous cases when the security of one’s nation must be defended in a distant country? . . . Even biology knows that habitual extreme safety and well-being are not advantageous for a living organism.
To those who believed that all Russia needed was to emulate America’s free markets and democracy, he answered:
In American democracy at the time of its birth, all individual human rights were granted because man is God’s creature. That is, freedom was given to the individual conditionally, in the assumption of his constant religious responsibility. Such was the heritage of the preceding thousand years. Two hundred or even fifty years ago, it would have seemed quite impossible, in America, that an individual could be granted boundless freedom simply for the satisfaction of his instincts or whims.
Instead he offered the following, which ought to be familiar to readers of Dostoevsky — or the Gospels:
If humanism were right in declaring that man is born to be happy, he would not be born to die. Since his body is doomed to die, his task on earth evidently must be of a more spiritual nature. It cannot be unrestrained enjoyment of everyday life. It cannot be the search for the best ways to obtain material goods and then cheerfully get the most out of them. It has to be the fulfillment of a permanent, earnest duty so that one’s life journey may become an experience of moral growth, so that one may leave life a better human being than one started it.
It wasn’t bitterness or hunger for vengeance that Solzhenitsyn took away from his decades of suffering, but the simple lesson, given above, which a Russian babushka might have taught her toddlers as they prayed before an icon. It’s the wisdom he wrung from the grapes of wrath that makes Solzhenitsyn an icon of Patience worth emulating. You can call on that virtue as you work your way through the thousands of pages the great man has written. Every word is worth it.