Freedom in the Gulag: Spiritual Lessons of the Concentration Camp

In recent years a number of books have appeared in which the authors have described their experiences in Soviet prisons and punishment camps. Some of these eyewitness accounts are of particular interest because they deal not only with the outward effects of loss of freedom, but also with the deep processes of change which take place in the inner man in that fearful world of Soviet prison life. These descriptions of what happens in the hearts of people in prison contradict in many ways our earlier thinking on the subject.

Let me say at the start that the phenomena here analyzed are of revolutionary importance not only for psychologists and psychoanalysts in the twentieth century, for Marxists and for sociologists of the West, but also for modern science in general, including philosophy. It must be emphasized that we are dealing with empirical phenomena, which were recorded by men who normally had nothing in common. That is what makes the unanimity of their experiences and testimonies so valuable and significant.

The most fruitful works to study are the first and second volumes of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, Schifrin’s Fourth Dimension, Panine’s Experiences of Sologdin, and Siniovski’s A Voice from the Chorus.

Paradoxes of Liberty

Reading these works carefully, again and again we come across statements that seem paradoxical. For instance, all the writers agree that arrest, imprisonment, the camps, in short the loss of freedom are the most important experiences of their lives. Moreover, they assure us that, although under these conditions they had to endure the worst form of psychic and physical suffering, they experienced at the same time moments of utter happiness, such as those outside the camp walls could never imagine. Never before had they felt love, hate, and despair so strongly, never lived through such interesting days and nights filled with the basic questions of human existence, never felt so at one with the universe, as during their time in prison.

On this basis, loss of freedom could be defined as particularly intense living, and it is a fact that in prison, in spite of all the suffering—and not only according to the statements of the writers we are studying—there is hardly ever suicide.

Another paradox confirmed by the writers is that only those can preserve their bodies and physical existence who preserve their souls, i.e. those who, obeying an inner urge, are prepared to lose their physical existence. Generally one assumes the opposite—that in a difficult situation a man has to choose to save either body or soul. Yet these writers, who have lived through situations where both body and soul were threatened, affirm unanimously that those who try to preserve their physical existence at the expense of their souls, lost both, while those who were prepared to sacrifice their bodies for the sake of their souls, by some mysterious law, and contrary to what they expected, had their bodies, i.e. their physical existence, preserved.

This means it is now an incontestable experience of life that in the depths of the human soul there dwells an unexplained force which is stronger—and not only symbolically, but empirically stronger—than all outward forces of oppression and destruction, however invincible they may seem. Those who describe these happenings, which have been repeated and confirmed hundreds of times under the most frightful conditions of imprisonment, have come to the conclusion that powerful forms of psychic energy are dormant in every human soul, that the psychic world cannot be separated from the physical, and that the thoughts and wishes of a person achieve far more in the outer, physical world than do his hands.

At the same time the writers assure us that nothing in their lives happened by chance and that, contrary to all their efforts and plans to decide their own fate, everything ran along prearranged lines. This seems contradictory: on the one hand mysterious powers are supposed to be given to a person, which in some inexplicable way affect the outer world, and on the other hand there is some kind of predestination before which the person is powerless.

But the contradiction is only a seeming one. If a man, against all outward circumstances, against his own wishes and plans, in spite of the threat of physical destruction and against all the dictates of reason—let alone public opinion—obeys that voice which, deep in his soul, is subject to no rational control, then roads open up to him of their own accord which lead not only to the preserving of what he thought he had given up by obeying this mysterious inner compass, but also to the fulfillment of his most secret wishes.

If, on the other hand, a man seeks to realize his own plans and desires, to save his life and escape physical destruction by actions in the visible world that are contrary to the commands of his inner voice—some call this voice the instinct for freedom—then fate, das fatum, takes its course and sooner or later brings to nothing what was to be achieved against the inner voice.

But man has the freedom to decide whether or not to follow the inexplicable, yet so real, inner voice. To put it more clearly, the terrible experience of suffering in prison makes him free. On that basis there is no contradiction. Unalterable destiny and the highest form of freedom exist side by side. It depends on the person himself whether he submits to fate or chooses freedom.

The Challenge to Science

If this is so—and the experiences described here confirm it—then the conclusions to be drawn from it must shake the whole edifice of science, not only on man and his psyche, but also on visible and invisible reality. If there are two worlds, which are not merged together yet cannot be separated from each other, i.e. the world of fate and the world of freedom; if a person lives in the one world or the other, according to whether he obeys or disobeys that mysterious and sometimes unclear inner voice, which neither reason or science can explain—then any science is senseless which starts from the assumption that there is only one world, with one and the same laws valid for everybody, a world which can be mastered by an understanding of such laws that are independent of man. The experience of those who have known prison life as the greatest freedom teaches the opposite.

Panine writes: “Here in this concentrated life every teaching is tested under the harshest condition.” Siniovski adds: “Here there is more intensive thinking than in science” and, speaking from personal experience he says categorically: “Science is getting away from Truth.”

These men, completely cut off from the outside world, study the Bible, which they carry around in handwritten extracts on scraps of paper. They discover the forgotten basic truths of the Eastern Yoga teaching; they turn to theosophy: in brief, they try by every means to master their personal experiences, which they cannot doubt even if they run contrary to any number of teachings, ideologies, doctrines and scientific theories.

Perhaps the most paradoxical and most optimistic conviction of these men, who have experienced the concentrated force of evil in their own bodies, is that the power of good is stronger than anything else. Panine writes that the world resembles a white tablecloth with black spots rather than a black tablecloth with white spots.

From what we have said so far, it is clear that the battle between the individual and the powers of evil and destruction is not at all a political one. The battle being fought in the totalitarian states today is in reality not political but religious, even if this is not always clear to those taking part. Solzhenitsyn is right when he says it is precisely the Christians who represent a truly political force in the U.S.S.R., because they rob the totalitarian system of its basis, namely the belief in the priority of the visible world and the dependence of man’s inner world on the outer.

If the outer world is stronger than the inner, then the oppression of man is caused by, and can be remedied by, political factors. If, however, the outer world obeys the inner forces of the human soul, then man’s fate depends on himself.

While the question—whether man obeys the outer world or vice versa—is of purely theological interest for most people, for those whose experiences we are studying, and for millions of others in the same position, it has a very practical significance. Whoever follows his inner voice and saves his soul, learns empirically that, as long as the soul is not lost, the most important is not lost. From this knowledge comes belief in the immortality of the soul. To obey the inner voice means nothing less than to define actions in time in terms of eternity.

Such an experience is, however, not only for those living under extreme conditions of loss of freedom, but for all who have lived and will live on this earth. It is extremely important to realize that prison and punishment camp, i.e. the uncontrollable caprice of the powers of the visible world, sooner or later await everyone, and that we cannot escape the decision whether we will submit to death and to total physical and psychic destruction or whether, contrary to all so called realism, objectivity, and common sense, we will courageously follow our inner voice. Illness, catastrophes, accidents, and death are only another form of arrest, trial, prison, and punishment camp. They are unavoidable.

What happens to a person who is suddenly torn away from his normal life and falls into the hands of merciless forces who only want one thing: to destroy him? Can he defend himself? Everything he possessed—freedom, friends, work he enjoyed, property, body, life itself—all this he cannot protect. It is now in the power of Evil. And if he tries to defend himself by means which belong to the world in which he has lived hitherto, he is doomed to failure from the start. Whatever these outward forces take away from him, he cannot protect in his own strength.

It is at this decisive point, immediately before his complete destruction, that the person begins to realize that there is something which is beyond the reach of the outward, seemingly invincible forces and that, even if nothing else can be saved, there is one respect in which resistance, fight, and victory are possible, namely, when it is a question of preserving his soul. Whoever trusts and obeys this call emerges victorious from the battle against evil and oppression. But first he must renounce everything which the forces of the visible world can take from him.

Nothing to Lose

“Above all, don’t cling to life,” writes Solzhenitsyn and again, “Possess nothing, free yourself from everything, even those nearest you, because they too are your enemies.” Panine confirms that the struggle demands separation from everything—only he who renounces all becomes completely free, i.e. freedom begins where there is nothing more to lose.

When a man has got rid of all that ties him, a mysterious thing happens: In the depths of his soul there rises up a mighty force which not only endows his totally exhausted body with incredible powers of resistance, but, in strange ways which we do not yet fully understand, also begins to affect the visible world.

That is why Panine writes: “Who saves his soul, saves his body too.” That is why Solzhenitsyn says repeatedly that only the spirit can save, only the spirit can preserve the body, and all four writers confirm that the body, as they have seen again and again in themselves and others, responds with incredible toughness to strong spiritual concentration, while the loss of the spiritual leads to physical disintegration.

There is a tremendous force living within us,” Panine asserts, and goes on to say that the whole universe is in some mysterious way linked to the depth of our soul. “Each one of us is the center of the universe,” writes Solzhenitsyn. They have not come to this conclusion through abstract thought, but have again and again experienced the effect of this unknown force in their own bodies. Solzhenitsyn writes of a strange inner warmth that seems to come from another world and saves a person from freezing in a glacier ice. Panine tells of a mysterious, unknown force which brought him back to life after forty days.

He who lets go of all outward trappings and decides from then on to obey his inner voice—which is only another name for faith—and then discovers to his amazement this mysterious yet real force at work not only inside himself but in the outer world, realizes at the same time that he is not master of this force and cannot use it as he wishes. On the contrary, he begins to understand that everything in his life, indeed life itself, is entirely dependent on the mysterious inner power which in the language of religion is called God.

If it is true that a mere thought can bring about certain results, then it is not to be wondered at that in totalitarian systems “thinking differently,” as Schifrin calls it, is regarded as the worst kind of crime. Or that Solzhenitsyn writes: “A mere thought was punishable.”

A story told by Solzhenitsyn in the first volume of Gulag Archipelago is the best illustration of the mystical law of which we have been speaking. An astrophysicist in solitary confinement tried to avoid going mad by thinking out specific astrophysical laws and problems. At one point he could go no further because he did not know by heart one of the dates and figures he needed. The mental exercise which enabled him to keep sane, came to a full stop. In his despair he began to pray. He did not know as yet to whom, whether to God or an unknown power. A miracle happened. By mistake a text book on astrophysics, which he never could have dreamed would be available in such a place, was brought to his cell from the prison library. When two days later the mistake was discovered and the book taken away again, the astrophysicist had already looked up and learned by heart all the dates he needed. His mental work could go on, and not only saved him but also helped him discover a new theory.

Schifrin also mentions cases of strange interventions in events which were threatening his inner convictions. Thus, during a camp search several improbable “chance happenings” saved the only copy of the Bible and a handwritten text of Exodus, in whose translation and dissemination Schifrin saw his life work. Here, too, it was not the thought which had the effect. It was rather the mystical law, responding to a person’s strong, inner concentration on a particular goal and bringing about the effect in an outside world seemingly beyond the person’s influence. Neither the thought, nor the magical power of thought in the outer world, produced the desired result, but, as Solzhenitsyn assumes in the second volume of Gulag Archipelago, “Heaven heard the prayers and intervened.”

It can therefore be said that any deviation from the prescribed way of thinking—a punishable offense under totalitarianism—is not the cause but the result of an inner philosophy of life, a philosophy which is dangerous to the ruling powers because it is “inside” and hence uncontrollable. It is not so much the thoughts that are punishable, as the inner set of principles. The strong inner concentration on a particular goal sets off events in the outer world, which in turn set the stage for the realization of the inner goal. This is the mystical basic law that changes the whole of human thinking and challenges the ideas forming the foundation of science.

At the same time, this inner striving is not voluntary. It is not dependent on the desire or will of the person concerned. All that depends on the person is whether he wishes to follow an inner impulse or not. Yet as far as the outer world is concerned, the decision to follow in future the call of the inner voice is an act of complete freedom, and we are reminded of Berdyaev’s words that it is not man but God who desires the freedom of man.

Solzhenitsyn stresses again and again that it was only the weak who fell into the hands of the NKVD, out of fear. And here we have an interesting discovery of Grossman’s. He found that those prisoners who opposed the totalitarian system and fought against it until their arrest, i.e. those who obeyed their inner voice, believed in the innocence of all the prisoners; those who had been careful to avoid incurring any guilt toward the rulers and yet landed up in the prison camp, believed that only in their case a mistake had been made, and that all the other prisoners were in fact guilty. Only suffering brought them to the realization that very few bore any guilt towards the rulers, but that they themselves were guilty before their own souls, whose demands they had neglected in order to serve their earthly lives.

This shows that we can never, even temporarily, in order to deceive the evil powers and save our own lives, deny our inner voice without paying a price or, as Solzhenitsyn says, we cannot “in order to live, not live.”

“How can we free him, who is unfree in his soul?” asks the author of the Gulag Archipelago, and Schifrin replies: “He alone is free, who frees himself from the wretchedness of inner slavery.”

The experience of loss of freedom has proved that every human being is in a position to create for himself a state of complete freedom, and that it is within his power to change the world on the basis of the mystical law. Experience has further shown that the fate of men is not decided by earthly powers, by outward physical forces, but only by the mystical power which from time immemorial has been called “God,” and whose relationship to man seems to depend on man’s relationship to his inner voice.

This is nothing less than the glorious confirmation—of the ontological and empirical freedom of every human being. Man can hardly experience any greater happiness than the knowledge that he can influence events in the world, against and in spite of the mighty influence of Evil. This freedom, born of obedience to the inner voice, the soul, cannot be taken away from man by any outside force. He can only betray it himself.

  • Mihajlo Mihajlov

    Mihajlo Mihajlov (1934 — 2010) was a Yugoslav scholar of modern Russian literature. He spent seven years in prison under the regime of Marshall Tito for disseminating "hostile propaganda."

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