If the intellectuals in the plays of Chekhov who spent all their time guessing what would happen in twenty, thirty, or forty years had been told that in forty years interrogation by torture would be practiced in Russia; that prisoners would have their skulls squeezed within iron rings; that human beings would be lowered into acid baths; that they would be trussed up naked to be bitten by ants and bedbugs; that ramrods heated over primus stoves would be thrust up their anal canals (the “secret brand”); that a man’s genitals would be slowly crushed beneath the toe of a jackboot; and that in the luckiest possible circumstances, prisoners would be tortured by being kept from sleeping for a week, by thirst, and by being beaten to a bloody pulp, not one of Chekhov’s plays would have gotten to its end, because all the heroes would have gone off to insane asylums.
And not only Chekhov’s heroes — what normal Russian at the beginning of the century, including any member of the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party, would have believed, would have tolerated, such a slander against the bright future? What had been acceptable under Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich in the seventeenth century, what had already been regarded as barbarism under Peter the Great, what might have been used against ten or twenty people in all during the time of Biron in the mid-eighteenth century, what had already become totally impossible under Catherine the Great, was all being practiced during the flowering of the glorious twentieth century — in a society based on socialist principles, and at a time when airplanes were flying and the radio and talking films had already appeared — not by one scoundrel alone in one secret place only, but by tens of thousands of specially trained human beasts standing over millions of defenseless victims.
Was it only that explosion of atavism now evasively called “the cult of personality” that was so horrible? Or was it even more horrible that during those same years, in 1937 itself, we celebrated Pushkin’s centennial? And that we shamelessly continued to stage those selfsame Chekhov plays, even though the answers to them had already come in? Is it not still more dreadful that we are now being told, thirty years later, “Don’t talk about it!”? If we start to recall the sufferings of millions, we are told, it will distort the historical perspective! If we doggedly seek out the essence of our morality, we are told it will darken our material progress! Let’s think rather about the blast furnaces, the rolling mills that were built, the canals that were dug. We can talk about anything, so long as we do it adroitly, so long as we glorify it.
It is really hard to see why we condemn the Inquisition. Wasn’t it true that beside the autos-da-fé, magnificent services were offered by the Almighty? It is hard to see why we are so down on serfdom. After all, no one forbade the peasants to work every day. And they could sing carols at Christmas, too. And for Trinity Day the girls wove wreaths . . .
All the big Bolsheviks, who now wear martyrs’ halos, managed to be the executioners of other Bolsheviks (not even taking into account how all of them in the first place had been the executioners of non-Communists). Perhaps 1937 was needed in order to show how little their whole ideology was worth — that ideology of which they boasted so enthusiastically, turning Russia upside down, destroying its foundations, trampling everything it held sacred underfoot, that Russia where they themselves had never been threatened by such retribution. The victims of the Bolsheviks from 1918 to 1946 never conducted themselves so despicably as the leading Bolsheviks when the lightning struck them. If you study in detail the whole history of the arrests and trials of 1936 to 1938, the principal revulsion you feel is not against Stalin and his accomplices, but against the humiliatingly repulsive defendants — nausea at their spiritual baseness after their former pride and implacability.
So what is the answer? How can you stand your ground when you are weak and sensitive to pain, when people you love are still alive, when you are unprepared?
What do you need to make you stronger than the interrogator and the whole trap?
From the moment you go to prison you must put your cozy past firmly behind you. At the very threshold, you must say to yourself: “My life is over, a little early to be sure, but there’s nothing to be done about it. I shall never return to freedom. I am condemned to die — now or a little later. But later on, in truth, it will be even harder, and so the sooner the better. I no longer have any property whatsoever. For me those I love have died, and for them I have died. From today on, my body is useless and alien to me. Only my spirit and my conscience remain precious and important to me.”
Confronted by such a prisoner, the interrogation will tremble.
Only the man who has renounced everything can win that victory.
From an excerpt of The Gulag Archipelago published in the July 1974 issue of Harper’s Magazine, shortly after Solzhenitsyn’s expulsion from the Soviet Union. The complete excerpt — along with the magazine’s entire 164-year archive — is available online at harpers.org/fromthearchive.