I learned earlier this week about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s death and offered prayers of gratefulness that such a man of courage and integrity could emerge from the corrupt regime of the former Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin’s reign of terror. Solzhenitsyn fought in WWII as a Soviet Officer, and was held in high regard by his fellow officers. However, he, as did thousands and perhaps millions of others, landed in one of the many prison camps set up by Stalin.
Solzhenitsyn, unlike so many others, managed to survive, and wrote extensively of his experience. Knowing that anything he actually wrote in the camps would be taken from him—and that years would be added onto his sentences—he would write and then memorize what he wrote before he destroyed it. Using something similar to a set of rosary beads, he memorized over 10,000 lines of poetry which he was then able to reproduce after gaining his freedom.
All that was courageous enough, but the real courage came when he continued to speak out against the repressive government and continued to publish his revealing words despite threats of further imprisonment. He spent many years in exile in the US, but eventually returned to his beloved Russia and lived the rest of his life there.
I have long admired him and have read and re-read many of his works. His Russian Orthodox Christian underpinnings informed his writings. His passion for righteousness in the face of injustice permeated all he wrote. His flawed characters—and some of those were certainly autobiographical—struggled mightily with their own integrity and the price of remaining honest. How much easier to compromise with those in power and perhaps gain an extra crust of bread or a more cushy job in the camps! Only a little informing on one’s cell mates and perhaps a warmer blanket to keep out the Siberian cold might be his! Oh yes, only a little thing—just to be more comfortable.Again, Solzhenitsyn survived. Most didn’t. The ones who did were the ones more likely to compromise their souls for a bit more food or warmth. This man decided his integrity was worth more than such things, and he was lucky to come through it alive.
His life and death speak to us as they echo the call of Jesus to those who would be his disciples. This high calling demands much and promises little comfort. Yet it also promises formation of character in a way that our lives become powerful messages of hope. That kind of character only comes through challenge and hardship. Those who choose to face those challenges with that kind of courage show us the way of Jesus. Not all will be as famous as Solzhenitsyn, but all can follow that path, and emerge, as did he, as a light that leads those around to the holy light of God.