“Can a man who’s warm understand one who’s freezing?”
This is the question pondered by Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, a prisoner at a forced-labor camp in the Soviet Gulag system. Shukhov is the imagined narrator of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Though Shukhov may be fictional, his experiences come out of Solzhenitsyn’s own real-life experience. Arrested in 1945 for criticizing (in private letters to a friend) Joseph Stalin’s military decisions, Solzhenitsyn was interrogated, beaten, and sentenced to eight years in various Soviet labor camps.
If Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s name is not familiar to you, it should be. Once a loyal Red Army captain, Solzhenitsyn’s experiences in prison and later in exile led him to reject the communism into which he had been indoctrinated. Although it cost him dearly—his works were seized, he was expelled from the state-sanctioned writers’ union, he was categorized as a “non-person,” the KGB attempted to assassinate him—Solzhenitsyn continued to write and call attention to Soviet atrocities. In 1970, Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. The honor, it turns out, gave Solzhenitsyn little protection at home: in 1974, the Soviet government arrested him, stripped him of his citizenship, and deported him.
Do Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and the Soviet communist system he spoke out against concern us today? Before you answer the question, consider this: According to a survey conducted by Newsweek and reported on in 2011, 73% of Americans could not identify communism as the ideology America opposed during the Cold War. Judging by this statistic, I’m not sure that Solzhenitsyn or his experiences concern us very much today at all. But should they? That brings us back to Ivan Denisovich Shukhov’s question: Can a man who’s warm understand one who’s freezing?
Or to put it another way, as Solzhenitsyn did himself in a speech in New York in 1975:
Is it then possible or impossible to transmit the experience of those who have suffered to those who have yet to suffer? Can one part of humanity learn from the bitter experience of another or can it not? Is it possible or impossible to warn someone of danger?
Solzhenitsyn suggests that the experience of those who have suffered can serve as a warning to those who are not yet suffering. Maybe it seems like we don’t need to be warned about communism—the USSR collapsed in 1991—but the lies about the human person that Soviet communism grew out of preceded the USSR and will probably plague men until the end of history. I often heard it said (and repeated it myself) that “communism is good in theory but it just can’t work in the real world.” This is simply not true. Communism is not “good in theory.” It rejects an objective standard of good and evil; it treats men as objects to be manipulated; it scoffs at God and presumes to redeem the world and usher in a sort of heaven-on-earth through a coercive politics that leaves no room for civil society. In the last century, these ideas manifested themselves in the communism of Marx and Lenin. But the root temptation to reject God’s authority lurks in many other ideologies and movements and indeed in our own hearts.
St. Peter thus exhorts us in his first epistle:
Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. But resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experiences of suffering are being accomplished by your brethren who are in the world.
Echoing Christ’s call to take up our cross and follow him, St. Peter says that one way in which we resist the father of lies is by sharing in the “experiences of suffering” endured by our “brethren.” This requires that we recognize what G.K. Chesterton calls “the terrible secret” that “men are men—which is another way of saying that they are brothers.” Here is where the importance of stories like One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich comes in.
The statistics of suffering may shock us—Solzhenitsyn estimates some 60 million were killed by the Soviet regime—but we cannot empathize with numbers. We empathize with those who suffer by learning their stories. The first time I read Ivan Denisovich, passages like this made me realize that I had never been truly tired or hungry in my life:
Since he’d been in the camps Shukhov had thought many a time of the food they used to eat in the village — whole frying pans full of potatoes, porridge by the caldron, and, in the days before the kolkhoz, great hefty lumps of meat. Milk they used to lap up till their bellies were bursting. But he knew better now that he’d been inside. He’d learned to keep his whole mind on the food he was eating. Like now he was taking tiny little nibbles of bread, softening it with his tongue, and drawing in his cheeks as he sucked it. Dry black bread it was, but like that nothing could be tastier. How much had he eaten in the last eight or nine years? Nothing. And how hard had he worked? Don’t ask.
Though I’ve never experienced anything like this hunger or exhaustion, I found that the more I read, the more I could relate to Shukhov—the more I understood him to be my brother. I think many of us can feel a kinship with Shukhov in passages like this one:
“Thanks be to Thee, O God, another day over!” . . .
Alyoshka heard Shukhov thank God out loud, and looked around.
“There you are, Ivan Denisovich, your soul is asking to be allowed to pray to God. Why not let it have its way, eh?”
Shukhov shot a glance at him: the light in his eyes was like candle flame. Shukhov sighed.
“Because, Alyoshka, prayers are like petitions — either they don’t get through at all, or else it’s ‘complaint rejected.'”
So: can a man who’s warm understand a man who’s freezing? Not completely, and certainly not easily, but the answer can be “yes.” The answer is yes if we make the effort to learn the stories and if we pay attention to the story-tellers who are often prophets. “I have been in the dragon’s belly, in the red burning belly of the dragon,” Solzhenitsyn said. “He wasn’t able to digest me. He threw me up. I have come to you as a witness to what it’s like in there, in the dragon’s belly.”
Can one part of humanity learn from the bitter experience of another? Again, the answer can be yes if we properly meditate on those bitter experiences. After all, that is what we do when we pray the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Holy Rosary. Importantly, we do not meditate on those mysteries in the hopes of avoiding them. Rather, we pray that we may “imitate what they contain.” In this life, to some degree, we will suffer. What we can learn from prophets like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and what we seek to imitate in the Sorrowful Mysteries of our Lord, is how to, in solidarity with our neighbors, offer our sufferings to God.
This coming Wednesday, November 7th, marks the tragic anniversary of the Lenin-led Bolshevik/communist take-over of Russia in 1917. (Russia used the Julian calendar at the time, so this is often referred to as the October Revolution or Red October.) As we just concluded October’s “month of the Holy Rosary,” it’s an especially good time to reflect on the decades of sorrowful mysteries that communism inflicted on the world and on what we can still learn from the suffering of our brethren. If you haven’t had a chance to read it yet, I highly recommend picking up a copy of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. It’s a small but powerful portrait of life under (and in spite of) the lies of communism.