How Solzhenitsyn Found Himself—and God

Gary Saul Morton:

Uncompromising atheism was the fundamental principle of Soviet ideology. It’s thus remarkable that three of the greatest Soviet literary masterpieces—Boris Pasternak’s “Doctor Zhivago,” Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita” and Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s “The Gulag Archipelago”—were avowedly Christian. Woven into Solzhenitsyn’s account of torture, starvation and hard labor in the gulag—evil that many would take as evidence that a benevolent God doesn’t exist—is the story of how he found faith, not in spite of but because of these conditions.

At the time, he had never thought for himself. “I was committed to that world outlook which is incapable of admitting any new fact or evaluating any new opinion before a label has been found for it from the already available stock: be it the ‘hesitant duplicity of the petty bourgeoisie,’ or the ‘militant nihilism of the déclassé intelligentsia.’ ” Now he asked himself, for the first time, what he believed and found no answer.

Soviet conditions, Solzhenitsyn came to understand, followed directly from materialism and atheism. If people are nothing but material objects, if there is nothing resembling what we call the soul, then concepts like “the sacredness of human life,” “human dignity” and “the inviolability of the person” are merely bourgeois mystification. Absolute values don’t exist, only those of one or another social class, and since the Communist Party represents the proletariat, history’s most progressive class, anything that serves its interests is moral.