Have you ever pondered a crust of bread? Or stopped to consider the ‘thickness’ of a bowl of soup? Have you thought about food in terms of ounces? The exact number of pinches necessary to fill a hand rolled cigarette? The careful choreography required to give you an advantage over others – advantages measured not in grand titles or powerful friends but in slices of sausage or the thickness of a fleece coat?
I just finished Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s first, simple novel “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”. Solzhenitsyn decided to write this book while he himself was in the Gulag, as a catalog of sorts of the experiences and concerns of the Soviet Union’s unfree. That alone amazes me; while this great writer’s mind was occupied with the not-so-trivial minutia necessary to stave off death till tomorrow, till next week he was also thinking about his writing. I guess that’s what makes great writers great.
I have a friend who always tells me “You have to hustle in this life, to get ahead”. We do that sometimes in the West – networking, going to happy hour after work when we’re tired, attending the Christmas party even though we’d rather be with our families. Some people “hustle” to get to Target superstore at midnight before “Black Friday” – pushing and pulling to secure a cheap flat-screen TV or a free foot massager. But “hustle” took on for me a new meaning, laid out as it was by Solzhenitsyn in that formidable daily struggle to stay one step ahead. Because in the life of the Gulag, hustling becomes existential, and sinister. Rushing to get in line for the many “counts” and “searches” – to preserve the precious minutes of free time before bed. Cozying up to the guard who will let you keep most of the package you receive from family … that is if you receive a package at all. Hurrying, wary to never be late for the countings in the morning; for breakfast – where your food is measured expertly in ounces by your practiced eye; trudging deliberately to your forced-labor site to arrive not too soon but not too late either; jockeying to the side of the fire, to soak up the precious warmth. Fighting through the melee for the thickest bowl of soup. Everything is for sale in the camps – a bizarre ‘people’s capitalism’ where you sell tiny favors, lies. Influence. “Peddlers of pull,” Ayn Rand called it.
“Waste not, want not” we are told by our grandparents – but storing away in your underwear detritus found on the side of the road, obsessing over its potential use all day long? Sewing bread into the interior of a mattress as if it were a sacred artifact? Experiencing a piece of salt pork; counting the puffs of a cigarette; measuring your misery honestly – those who lie to themselves will not survive the gulag. Who of us have done this, we who live in a world of excess?
Novelists depend so much upon luck – there are so many who fade away, never recognized for so great a talent married to such courage. Solzhenitsyn’s luck was that Khrushchev had an anti-Stalinist streak; he hated the despot and perhaps thought himself as more of a humanitarian. During one of his fits, he was handed a copy of “One Day in the Life”, and Solzhenitsyn exploded upon the world. I, for one, am glad he did. We need reminders of the dark shadow of totalitarianism; of the oppressive evil of communism; of the viciousness to which that ideology reduces the human soul.
We need reminders, because there are still gulags out there. In Venezuela people again are counting food; waiting in lines; turning their heads from the malevolent stares of their minders. They might be allowed to live in their houses – at least most of them, who have not become tools of the regime’s propaganda, people like Leopoldo Lopez and Lorent Saleh – but they still watch what they say, they still peddle pull. They are still unfree. Or North Korea, where Yeonmi Park eloquently and fearlessly tells us of the great gulags in that godless place. Cuba, Syria, Belarus, Iran. So many places still lock away those who dare to think of something other than the regime.
For this I thank Solzhenitsyn. You should too.