By Haim Marantz


The Montréal Review, May 2024

A group of political prisoners in Kengir, part of the Soviet Gulag system. 1949–1956. (Kaunas 9th Fort Museum)


Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World,1 an account of Scott’s last expedition to the Antarctic, was the first “adult” book that I, a schoolboy in Melbourne, was required to read. The book led me to see what awe-inspiring courage, what fortitude, what selflessness men can find in the service of even the most insubstantial of goals. (Scott’s journey was a search for penguin eggs.) Scott’s triumphs and defeats made the whole expedition nearly as dominating a legend to the hundreds of thousands of Australian boyhoods as was the story of Anzacs of both World Wars, and for similar reasons: the loss and suffering spoke to an inchoate feeling of how painful human life could be, as well as of the moral grandeur made possible by loss and suffering. Almost, but not quite—and I believed at the time that neither I nor any of my group would ever have friends like those depicted in the book.

In civilization men are taken at their own valuation, because there are so many ways of concealment and there is so little time, perhaps, so little understanding. Not so down South. These two men went through the Winter Journey and lived; later they went through the Polar Journey and died. They were gold, pure, shining and unalloyed. Words cannot express how good their companionship was.2

Some of our Australian elders knew such people—for instance, those soldiers who survived the Burma Railway: knew from life, that is, not, as in my case, only at second hand.

Of course, I could understand, or at the time thought so, how precious moments of a rather more ordinary level of companionship would have been made by being snatched from the freezing cold in which that lonely Antarctic hut lay. How marvelous, I remember thinking, that those lecture nights must have been!

The table was cleaned after supper and we sat around it for these lectures three times a week. There was no compulsion about them, and the seamen only turned up for those that especially interested them, such as Meares’ vivid account of his journeyings on the Eastern or Chinese borderland of Tibet. This land is inhabited by the “Eighteen Tribes,” the original inhabitants of Tibet, who were driven out by the present inhabitants and Meares told us chiefly of the Lolos, who killed his companion Brook after having persuaded him that they were friendly and anxious to help him. He had no pictures and very makeshift maps, yet he held us really entranced for nearly two hours by the sheer interest of his adventures. The spirit of the “wanderer” is in Meares’ blood; he had no happiness but in the wild places of the earth. I have never met so extreme a type. Even now he is looking forward to getting away by himself to Hut Point, tired already of our scant measure of civilization.3

To be sure, this was not what I was looking forward to, seventy years ago, but I could understand it. In fact, I believed back then that I understood what had happened to the Eighteen Tribes, driven from their homeland. For hadn’t I encountered that sort of story in the Bible and in the few history books that I had read? Dislocation accompanied by massacre seemed in fact to sum up much of the past that I was aware of, especially the past of my Jewish co-religionists. And what was there new in the story of a man led to death by a friend?

How, then, could I have been prepared for The Gulag Archipelago?4 At the time that I read Cherry-Garrard, I knew virtually nothing about Genghis Khan or Timur, Himmler or Eichmann. How could the Melbourne schoolboy be prepared for Stalin? I did not know that death and blood, as well as hatred and stupidity, are the everyday experience of half of humanity. Could reading Cherry-Garrard prepare me for Solzhenitsyn?

After dinner and the evening trip to the toilet, night cloaked the window “muzzles” and the nagging electric lights below the ceiling lit up. Day divided the prisoners and night drew them closer together. There were no quarrels in the evening: lectures and concerts were given. And in this, too, Timofeyev-Ressovsky shone: he spent entire evenings in Italy, Denmark, Norway, Sweden. The emigres spoke about the Balkans, about France. Someone delivered a lecture on Le Corbusier. Someone else delivered one on the habits of bees. Someone else on Gogol. This was when we smoked our lungs full. Smoke filled up the cell and hovered in the air like a fog, and there was no draft to pull it out the window because of the “muzzles.” Kosta Kiula, twin to me in age, round-faced, blue-eyed, amusingly awkward, stepped up to the table and recited verses he had composed in prison. His voice broke with emotion. His verses were entitled “My First Food Parcel,” “To My Wife,” “To My Son.” When in prison you strain to get by ear written in prison, you don’t waste a single thought on whether the author’s use of syllabic stress is faulty and whether his lines end in assonances or full rhymes. These verses are the blood of your own heart, the tears of your own wife. The cell wept.

In that cell I myself set out to write verses about prison. And it was there that I recited the verses of Yesenin, who had almost but not quite been on the forbidden list before the war. And young Bubnov, a POW, and before that, apparently, a student who had not completed his degree, worshipfully gazed at those reciting, his face aglow. He was not a technical specialist and he hadn’t come from camp, but was on his way there, and, because of the purity and forthrightness of his character, he would in all likelihood die there. People like him don’t survive there.

People like Bubnov didn’t survive in the Antarctic either, or on the Somme, or even, perhaps, amongst the Lolos. The purity Solzhenitsyn saw in Bubnov might not mirror precisely what Cherry-Garrard found in Wilson and Bowers, but I like to think the men would have seen themselves in one another. And how much else, too? Those same deep and powerful resources some are able to tap into in periods of deprivation are displayed before us in passage after passage in The Gulag Archipelago. When I read in that book about the rituals in prison, those demeaning trivialities that, barely remarked, supply the quotidian rhythm in the lives of non-prisoners, I remember thinking back to the description of the daily chore of setting up the tent and preparing some kind of meal when it is so cold that your breath freezes the moment it leaves you, and then laboriously inserting yourself, clothes soaking wet, into a frozen sleeping bag. If Cherry-Garrard and his companions were not in prison, they were in the grip of unmeaning necessity. There must have been times when death seemed the most tempting gate to the only freedom imaginable to them. Did the individual in The Gulag Archipelago who threw himself under a tank rather than go to prison know something that Captain Oates didn’t?

It’s the more Oates knew that matters, perhaps. Perhaps there’s an absolute difference made between the Antarctic and the Butyrki by the latter’s being a prison. But I came to The Gulag Archipelago not knowing anything about prison.


I first read The Gulag Archipelago during my first year in Israel, where I eventually settled. I remember feeling that here was something powerful and new. Yet, the two individuals to whom I mentioned this at the time told me not only that they had not read it but that they had no plans to do so. Many years later, I described my encounter with Solzhenitsyn to several colleagues from the History Department at Ben-Gurion University. This was during a discussion of an article by Richard Pipes, who, if I remember correctly, claimed that although Solzhenitsyn expressed antisemitic views, his attitudes, like Dostoyevsky’s, had nothing to do with race and everything to do with culture. Being historians, the mentioned colleagues were aware, as I at the time was not, of the type of revelations that appeared in Solzhenitsyn’s chapter entitled “The History of Our Sewage Disposal System.” Some in their discipline, one of the historians stated, made “a lot of noise” about the fact that Solzhenitsyn fails most of the time to identify sources, For non-professional students of history this is, I submit, one of the book’s strengths: the sense that the massive document that is the product of hours and hours, of days and of years of conversation, of secret, painful and dangerous recalling of dates and places and events, that perhaps cling tenuously to life in the mind and memory of one man. This sense of the painstaking accumulation of what otherwise might forever be lost to human memory is something I found impossible not to respond to with awe and humility. In a most dramatic way, the book brings out the irreducible and immitigable centrality of the single individual human. Indeed, Solzhenitsyn’s evocation of the times that were his subject never for an instant allows his readers to see what he relates as happening to anything but individual persons—nameless, perhaps, but individual persons nonetheless.


This is not an easy conception to convey. Solzhenitsyn’s success in conveying it was, it seems to me, a spiritual triumph at the time. Typically, of course, the novelist’s triumph is effectively conveying the individual, especially an other individual. It is especially a nineteenth-century triumph, the novel being a nineteenth-century phenomenon. The size of the challenge comes to clear expression in this famous paragraph from Middlemarch:

We are all of us born in moral stupidity, taking the world as an udder to feed our supreme selves. Dorothea had early begun to emerge from that stupidity, but yet it had been easier to her to imagine how she would devote herself to Mr. Casaubon, and become wise and strong in his strength and wisdom, than to conceive with that distinctness, which is no longer reflection but feeling—an idea wrought back to the directness of sense, like the solidity of objects—that he had an equivalent centre of self, whence the lights and shadows must always fall with a certain difference.5

If, as I believe, there is a connection between Middlemarch and The Gulag Archipelago, some irony emerges from comparing Dorothea’s determination to her husband’s enterprise (a determination that Mr. Casaubon’s death saves from being tested) with what Solzhenitsyn recommends as any new prisoner’s only hope.

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 is 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.”6

The passage contains a sentence, the first in the quotation marks, that wrenches the stilled heart of the reader. What must it be like to say that? How is that opposites are made to meet—that the greatness of a calm soul occupies the same ground as virtual extinction? How it is that Scott, Wilson and Bowers, imprisoned by a meaningless blizzard, writing as men already dead, could be strong?

Perhaps, a line can be traced from Dorothea, whose sacrifice of self was made necessary by her husband, to Scott, whose sacrifice was made necessary by a blizzard, to Solzhenitsyn and his millions of comrades, whose sacrifice was made necessary—by what? By something as meaningless as a blizzard, as impersonal, almost in the sense of not caring at all who was his victim, not capable, indeed, of knowing that its victim was a person, by something completely man-made, coming, indeed, quite independently of non-human circumstance and contingencies, direct from a man’s mind. A human blizzard, perhaps. And, if at the end of this terrible process there is the single individual’s spirit and conscience, all that he can keep trying to call his own, then, at the other end, there is, similarly, a single spirit, equally separated from all else, other than spirit, that normally constitutes reality. And, if there is such similarity between the human spirit, Stalin and the human desert he created, then, perhaps, it is unnecessary to add the obvious but I shall do so anyway—that there is a world of difference between the spirit that seeks the destruction of spirit and the spirit that lives for its continuous recreation.


None of this was really new to me in 1967. Was there any great difference between what Solzhenitsyn report from the Gulag and what I had read in books about the Shoah. In The Informed Heart7 Bruno Bettelheim reported from Dachau?

Those prisoners who blocked out neither heart nor reason, neither feelings nor perception, but kept informed of their inner attacks even when they could hardly ever afford to act on them, those prisoners survived and came to understand the conditions they lived under. They also came to realize what they had not perceived before; that they still remained the last, if not the greatest, of the human freedoms: to choose their own attitude in any given circumstance. Prisoners who understood this fully, came to know that this, and only this, formed the crucial difference between retaining one’s humanity (and often life itself) and accepting death as a human being (or, perhaps, physical death): whether one retained the freedom to choose autonomously one’s attitude to extreme conditions, even when they seemed totally beyond one’s ability to influence them.8

If the three psychological catastrophes of the twentieth century were the First World War, Hitler’s concentration camps and Stalin’s Gulag Archipelago, then it is between the creations of the two dictators that we would expect to find the most revealing connections. New, if anything, in The Gulag Archipelago is certainly not the numbers of men, women and children, whose lives Stalin swallowed, for even in the Spanish influenza epidemic or in the world-wide road toll we have measuring sticks for these numbers. All of them also instantiate the truth that things tomorrow do not have to bear any resemblance to things today. But while men knew what happens on frontiers, on the sea, in the wastes of Antarctica, they did not know what might happen along the reaches of the Somme River. They had absolutely no notion of what could be built at Dachau, for many years even refused to believe, could not understand, what had happened in Moscow.

To find one’s own world utterly changed is something that happens at least once, probably, in every life: a death in the family will do that. To find the world unspeakably unrecognizable is something different again.

Once a command of Jewish prisoners was working alongside of some Polish Gentile prisoners. The supervising SS, spying two Jewish prisoners, whom he thought to be slacking, ordered them to lie down in the ditch and called on a Polish prisoner, named Strzaska, to bury them alive. Strzaska, frozen in terror and anxiety, refused to obey. Furiously, the SS seized a spade and beat the Pole, who nevertheless still refused to obey. Furiously, the SS now ordered the two Jews to get out of the ditch, Strzaska to get in and the two Jews to bury him. In mortal anxiety, hoping to escape the fate themselves, they shoveled earth into the ditch and on to their fellow prisoner. When only Strzaska’s head was barely visible, the SS ordered them to stop and unearth him. Once Strzaska was back on his feet, the two Jews were ordered back into the ditch, and this time Strzaska obeyed the renewed command to bury them—possibly, because they had not resisted burying him or, perhaps, expecting that they too would be spared at the last minute. But this time there was no reprieve; and, when the ditch was filled, the SS tramped down the earth that still lay loosely over his victims. Five minutes later he called on two other prisoners to unearth them, but though they worked frantically, it was too late. 9

If in circumstances like those any last remnants of faith or hope can be found, it can only be, as both Bettelheim and Solzhenitsyn asserted, in the spirit and conscience of the individual. Scott and his men, of course, had more than that. Scott’s last diary entry, famously, is: “For God’s sake, look after our people.” Even from the trenches, Wilfred Owen could imagine England. At the beginning of the twentieth century Conrad, in Heart of Darkness, presciently showed us what could happen when all there was to rely on was the spirit and conscience of the individual; what happened to Kurtz. Conrad drew Kurtz not only as a man devoted to the task of bringing civilization to the Congo jungles, imposing upon them true belief and order, but also as a powerful orator, capable of leading any extreme party—what happened to Kurtz was that first he became a cruel murdering, but perhaps godlike, savage, but at the end he won a moral victory by realizing the horror of what he had found himself capable of, and in fact had wrought. Conrad, one feels, needed that moral victory more than Kurtz did; Conrad could see no further than 1918 to the outer limits of the moral universe, in which, finally, even Kurtz had his being.

Reading stories like Bettelheim’s about the two men, one hesitates before commenting, as one should before entering any house of worship and, certainly, any graveyard. In a place like that, one speaks from ignorance. But, speaking from that kind of ignorance, I would claim that there is not only a difference between the world of Kurtz, as Conrad imagined it—a world in which there was still conceivable at least a commanding order, invoked in that embracing abstract word, “horror”—and the world of that Nazi concentration camp, in which the only order conceivable was built on the tiny foundation of a single person’s heart and reason, informed only from within—not only a difference between those two worlds, but also between the world Bettelheim describes and the world Solzhenitsyn describes, despite the similarities.

The difference can be crudely expressed by saying that in Solzhenitsyn’s world reason occupies most of the space that Bettelheim assigns to heart and reason. Putting it a little less simply: the differences between Solzhenitsyn’s recommendations to the new prisoner and Bettelheim’s recital of the conditions leading to survival and understanding, or the differences between the Russian and the German, much though such differences will help explain, boil down to a decisive difference between two worlds, in one of which alone there is still largely conceivable a human context. Even in the story of the two men buried alive, that is, one is in the more or less familiar world—I stretch the words considerably—of hatred, revenge, cruelty, fear, pain; we read, even in amusement and belief of reprieve and burial and the earth. The absoluteness of the difference between the two passages can perhaps be most simply put by pointing out that Bettelheim speaks of survival, while Solzhenitsyn asserts that the new prisoner must tell himself that his life is over.

Am I suggesting that the man Solzhenitsyn is emotionally deficient? Not at all. I am wondering whether or not my belief that Solzhenitsyn gave expression in The Gulag Archipelago to something quite new derived from extracts like the following.

There remained an easy dialogue with Vyshinsky along set lines: “Is it true that every opposition to the Party is a struggle against the Party?” “In general it is, factually it is.” “But a struggle against the Party cannot help but grow into a war against the Party.” “According to the logic of things—yes, it must.” “And that means that in the end, given the existence of oppositionist beliefs and foul deeds, whatever might be perpetuated against the Party (espionage, murder, sellout of the Motherland)?” “But wait a minute, none were actually committed.” “But they could have been?” “Well, theoretically speaking.” (Those are your theoreticians for you!) “But for us the highest of all interests are those of the Party?” “Yes, of course, of course!” “So, you see, only a very fine distinction separates us. We are required to concretize the eventuality: in the interest of discrediting for the future any idea of opposition, we are required to accept as having taken place what could only theoretically have taken place. After all, it could have, couldn’t it?” “It could have.” “And so, it is necessary to recognize as actual what was possible; that’s all. It is a small philosophical transition. Are we in agreement?”10

All that exists here is in the mind, or in the minds’ voices. No fact or reality exists to cloud the purity of that communication, the directness of it, the easy simplicity of it. There is no reason, no cause, no ground, no issue, no substance. If the virtually unimaginable can be spoken of as actual, then the actual can equally be seen as only possible. The two minds could in effect be concepts in notational bottles.

The USSR was real. The murders and the lies, the injustices and their victims, were real. Solzhenitsyn wrote the truth. By taking this dream exchange as somehow representative, I am not denying the distinction between dreams and reality. I am merely suggesting that the dim shape that looms behind all the facts and figures and analyses and expositions in The Gulag Archipelago is a world so permeated by ideology as to be infected, as if by disease, with a consciousness. The Gulag Archipelago clearly expressed the strain that had been placed on the mind of its author by the immense load of stupidity, of unmeaning that the Soviet regime, like some insane dung beetle, rolls wherever it moves, the stupendous Himalayas of nonsense raised by the multiplication upon multiplication of exchanges like the one quoted previously. In the face of all that, Solzhenitsyn preserved basic sanity. This sanity he often expressed ironically. His writings also give voice to moral sanity. And sometimes, in the long passages where Solzhenitsyn’s irony takes the simple form of adopting his enemy’s position and speaking out its stupidities, making clear their clownishness, it is possible, I think, to believe that the strain is almost too much for one man to bear, for fear of what speaking in your enemy’s voice, even ironically, could have meant in Stalin’s Russia.

The sharp, high tone of the book, is not only that of a man who wonders in desperation whether he has time to discharge the great burden he sees himself the fated bearer of. It’s also, or so it seems to me, the tone of a man who sees his humanity reduced, and who finds himself continuously making points, arguing, exposing the fallacies in turning the bright light of his mind upon the false and untenable positions of those who nevertheless control his whole world. In most countries today, one could make a career explaining the idiocies of advertisements. Imagine, however, a land whose public expression was nothing but advertisement. How could a mind survive in such a world? What greater duty would an individual have in such a world than to stand up for reason and sanity? Translate the feeble advertisements into the murderous ideology, and we perhaps begin to get the measure of the strength of Solzhenitsyn’s mind and a sense of his courage. Nevertheless, it is but a world of words, a world in which consciousness lives a dangerously precarious life, dependent for everything on its own capacities, with no support other than its own determination. It has been pointed out in this regard that beneath the monstrosities of Nazi ideology cold be found a real historical enmity towards France. Explanations in Stalin’s Russia are by contrast only comparable to the straws a drowning man clutches at; no wonder, though, that Solzhenitsyn desperately clutches at them, for true words are if not also the first then certainly the last line of human defense.


People use words in order to express their thoughts, ideas, desires, hopes and fears amongst other things. And so those who try to defend a land in a language whose life and meaning have been eroded will find themselves unable to give expression to where reality lies, let alone to articulate it. Speaking and thinking in Russian in Stalin’s time made it difficult for native speakers not only to speak the truth but also to recognize it. Nadezhda Mandelstam gave expression to this in the following passage:

For most of the neophytes, all values, truths and laws had been done away with—except for those, which needed at the moment and could conveniently be given a “class” label. Christian morality—including the ancient commandment “though shalt not kill”—was blithely identified with “bourgeois” morality. Everything was dismissed as a fiction. Freedom? There’s no such thing and never was! Since art, and particularly literature, only carried out the orders of the ruling class, it followed that a writer should consciously put himself at the service of his new master. A number of terms, such as “honor” and “conscience” went out of use at this time—concepts like these were easily discredited, now the right formula had been found.11

Not only was there no honor: there was not even a word for it, she suggests, in everyday Russian.

Solzhenitsyn was as aware of the value of spirit and conscience as, one supposes, any person then alive. But what seemed to me terrifying new in The Gulag Archipelago was the awareness of the possibility that the human mind, specifically the mind of Solzhenitsyn, swimming desperately in that huge sea of Soviet unmeaning, can also drown. If the Gods punish us by granting our wishes, then the Bolsheviks, who believed they could think a new nation into being, have been punished. They may nearly have created a nation in which only thoughts exist and in which human thinking, therefore, which depends on deeper sources than reason, is dying. Perhaps it has nearly happened before. Perhaps there is a sort of Xanadu fountain that throws up such a thing generation after generation. Could there come a time after which our riches can no longer be restored or learnt again? In 1967 I wondered, and I wonder still.


Today, March 22, 2022, Solzhenitsyn is perhaps the novelist most worthy to be read in order to try to make sense of Putin’s reasoning in attacking the Ukraine. But this is not something I shall develop here. I do however want to make one comment about the comparisons that have been often drawn between Solzhenitsyn’s writings and Tolstoy’s.

Here is an early paragraph from Anna Karenina:

Oblonsky’s eyes began to sparkle merrily and he smiled as he continued with his thoughts. “Yes, it was a nice dream—very nice indeed. There was a lot that was capital, but not to be expressed in words or even thought about clearly now that I am awake.” Then, noticing the streak of light from one side of the heavy blinds, he cheerfully thrust his feet down to feel for his slippers, which his wife had worked in gold morocco for his last birthday present. Next, without getting up, he stretched out his hand, as he had done for his dressing gown hung in the bedroom. And then memory flashed on him how and why it was that he was sleeping not in his wife’s room, but in the study. The smile vanished from his face and he frowned.12

And here’s a passage from Cancer Ward:

It is not every man who, who a year before his silver wedding, still loves his wife as dearly as Pavel Nikolayevich did Kapa. Throughout his life there had truly been no one he was closer to, no one with whom he could so frankly rejoice in his success and mull over his troubles. Kapa was a true friend, an intelligent, energetic woman. “She’s got more brains than the whole village council put together,” Pavel Nikolayevich used to boast to his friends. He had never felt the need to be unfaithful to her. It is a fallacy to say that husbands who have progressed up the social ladder always begin to feel ashamed of their youthful past.13

There are all sorts of differences between the two characters, the two authors, the two novels, as well as the historical periods in which they were written, that cannot be put on a scale. For me, however, there was and still is more reality in Tolstoy’s portrayal of a failing marriage than in Solzhenitsyn’s account of a successful one. That could be due, more than my argument would want it to be, to the difference between Oblonsky and Rusanov, that Oblonsky, for all his weaknesses, is much the more attractive man; but I do not really think so. Is it, after all, the man Oblonsky that is so attractive? Or is the universe of possible relations that Tolstoy creates in and around that paragraph? Oblonsky is l’homme moyen sensual, and in almost every phrase of that paragraph—I am speaking, of course, only of the translation—connections are established between him and the world he inhabits. Eyes do not sparkle, but moving waters do. Locked up in that barely notable metaphor is a web of connections linking Oblonsky to various lively natural phenomena; and throughout that paragraph, in ways like that, for all that Oblonsky is alone, and indeed alone with recollections of a dream, life floods in. But even taking account of the fact that it is to some large degree in Rusanov’s mind that the passage from Cancer Ward finds its being, the language is the language of dead and vulgar convention, minimal language, and the connections are connections of thought, ideational connections. Perhaps, the point I am trying to make will become a bit clearer, if I remind you of what seems to be a typically powerful passage from The First Circle:

“They keep telling me to divorce you and remarry. When is all this going to end? Just look at me! I’m thirty-seven years old. In three years I’ll be an old woman. I came home and I don’t make myself dinner; I don’t clean the room—I haven’t the heart. I just flop down on the couch and lie there like a dog. I beg you, my darling, please, do something to get out earlier. You’re so clever, invent something for them. You must save me!”

She had not meant to say any of this, but it was all too much for her. Shaking with sops and kissing her husband's hand, she let her head fall against the rough, warped little table, which had seen many such tears.

“Please, calm yourself,” the warder said sheepishly, glancing at the open door.

Gerasimovich’s face froze. This unseemly weeping could be heard all down the corridor. The lieutenant-colonel stood grimly in the doorway, glaring at the woman’s back, and he himself shut the door.

The regulations did not explicitly forbid the shedding of tears, but, if one went by the spirit of the law, they clearly could not be permitted.14

How extraordinary it is to read something that gives expression to the close connections between life and art. Each time I read the passage I remember Nadezhda’s Mandelstam’s pathetic cry: “I have spent my whole life lying down!” The connections between Solzhenitsyn’s historical work in The Gulag Archipelago, part of his large history of modern Russia, and the long fictional work begun in August 1914 are clearly intimate and complex.

My point is simply however to draw attention to something that seems to me to be typical and universal in Natasha’s cry and the way in which her author’s mind, though it clearly is deeply concerned with her plight, is yet drawn in the comments she makes about the table and the regulations, one pathetic and the other ironic, in a way that reminds me of Charles Dickens, as to the meaningless cruelties and stupidities of the Soviet regime, and how little they seem to yield to his—Solzhenitsyn’s—attention, and, therefore, how clearly and forcibly his bitten frustration sounds through. I intend no criticism in this comment. After all, what else could he do? His task, as I understand he saw it, was to bring to life a world in which there was no life, a world, that is, in which the kind of novel Lawrence had in mind when he spoke of the novel as “the one bright book of life” cannot exist. It is not surprising that in place of the complex, immoral, lively, generous, heartless Oblonsky, we have the shallow, simple crook Rusanov; that in place of the social web, in which Obonsky lives and grows, we find in Solzhenitsyn’s novels generally a close grid of regulations, in the tiny interstices of which isolated, and so consequently reduced, individuals hide. It is clear to me—and not just to me—that Solzhenitsyn spoke and wrote as a victim—a powerful great victim, but a victim nevertheless—of his own society.


It was beyond the capacities of great patients of Soviet society to cure themselves. Only in a society of human relations—of decent reciprocal human relations—can such a cure be effected. Not even those who possessed the greatest voices, being single, isolated, and so lonely, have created that society in Russia. How ironic and tragic it was that under a communist regime—which Marx in his Paris Manuscripts describes as “a fully developed humanism… in which [there would be] a definite resolution of the antagonism [both] between man and nature, and between individual men”—that one of the most effective destructions of human communities and community in general took place. It is only after reading Solzhenitsyn and Mandelstam that I realized how lucky the early Romantic poets had been to live in a society where they could yearn to be alone with their daffodils or die with their nightingales. But they did not live in a society in which they needed to learn how the revolutionary ideas of individual freedom could send men and women to die alone, on the taiga’s wastes, in the absence of both daffodils and nightingales—if cure was beyond their capacities, diagnosis was not. What great souls the Russian people, for all their suffering, continued to produce against all odds under Stalin (and still today under Putin)! Here is Nadezhda Mandelstam again:

To think that we could have had an ordinary family life with its bickering broken hearts and divorce suits! There are people in the world so crazy as not to realize that this is normal human existence of the kind everybody should aim at. What would we have given for such ordinary heartbreaks.15


It will soon be thirty years since my wife passed away. In the time we were together, we were fortunate to have what Nadezhda Mandelstam, that towering spirit, was not permitted to have—a life of ordinary heartbreaks. And so Nadezhda Mandelstam was perfectly right to see in the loss of marriage—the institution not the ceremony—the loss of the capacity for the mutual human growth and, by implication, the loss of nearly everything that renders human life meaningful.

Professor Haim Marantz taught for many years in the Department of Philosophy at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beer Sheva, Israel. He has worked and written extensively (and continues to do so) in the area of Political Thought.


1 Apsley Cherry-Garrard. The Worst Journey in the World. London, 1948.

2 Ibid., p. 266

3 Ibid., p. 238.

4 Australia, 1974. Quotation following, pp. 603‑4.

5 Vol I. London, 1930. P. 186.

6 P. 130.

7 London, 1970.

8 Eugen Kogan. Der SS-Staat. Frankfurt, 1946. P. 68. Quoted in Bettelheim, p. 147.

9 The Gulag Archipelago, p. 418.

10 Ibid.

11 Hope Against Hope. London, 1971. Pp. 165-6.

12 London, 195. P. 14.

13 NY, 1969. P. 174.

14 London, 1976. Pp. 276-7.

15 P. 19




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