Priorities

“What about the main thing in life, all its riddles? If you want, I’ll spell it our for you right now. Do not pursue what is illusory—property and position: all that is gained at the expense of your nerves decade after decade, and is confiscated in one fell night. Live with a steady superiority over life—don’t be afraid of misfortune, and do not yearn after happiness; it is, after all, all the same: the bitter doesn’t last forever, and the sweet never fills the cup to overflowing. It is enough if you don’t freeze in the cold and if thirst and hunger don’t claw at your insides. If your back isn’t broken, if your feet can walk, if both arms can bend, if both eyes see, and if both ears hear, then whom should you envy? Our envy of others devours us most of all. Rub your eyes and purify your heart—and prize above all else in the world those who love you and who wish you well. Do not hurt them or scold them, and never part from any of them in anger; after all, you simply do not know: it might be your last act.” – Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago (trans. Whitney)

Eyes shut tight

“Submission to fate, the total abdication of your own will in the shaping of your life, the recognition that it was impossible to guess the best and the worst ahead of time but that it was easy to take a step you would reproach yourself for—all this freed the prisoner from any bondage, made him calmer, and even ennobled him.” – Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago (trans. Whitney)

Going ungentle into that bad night

“For many years the Black Marias were steel-gray and had, so to speak, prison written all over them. But in the biggest cities after the war they had second thoughts and decided to paint them bright colors and to write on the outside, ‘Bread’ (the prisoners were the bread of construction), or ‘Meat’ (it would have been more accurate to write ‘bones’), or even, simply, ‘Drink Soviet Champagne!’ Inside, the Black Marias might consist of a simple armored body or shell, an empty enclosure. Or perhaps there were benches against the walls all the way around. This was in no sense a convenience, but the reverse: they would push in just as many prisoners as could be inserted standing up, but in this case they would be piled on top of each other like baggage, one bale on another. The Black Maria might also have a box in the rear—a narrow steel closet for one prisoner. Or it might be boxed throughout: single closets that locked like cells along the right- and left-hand walls, with a corridor in the middle for the turnkey. One was hardly likely to imagine that interior like a honeycomb when looking at that laughing maiden on the outside: ‘Drink Soviet Champagne!’ ” – Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago (trans. Whitney) (emphases in original)

Traveling light

“Own nothing! Possess nothing! Buddha and Christ taught us this, and the Stoics and the Cynics. Greedy though we are, why can’t we seem to grasp that simple teaching? Can’t we understand that with property we destroy our soul? . . . Own only what you can carry with you: know languages, know countries, know people. Let your memory be your travel bag.” – Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago (trans. Whitney)

Open wide

“Artificial feeding has much in common with rape. And that’s what it really is: four big men hurl themselves on one weak being and deprive it of its one interdiction—they only need to do it once and what happens to it next time is not important. The element of rape inheres in the violation of the victim’s will: ‘It’s not going to be the way you want it, but the way I want it; lie down and submit.’ They pry open the mouth with a flat disc, then broaden the crack between the jaws and insert a tube: ‘Swallow it.’ And if you don’t swallow it, they shove it father down anyway and then pour liquified food right down the esophagus. And then they massage the stomach to prevent the prisoner from resorting to vomiting. The sensation is one of being morally defiled, of sweetness in the mouth, and a jubilant stomach gratified to the point of delight.” – Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago (trans. Whitney)

The book of faces

“Many were shot—thousands at first, then hundreds of thousands. We divide, we multiply, we sigh, we curse. But still and all, these are just numbers. They overwhelm the mind and they are easily forgotten. And if someday the relatives of those who have been shot were to send one publisher photographs of their executed kin, and an album of those photographs were to be published in several volumes, then just by leafing through them and looking into the extinguished eyes we would learn much that would be valuable for the rest of our lives.” – Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago (trans. Whitney)

Candles in the rain

“With the exception of a very limited number of parliamentary democracies, during a very limited number of decades, the history of nations is entirely a history of revolutions and seizures of power. And whoever succeeds in making a more successful and more enduring revolution is from that moment on graced with the bright robes of Justice, and his every past and future step is legalized and memorialized in odes, whereas every past and future step of his unsuccessful enemies is criminal and subject to arraignment and a legal penalty.” – Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago (trans. Whitney)

Skeert ‘n’ compliant

“The court must not exclude terror. It would be self-deception or deceit to promise this, and in order to provide it with a foundation and to legalize it in a principled way, clearly and without hypocrisy and without embellishment, it is necessary to formulate it as broadly as possible, for only revolutionary righteousness and a revolutionary conscience will provide the conditions for applying it more or less broadly in practice.” – Vladimir Lenin, Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, letter to People’s Commissar of Justice Dmitri Kursky, May 17, 1922 (quoted by Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago (trans. Whitney))

Phoenix

“There is a simple truth which one can learn only through suffering: in war not victories are blessed but defeats. Governments need victories and the people need defeats. Victory gives rise to the desire for more victories. But after a defeat it is freedom that men desire—and usually attain. A people needs defeat just as an individual needs suffering and misfortune: they compel the deepening of the inner life and generate a spiritual upsurge.” – Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago (trans. Whitney)

You could line them all up over there

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? During the life of any heart this line keeps changing place; sometimes it is squeezed one way by exuberant evil and sometimes it shifts to allow enough space for good to flourish. One and the same human being is, at various ages, under various circumstances, a totally different human being. At times he is close to being a devil, at times to sainthood. But his name doesn’t change, and to that name we ascribe the whole lot, good and evil. Socrates taught us: Know thyself! Confronted by the pit into which we are about to toss those who have done us harm, we halt, stricken dumb: it is after all only because of the way things worked out that they were the executioners and we weren’t.” – Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago (trans. Whitney) (emphasis in original)

The walking dead

“How can you stand your ground when you are weak and sensitive to pain, when people you love are still alive, when you are unprepared? What do you need to make you stronger than the interrogator and the whole trap? 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’s 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.’ Confronted by such a prisoner, the interrogation will tremble. Only the man who has renounced everything can win that victory. But how can one turn one’s body to stone?” – Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago (trans. Whitney)

Not like it is today

“If the intellectuals in the plays of Chekhov who spent all their time guessing what would happen in twenty, thirty, or forty years had been told that in forty years interrogation by torture would be practiced in Russia; that prisoners would have their skulls squeezed within iron rings; that a human would be lowered into an acid bath; that they would be trussed up naked to be bitten by ants and bedbugs; that a ramrod heated over a primus stove would be thrust up their anal canal (the ‘secret brand’); that a man’s genitals would be slowly crushed beneath the toe of a jackboot; and that, in the luckiest possible circumstances, prisoners would be tortured by being kept from sleeping for a week, by thirst, and by being beaten to a bloody pulp, not one of Chekhov’s plays would have gotten to its end because all the heroes would be gone off to insane asylums.” – Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago (trans. Whitney) (footnotes omitted)

The treason of the exhausted

“A district Party conference was under way in Moscow Province. It was presided over by a new secretary of the District Party Committee, replacing one recently arrested. At the conclusion of the conference a tribute to Comrade Stalin was called for. Of course, everyone stood up . . . . The small hall echoed with ‘stormy applause, rising to an ovation.’ For three minutes, four minutes, five minutes, the ‘stormy applause, rising to an ovation’ continued. But palms were getting sore and raised arms were already aching. And the older people were panting from exhaustion. It was becoming insufferably silly even to those who really adored Stalin. However, who would dare to be the first to stop? The secretary of the District Party Committee could have done it. He was standing on the platform, and it was he who had just called for the ovation. But he was a newcomer. He had taken the place of a man who’d been arrested. . . . NKVD men were standing in the hall applauding and watching to see who quit first! And in that obscure, small hall, unknown to the Leader, the applause went on—six, seven, eight minutes! They were done for! Their goose was cooked! They couldn’t stop now till they collapsed with heart attacks! . . . The director of the local paper factory, an independent and strong-minded man, stood with the presidium. Aware of all the falsity and all the impossibility of the situation, he still kept on applauding! Nine minutes! Ten! In anguish he watched the secretary of the District Party Committee, but the latter dared not stop. Insanity! To the last man! With make-believe enthusiasm on their faces, looking at each other with faint hope, the district leaders were just going to go on and on applauding till they fell where they stood, till they were carried out of the hall on stretchers! And even then those who were left would not falter. . . . Then, after eleven minutes, the director of the paper factory assumed a businesslike expression and sat down in his seat. And, oh, a miracle took place! Where had the universal, uninhibited, indestructible enthusiasm gone? To a man, everyone else stopped dead and sat down. They had been saved! . . . . That, however, was how they discovered who the independent people were. And that was how they went about eliminating them. That same night the factory director was arrested.” – Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago (trans. Whitney) (emphases in original)