When he was arrested in February 1945 on a trumped-up charge of having committed crimes against the Soviet Union, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was forced to march along with several other detained Soviet soldiers and a German civilian from the jail where they had been processed to the prison which would be their new home. Solzhenitsyn, an officer in the Soviet Army, was outraged at his arrest. Still attired in his officer’s uniform he refused to carry his own suitcase and insisted that the German prisoner carry it. As they marched, Solzhenitsyn could see the German man struggling with the weight of the suitcase. When the man could carry it no further, Solzhenitsyn watched as the Soviet prisoners who were marching in formation with them took the suitcase from the German. Each prisoner took a turn carrying the heavy suitcase – except for Solzhenitsyn, who was ruminating all the while about the injustice of his situation. He was innocent. And he understood that his innocence was an indictment of Stalin and the corruption of the Soviet system. Along the way, Russian soldiers saw him, an officer, being escorted under armed guard. They stared at him with hatred as one accused of treason. Powerless to explain to them that he was not a spy but their friend, he tried to share with them a smile, which they took as mockery and they began cursing and shouting insults at him. He continued to smile, thinking that he might be able eventually to effect some change to the system through his experience. As he patted himself on the back for his unselfish dedication, “all that time my suitcase was being carried by others.”
Reflecting on that episode in his life in his epic work The Gulag Archipelago, he famously writes: “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…. 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.” But, he concludes, it is the same heart and the same person who is capable of good – but also of terrible evil.
The Gulag Archipelago, did much to reveal to the world the evil of the Soviet system. It showed how arbitrary and unjust things were and how quickly you could lose your freedom and be sentenced to death or hard labor under false charges. It gave vivid descriptions of the horrific conditions of life in the gulag. But perhaps the most important contribution of this important work was its account of how the experience opened Solzhenitsyn’s eyes to the truth that he was not simply a victim of an oppressive system, but also a contributor to the oppression of others.
The events of the past several days have been very disturbing. I don’t pretend to be able to explain it or to have any deep insights into it. There just seems to be so much evil manifesting itself out there, and I have no idea how we will find our way out of it or how things will look when they settle down. But this episode from Solzhenitsyn’s life is a reminder that while we rightly look for ways to fight against the evils that we encounter “out there” it’s important that we don’t lose sight of the reality that each of us struggles with the effects of Original Sin “in here”, in our hearts.
May Our Lord have mercy on us, and may we recognize this as a time in which each of us is being called to deeper conversion.