Alexander Solzhenitsyn: Repentance and Moral Renewal

As early as 1965, the Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn predicted that “Time has finally run out for Communism.” He said the same thing when, nine years later, he was forcibly exiled from his homeland. Not only did he accurately describe what would happen to the Soviet regime, but he also played a vital role in bringing about its collapse.

In November 1962, Novy Mir, one of the leading Soviet literary magazines of that time, published Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. The novel made him world-famous overnight and, as Professor Edward Ericson has noted, “broke the official conspiracy of silence about the greatest horror story . . . in human history.”

In the early 1970s, Solzhenitsyn and a circle of like-minded Russian intellectuals published a book of essays designed to suggest a diagnosis of the evils and difficulties that beset the country, and to point to possible long-range solutions. “After over half a century of enforced silence,” these writers decided to demonstrate that the voices of dissent “will not so easily be stilled.” The central thesis of their essays, published in English under the title From Under the Rubble, was that the problems of the modern world, Soviet as well as Western, can no longer be solved on the political plane. Rather, they asserted, solutions must be sought in morality and religion. Their goal was to bring about a “moral revolution” in Russia, a revolution that rejected physical violence and compulsion.

Russia’s Painful Past

In an article entitled “Repentance and Self-Limitation in the Life of Nations,” Solzhenitsyn argued that repentance had historically been a characteristic of Russian life, nurtured by Russia’s rich Christian tradition. This capacity for repentance had begun to wither and dry up because of the “suppression of the Russian spirit” beginning in the days of Peter the Great. By the twentieth century, “the blessed dews of repentance could no longer soften the parched Russian soil, baked hard by doctrines of hate.” The violence and hatred generated under the Soviet regime for seventy years led to the loss of the “gift of repentance” in Russian society, as well as to its ridicule.

Rather than point the finger at others for Russia’s tumultuous past, Solzhenitsyn offered a profound insight into evil by arguing that “the universal dividing line between good and evil runs not between countries, not between nations, not between parties, not between classes, not between good and bad men: the dividing line cuts across nations and parties, shifting constantly. . . . It divides the heart of every man.” In light of this truth, Solzhenitsyn stated that Russians needed to stop blaming others for their troubles and start searching for their own errors and sins, asking for forgiveness for the evils which they had committed. In his judgment, repentance was “the first bit of firm ground underfoot” and “the only starting point for spiritual growth.”

A Strategy for Making Progress

Beginning with the argument that Russia’s struggles were not the result of external forces, Solzhenitsyn emphasized that Russians “have done evil on a massive scale and mainly in our own country, not abroad, not to others, but at home to our own people, to ourselves.” Further, if Russians wanted to move forward “to build a just, clean, honest society,” the only way to shed the burden of the past was to repent and confess that “we are all guilty.” Solzhenitsyn believed that even the most clever economic and social reforms cannot convert “the kingdom of universal falsehood into a kingdom of universal truth” – only repentance will do that!

According to Solzhenitsyn’s judgment, in order for Russia to make progress in healing its land, a radical change of direction is needed. The first step is “repentance,” followed by national self-limitation, a conscious decision to restrain a nation’s appetite and unbridled pursuit of growth. But it is the first step – repentance – that he argued for so emphatically. Repentance is “only the clearing of the ground, the establishment of a clean basis in preparation for further moral action.” Without repentance, reform is not possible.

Rather than focusing on international relations and the loss of the Soviet empire, Solzhenitsyn prioritized the need for internal reform – “the healing of our souls.” In his judgment, “we must stop running into the street to join every brawl and instead retire virtuously into our own home so long as we are in such a state of disorder and confusion.” One strategic place to begin the reform process is the school, the “key to the future of Russia.” While noting that this challenge cannot be met in one generation and will require immense efforts, Solzhenitsyn offered this radical proposition: “The whole public educational system must be created anew, and not with rejects but with the people’s best forces.”

Solzhenitsyn’s mission in life was to speak the truth to those in power. Professor Ericson has noted that although Solzhenitsyn described the horrors of Russia’s past, he always ended his books with a note of hope. In each of his writings, the root of our contemporary horrors is simply that “men have forgotten God.” Change is possible however, once people put their faith in God. This insight is a profound warning not only for Solzhenitsyn’s fellow Russians, but for all of us “who have ears to hear.”