More Thoughts on the GulagI've gotten to the point where for the most part, I've become an opportunistic book buyer. I used to go looking for specific books and I would (mostly) buy the book I was looking for before buying anything else. Now, there are so many books that I want to read that unless it's by one of my rare "must have" authors, I don't bother until I find it cheap somewhere around town, whether it's in a used book store, or even better, at a yard sale. This week I picked up a nice paperback copy of Thackery's Vanity Fair. Eventually I'll read it.
I've already written about volume I of The Gulag Archipelago which I found as a paperback at the local YMCA's used book sale. Early this summer I found volume II in hardcover at a used book store. It's big, and it's heavy, and I'm guessing that very few people bought it, and even fewer people read it.
I am not like other people however, and I brought it to keep me company on the six hour train rides to and from Chicago. It is truly as fascinating as the first volume. As with the first volume, the irony and sarcasm keeps this book from making the reader suicidal.
With about 200 pages left to go, it suddenly hit me that a totalitarian society - as the USSR, as the other communist dictatorships, as the Third Reich, as Islamic countries are and always have been - suicidal. No, that's not right. They still survive. They are self-defeating. They can never rise up from the mud because they destroy their best and brightest. Solzhenitsyn writes of engineers, scientists, writers, composers, poets, artists, and others who should have been inventing and creating new products, and building the wealth, and forming the spirit of the USSR, being instead, forced to live as political prisoners and slave laborers in prison camps across Russia. Lenin had his opponents murdered, and the entire slave labor system began under his leadership. Stalin, in addition to imprisoning and killing the best and brightest Russia had to offer, purged his generals before WWII. Oops! And then there was China. How many brilliant, creative, hard-working people were murdered during the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward? Under Pol Pot in Cambodia, people with glasses were killed under the assumption that they were dangerous intellectuals. How many political prisoners has Castro imprisoned?
You want to talk non-communist dictators? How about Zimbabwe's Mugabe turning a net food exporting country into a nation of starving disease-ridden beggars? Yes, the Rhodesian apartheid system was immoral, but are Zimbabweans better or worse off now?
Islam, although it has conquered a large portion of the world, as its holy book, the Qu'ran instructs its followers to do, it doesn't allow Muslims to rise in the world in any meaningful manner. Jihad doesn't allow for excellence in fields that improve the lot of mankind, there is no incentive to create and nurture industry, medicine, art, literature, etc. It's all about conquest and control over the lives of Muslims - and non-Muslims. We are supposed to be tolerated as dhimmis. Not that Islam has contributed nothing, but considering 20 percent of the world's population is Muslim, it seems to me that if there were genuine freedom in Islam and in Islamic nations, we would hear more positive news and less of the kind that insists we in "dar al harm" ignore the pathologies of Islam; jihad, honor killings, terrorism, rioting over cartoons, teddy bears, literature, etc.
But back to the gulag. As I was dawdling with this post over days and weeks, I finished the book. Turns out it's also a philosophy book. And it's not that Solzhenitsyn just tacked some philosophical musings on at the end to give it a bit more kick. Due to the previous 12 to 1300 pages, it is an integral part of the book. It fills a need that the reader (or at least this reader) doesn't even realize needs to be filled until it is filled. He has built a philosophy built on pain and death and the horrors of a slave labor system that is as bad or worse than any other that has ever been conceived by human beings. And I'm not sure he's totally satisfied with this philosophy, but he doesn't excuse himself as a victim. He doesn't "go Obama" on us. He presents his own weakness and fallibility to the reader. (I can't pretend that I would have done any better in his situation. In fact, I don't think I would have lasted very long at all.) He doesn't offer himself as a hero, but merely as another innocent Russian unjustly imprisoned who happened to be lucky enough to survive. His survival amidst all of those who died forces him and the reader to continue to think about the validity of these final thoughts. It also reminded me of Tolstoy's story, God Sees the Truth, but Waits.
I hate to gush, but it you have some spare time, you should read this monster.