The Evil That Haunts Us

an old building with a bell on top of it in the snow

The Wall Street Journal recently commemorated the 50 year anniversary of the Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago: An Experiment  in Literary Investigation, calling it “arguably the 20th century’s greatest piece of nonfiction prose.” Solzhenitsyn wrote it from over hundreds of interviews of fellow prisoners. He dedicated the work to those who didn’t live to tell their stories.

In it, Solzhenitsyn writes of the unthinkable cruelty of the Gulag. Prisoners skulls were squeezed with iron rings, some were placed in acid baths, some had their genitals crushed, to name but a few of the crimes against humanity carried out in service of Communist ideology. But for those who might wrongly conclude these horrors could only happen in some other place by people motivated by some other system, Solzhenitsyn warns “all the evils of the twentieth century is possible everywhere on earth.”

Solzhenitsyn makes a point reminiscent to Dorothy Sayers’ “Creed or Chaos” speech. The soldiers could treat the prisoners in such horrific ways, mainly because they had convinced themselves what they were doing was morally good. As Sayers said of Hitler, it’s not that he’s being naughty—he believes his cause is right. Thus the cure is not to embrace no ideology, an impossibility, but rather, to embrace the right ideology, one that celebrates the intrinsic worth of all humans while recognizing their potential for both good and evil.

Herein lies the challenge. Every person is capable of justifying their actions to achieve some desirable outcome. For example, Solzhenitsyn recognized prisoners faced the temptation to lie and cheat to protect themselves over the lives of others. Solzhenitsyn called this the “great fork,” at which a person much choose honesty and kindness and likely lose their own lives, or a path of deception and selfishness that would lead them to lose their conscience.

What way of seeing the world can guard against not only the sort of national evil Solzhenitsyn wrote of, but also the evil potential in every person? Solzhenitsyn reminds us, “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart.” For Solzhenitsyn, and Sayers too since I mentioned her, the ideology to which we should turn, the creed to stay back the chaos, is not only the Christian ethic, but Christ himself.