Russian Purgatory

Published July 20, 2020

First Things - June 2020 issue

The Russian soul. The phrase serves as shorthand for Russia’s national character, after the manner of American innocence, French arrogance, Italian dolce far niente, and what used to be the English stiff upper lip. Russians are reputed to feel more than the rest of us do, think deep thoughts about eternal but elusive truths, engage in fevered dispute about the meaning of it all, weep ­unabashedly and laugh balefully over the sorrowful and preposterous human lot, and drink themselves into sodden paralysis. They suffer demonstratively. They have good reason to. Russian politics have been and continue to be an abomination, and for millions of Russians daily life is an all but intolerable grind. The people’s habit of replacing one tyrannical overlord with another is regrettable, to say the least. Russian souls have long been forged, when they have not been consumed, in the fires of an earthly hell.

Yet, as Dante knew when he plunged Satan and other traitors into the frozen depths of the Inferno, hell at its worst can be extremely cold. And Siberia has become a byword for such icy torment. It is the native vale of soul-making, to borrow a phrase from an English Romantic poet. As one denizen of the Arctic region Kolyma put it, “Here we have twelve months of winter. / The rest summer.” This everlasting winter has come to be associated with the slave labor camps of Stalin’s heyday, but already under the czars Siberian imprisonment followed by exile or military service was the standard punishment for political defiance as well as more conventional criminality. As one learns from Daniel Beer’s study The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars (2016), more than a million malefactors were consigned to Asian Russia, the vast expanse east of the Ural Mountains, between 1801 and 1917. Liberals, utopian socialists of various denominations, and ­Polish patriots trying to free their homeland from imperial oppression were all heavily represented among the banished outlaws. Siberia was the proving ground for revolutionary brotherhood. Lenin and Stalin and any number of lesser incendiaries did time there. Stern wills were hardened, alliances cemented. Beer writes:

When revolution finally erupted in 1905, these exiled radicals transformed Siberia’s towns and villages into crucibles of violent struggle against the autocracy. Scaffolds were erected in the courtyards of prisons while, beyond their walls, wardens were assassinated in the streets. No longer a quarantine against the contagions of revolution, Siberia had become a source of the infection.

In due course, the prisoners became jailers and secret police, and eventually prisoners once more, as the revolution ate its own.

Russia’s greatest writers have detailed the sufferings caused by the national penal system, which was not only a chamber of punitive horrors but also the instrument of deliberate annihilation. In the international revolutionary annus mirabilis 1848, Fyodor Dostoevsky became a member of the ­Petrashevsky Circle, an antiauthoritarian debating society. The Petrashevtsy were rather less than revolutionaries but dangerously more than perfect innocents, and the Third Department, the czarist secret police, rounded them up and threw them in prison. Twenty-eight of them, including Dostoevsky, were sentenced to death by firing squad. Only after they had been herded together and lashed to posts, and the riflemen had moved into position, did a horseman arrive with a commutation of sentence from Czar Nicholas I: The evildoers were to be imprisoned instead in Siberian penal forts. One of the reprieved went irrecoverably mad on the spot. Dostoevsky got a four-year term at hard labor, to be followed by military service.

From his experience of confinement in Omsk, Dostoevsky would write the quasi-autobiographical novel Memoirs from the House of the Dead (1861–62). To satisfy or evade the censor, Dostoevsky made his narrator, Goryanchikov, not a political prisoner but a murderer, though a gentleman rather than a common criminal like most of the inmates. The ordeal of captivity among the human dregs is almost more than Goryanchikov (or Dostoevsky) can bear. Among the things Goryanchikov must get used to is the company of an irredeemable wretch, Gazin, who cuts children’s throats for the thrill of it, “slowly, quietly, voluptuously”: “It sometimes seemed to me that I was looking at a huge, monstrous spider, the size of a man.” Yet Dostoevsky encountered someone even worse than Gazin: the utterly depraved snitch and toady Aristov, “the most loathsome example of infamy to which a human being can descend,” who had killed, “with remorseless ease, every kind of moral feeling in himself.” Doing a two-year stretch for falsely denouncing innocent people, Aristov serves the authorities as an informer on his fellow prisoners. And among the authorities Dostoevsky finds some delighted sadists, such as the executioner ­Zherebyatnikov, who feigns tender-hearted mercy to a prisoner he is about to flog within an inch of his life. Dostoevsky reflects, “It is difficult to conceive to what extent human nature may be perverted.”

The endemic perversity makes instances of simple goodness shine all the brighter. Unexpected kindnesses toward men who appeared to be soulless can be the agency of their spiritual regeneration:

God knows, treatment as a human being may transform into a man again even one in whom the image of God has long been eclipsed. These “­unfortunates” must be treated in as human a way as possible. This is their joy and their salvation. I have met good and noble commandants. I have seen the effect they have produced on these fallen ones. A few friendly words—and for the prisoners it was almost a moral resurrection.

Dostoevsky is struck by the transformative realization that even in convicts of ingrained wickedness there is virtue, and among the free citizenry there are blackened souls. Most of the men so extravagantly despised are, in fact, no worse than those who condemn them.

For Goryanchikov as for Dostoevsky, prison is a chance to search his own mind and heart, to repent for his sins, and to flood his soul with light:

In my mental isolation I reviewed all my former life, down to the last trifling detail, pondered over my past, judged myself sternly and inexorably, and at moments even blessed the fate that had sent me that solitude, without which there would have been neither the self-judgment nor the stern scrutiny of my earlier life.

Likewise, in Crime and Punishment (1866), the murderer Raskolnikov, who killed while bewitched by the idea of his Napoleonic exaltation over the rest of humanity, becomes a new man in captivity. In ­Siberia, he discovers that life is far richer than his bloody-minded ideal, and he is led to the truth of the Gospels by the love of a saintly woman. Imprisonment is the best thing that ever happened to him. Dostoevsky’s final paragraph foresees Raskolnikov’s transfiguration into a beautiful soul: “But here begins a new account, the account of a man’s gradual renewal, the account of his gradual regeneration, his gradual transition from one world to another, his acquaintance with a new, hitherto completely unknown reality.”

In Resurrection (1899), Leo Tolstoy depicts the effect of that hitherto unknown reality on the souls of a young man and woman who have lost their way. Ten years before the story commences, Prince Dmitry Nekhlyudov seduced, impregnated, and abandoned Katerina Maslova, a servant in his aunts’ household. The aunts dismissed Maslova, her baby died, and she descended into drunkenness and prostitution. Nekhlyudov finds himself serving on the jury of a murder case in which Maslova is one of the accused; he recognizes her, but she does not notice him. The jurors and the judge agree that she is not guilty, since she claims she did not know that the substance she put in her victim’s drink to knock him out was deadly. But an oversight on the judge’s part leads the jury to convict her. Appalled, Nekhlyudov attempts to get the conviction overturned—unsuccessfully, at least at first. Alight with virtue and godly love, he presents himself to Maslova and tells her it is his duty to marry her and follow her to Siberia. She does not think their marrying is a good idea. He follows her all the same.

Nekhlyudov’s experience of prison, even as a camp follower, changes him profoundly. Among Maslova’s fellow prisoners are a number of violent revolutionaries who waged a terror campaign that included the assassination of Czar Alexander II:

[Nekhlyudov] was revolted by the cruelty and secrecy of the methods they employed in their struggles against the Government, especially by the cruelty of the murders they committed; he also disliked the air of self-importance which was a prominent characteristic of theirs. But having come to know them more intimately, and learned all they had suffered at the hands of the Government, he saw that they could not be other than they were.

Justice appears to be no concern of the government’s as it thrashes about, trying to hold on to power. Matters of life and death are left to chance and mischance and, worse, to the caprice of willful men: “The fate of these persons, often innocent even from the Government point of view, depended on the whim, leisure, or humor of some police officer, or spy, or public prosecutor, or magistrate, or governor, or minister.” The justice system—the very idea of justice as men have always conceived and abused it—is too far gone in moral corruption. No secular reform can save it.

What the crisis requires is that every man and woman honor the divine law that Christ’s example teaches and that is inscribed in every soul:

It became clear to [Nekhlyudov] that all the dreadful evil he had been witnessing in prisons and jails, and the quiet self-assurance of the perpetrators of this evil, resulted from men attempting what was impossible: to correct evil while themselves evil. . . . Now he saw clearly whence came all the horrors he had seen, and what ought to be done to put an end to them. The answer he had been unable to find was the same that Christ gave to Peter. It was to forgive always, everyone, to forgive an infinite number of times, because there are none who are not themselves guilty, and therefore none who can punish or reform.

For Tolstoy’s hero as for Dostoevsky’s, prison is the vale of soul-making, where he sees the truth more feelingly than he could on the outside, and acts on his newfound understanding to alter the course of his life. The disinterested love that Nekhlyudov shows Maslova moves her to amend her soul as well. Maslova loves Nekhlyudov but will not let him ­sacrifice himself for her, and after she receives a mitigation of her sentence—free settlement in exile rather than imprisonment—she tells him of her intention to live with another honorable convict when he too is freed. ­Nekhlyudov meanwhile begins “a perfectly new life” guided by biblical precept, and like ­Raskolnikov appears to have a spiritually ­glorious future ahead of him.

In 1890, the thirty-year-old Anton Chekhov, doctor, playwright, master of the short story, and paragon of liberal humanism, went for three months to Sakhalin, a large island off the Pacific coast of Siberia, to investigate prison life and settled exile. His study Sakhalin Island appeared five years later. As one would expect, the sordid, the disgusting, and the horrifying all have their place on Sakhalin. Here is the “fetter block” of the prison in the town of Alexandrovsk, where twenty prisoners who had tried to escape were crammed into a small cell:

Their clothing was ripped, they were unwashed, wearing irons, and had on hideous boots, laced around with rags and bits of string; the hair on one side of their heads was disheveled, while on the other, which had been shaven clean, it was already beginning to sprout again. They were all emaciated, as if they had just molted, but they looked cheerful. There was no bedding—they slept on the bare bed-boards. In the corner stood a pot; each could fulfill his natural requirements in no other way than in the presence of twenty witnesses.

Chekhov pronounces the negation of civilized ­decencies that he sees “‘nihilistic’ in the fullest sense of the word.”

In the prisons and among the settled exiles who have already served their prison terms, social pathologies thrive, and degradation is the common lot:

When I enquired at Alexandrovsk whether there were any prostitutes there, the reply was “As many as you like!” In view of the enormous demand, the taking up of prostitution is impeded neither by age nor by deformity, nor even by tertiary syphilis. In the streets of Alexandrovsk, I came across a girl of sixteen who, according to stories, had entered upon prostitution at the age of nine.

Men outnumber women by two to one, so feminine charm is in high demand. Male exiles assess the new female arrivals “the way people discuss workhorses in spring when they foresee a winter of dear feedstuff.” Life is brutal and death insignificant. Convict funerals amount to solid-waste disposal.

Chekhov’s most unexpected observation is that things on Sakhalin aren’t nearly as bad as they used to be:

Among the educated classes directing the offices and working in them, I repeatedly met intelligent, good-natured and noble individuals, whose presence serves as sufficient guarantee that a return of the past is no longer possible. Nowadays the convicts are not rolled in barrels any more, and a convict could not be flogged to death or driven to suicide without this scandalizing society here, and without its being talked about along the Amur and throughout the whole of Siberia.

Despite the flaws in the system, liberal humanitarianism appears to be coming into its own as the twentieth century approaches. Or so a decent man may hope.

As Machiavelli subtly taught, however, hope is a theological virtue, not a political one. The Bolshevik century introduced methods of making a prisoner confess—usually to crimes he never committed—that had not occurred to the men of the nineteenth. In The Gulag Archipelago (1973–76), his masterly history of “our sewage disposal ­system,” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn retails the ways in which body and soul of Soviet man were broken, with apologies to the sensibilities of a past literary master:

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 with iron rings; that a human being 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 have gone off to insane asylums.

The sentence of hard labor under the czars, ­Solzhenitsyn writes with almost gleeful mordancy, was an idyll compared to Stalin’s crushing prison regimen. In the 1890s at one of the fiercest labor camps, the prescribed workday was eight hours in summer and six in winter, including the long walk to and from the work site. In the 1930s and 1940s in Kolyma, the workday ran from thirteen to sixteen hours, and the three-mile slog back and forth did not figure in the calculation. And whereas the perpetrators of the famed Decembrist conspiracy of the 1820s were required to mine and load 118 pounds of ore per day, the Stalinist work norm was 28,800 pounds per day—though even in the homeland of unprecedented technological marvels, pick and shovel had undergone no startling advances in the interval:

As for Dostoevsky’s hard labor in Omsk, it is clear that in general they simply loafed about, as any reader can establish. The work there was agreeable and went with a swing, and the prison administration there even dressed them up in white linen jackets and trousers! . . . Indeed, the Tsarist censor did not want to pass the manuscript of The House of the Dead for fear that the easiness of the life depicted by Dostoyevsky would fail to deter people from crime. And so, Dostoyevsky added new pages for the censor which demonstrated that life in hard labor was nonetheless hard!

But the aim of hard labor had changed with the times. The czarist labor camps punished and professed to rehabilitate the inmates while getting some useful work out of them; the communist labor camps deliberately worked, starved, and froze the enemies of the state to death: “It was impossible to try to keep nourished on Gulag norms anyone who worked out in the bitter cold for thirteen or even ten hours.” The least-productive slave laborers were allowed “punishment block rations” of ten and a half ounces of daily bread and a bowl of gruel whose nutritional value came mostly from the insects entombed in it, while those who exceeded the work norm got as much as two pounds of bread, two portions of kasha, and perhaps even “the bonus dish, which was some kind of dark, bitterish, rye-dough fingers stuffed with peas.” The so-called Stakhanovites and shock-workers who earned this bounty died even faster than the laggards, for the energy they expended in their heroic labors could not be made good by the food they were given. Again, the comparison with the old days ­provokes Solzhenitsyn’s sardonic appraisal of his literary ­predecessors, who thought they were describing real horrors:

Danger of death from malnutrition is something else that never hung over the ­hard-labor convicts of Dostoyevsky’s book. . . .
On Sakhalin the Tsarist prisoners working on roads and in mines during the months of the most work received each day 56 ounces of bread, 14 ounces of meat, 8 ¾ ounces of cereal! And the conscientious ­Chekhov investigated whether these norms were really enough, or whether, in view of the inferior quality of the baking and cooking, they fell short. And if he had looked into the bowl of our Soviet slogger, he would have given up the ghost right then and there.

To extinguish the human soul, to reduce men to mere agonized bodies as they were gradually done to death, was the diabolical intent of the Bolshevik labor camps. Solzhenitsyn honors the men and women who resisted. Those who most defied the communist dogma that the material world is all were of course the religious believers—Orthodox, Baptist, Roman Catholic, Jewish, Muslim—and “the root destruction of religion in the country . . . throughout the twenties and thirties was one of the most important goals of the GPU-NKVD [the secret police].” Mass arrests swept priests, nuns, and devout laymen into the camps. Monasteries were emptied of monks, who “were not human beings and could be tossed out at will,” and the earthly powers transformed the well-fortified precincts into concentration camps.

In the camps, some believers retained but a ­tenuous hold on their faith, while others remained fervent. In Solzhenitsyn’s novel of camp routine, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962), the hero whispers a curt prayer at the end of the day: “Head on the pillow, stuffed with shavings of wood; feet in jacket sleeve; coat on top of blanket and—Glory be to Thee, O Lord. Another day over. Thank You I’m not spending tonight in the [punishment] cells. Here it’s still bearable.” Ivan’s Baptist bunkmate, ­Alyosha—he shares his name with the saintly Karamazov brother in Dostoevsky’s masterpiece—overhears the prayer and exhorts Ivan to pray more often and more ­seriously, and not to pray for something as spiritually dubious as the end of his sentence. “Why do you want freedom? In freedom your last grain of faith will be choked with weeds. You should rejoice that you’re in prison. Here you have time to think about your soul.” Such sentiments we have heard before, from other literary prisoners. The novel ends with a makeshift communion of shared biscuit and sausage—not a mockery of the sacrament, but the fulfillment of both soul and body as the two men satisfy for the moment their common need for brotherhood and grub:

“Here you are, Alyosha,” said Shukhov, and handed him a biscuit.

Alyosha smiled. “Thank you. But you’ve got nothing yourself.”

“Eat it.”

(We’ve nothing but we always find a way to make something extra.)

Now for that slice of sausage. Into the mouth. Getting your teeth into it. Your teeth. The meaty taste. And the meaty juice, the real stuff. Down it goes, into your belly.


Thus Solzhenitsyn, a veteran of the labor camps, acknowledges his rightful descent from the two greatest masters of the Russian novel, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, who are also the two most important religious teachers of Russian modernity.

IThe Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn refers repeatedly to the writings of Varlam Shalamov, whose poetry he first read in samizdat in 1956, and which made him tremble “as though [he] had met a long-lost brother.” Shalamov endured fifteen years in the Gulag, the first six mining gold under murderous conditions in the Arctic, the rest as a paramedic in camp hospitals—a change of venue that saved his life. All of Shalamov’s short stories about the camps, written between 1954 and 1972, are now available in Donald Rayfield’s new translation in two weighty volumes, Kolyma Stories and Sketches of the Criminal World: Further Kolyma Stories. The stories, many of them autobiographical, are terse, austere to the point of savagery, and indispensable to anyone attempting to understand the previous century’s enormities. For all the brotherly resemblance to Solzhenitsyn, Shalamov was a very different sort of man, a professed atheist who came by his unbelief honestly. He was a rare survivor of what he called “the new Kolyma Auschwitz.” Having witnessed the worst that men can do to one another, he found nothing to sustain him in his deathly life but the body’s instinct to go on no matter what, and the conviction that he would one day write what he had learned. The truth he learned on his body in the camps made religious belief impossible. Only his dedication to setting down this truth in works of literature preserved him from nihilism.

In one of his earliest stories, “At Night,” two prisoners sneak out of the barracks to uncover a recently buried corpse—the permafrost necessitates a shallow grave—and take the clothes it no longer needs: “‘His underpants are quite new,’ said Bagretsov with satisfaction.” This is the grimmest possible parody of the resurrection of the body, as helped along by men whose souls have been mutilated. They no longer miss the parts of themselves they have lost. They will trade the dead man’s clothing for bread and maybe some tobacco. In some one thousand words, ­Shalamov encompasses the very being of Soviet man in extremis.

“Evening Prayer” examines the spiritual condition of the engineer Findikaki, who had cracked on the “conveyor belt” of incessant interrogation. In time, he gets over his shame at having been “trampled underfoot,” but his despair is permanent:

Again I heard Findikaki whispering what seemed to be a prayer before he slept: “Life is shit. A lump of shit.” For five years.

The tone and the text of Findikaki’s magic formula never changed.

Blasphemy had become the sincerest form of address to the Almighty. Or to Nothing At All.

In “Grishka Logun’s Thermometer,” the narrator admits that all hope of normal existence has been lost forever: “We no longer counted on getting back to our former souls. And, of course, we didn’t get back. Nobody did.” Dostoevskyan transcendence has no place in Stalin’s camps: “There was no Kolyma in the ‘House of the Dead.’ If there had been, Dostoevsky would have been struck dumb.” Shalamov was not struck dumb; in Kolyma he found his authentic and terrible voice, which was unlike that of any of his distinguished forebears or contemporaries.

In Kolyma: The Arctic Death Camps (1978), ­Robert Conquest, the late poet and historian of the Soviet terror state, identified a difference between the durance vile that horrified Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov and the Gulag universe of Solzhenitsyn and Shalamov: “Of the 3 million—or more—dead whose bones now lie in the Kolyma permafrost there is one final point to make. They were, virtually without exception, entirely innocent of the charges brought against them.” Twentieth-century terror for terror’s sake—mass suffering and death at the call of a tyrant’s devastating whim, in the service of absolute nihilism—ravaged the soul of the Russian people. Their soul’s current pitiable state bespeaks the ordeal through which it passed under the evil regime of Soviet communism.

The liberal nineteenth-century genius Chekhov believed that the worst of the bad old days was over, and whereas once the czars had packed their ­dungeons with the best men in Russia, the future would bring ever more light and air and freedom and justice. He could not have been more wrong. By 1941, as Solzhenitsyn writes, the best men in Russia knew

what as yet no one else in the world knew: that nowhere on the planet, nowhere in history, was there a regime more vicious, more bloodthirsty, and at the same time more cunning and ingenious than the Bolshevik, the self-styled Soviet regime. . . .
No, not even the regime of its pupil Hitler, which at that time blinded Western eyes to all else.

Even long after Hitler was disposed of, Western eyes remained purblind. Progressive intellectuals to this day dismiss Solzhenitsyn as a retro-fascist, an anti-­Semite, a half-mad religious zealot. But he and Shalamov saw clearly the distance between the feckless harshness of Nicholas II and the fathomless cruelty of Lenin and Stalin. There is wickedness, and there is monstrosity—a distinction too many millions had to learn, and too many others still have not.

Algis Valiunas is a fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a contributing editor of the New Atlantis.

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