Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote The Gulag Archipelago. It’s a big book, but the Nobel-Prize winner soaks his words with wisdom and knowledge born from melancholy. When I think of Solzhenitsyn, I get sad. Not because I think he has a sad legacy, or that his life consisted of meaningless suffering, but because he wrote what he saw. And what did Solzhenitsyn see? And why is it sad? He saw humanity, naked and degraded. But he also saw what humans could be, and who they used to be. That’s the sadness of Solzhenitsyn: he reminds us that we can be so much better. But we’re not getting there.
However, when we carefully study history, it can inspire us. We can strive and improve, even though it’s hard and difficult. We shouldn’t expect perfection: that is for the masterpieces of literature and music. There is no perfect human being, but perhaps, there is a human being that reminds us of our potential.
But why study history? I’m not referring to enrolling in a degree at university (you can read about my experiences here). There are many ways you can study history without earning a formal qualification. You can: read books, watch documentaries, attend library talks, or visit a museum. There are short community courses in certain areas, as well. Utilize all opportunities available to you: because studying history is vital.
History humbles us. When you study history, your presumptions will be challenged, and you’ll realise how little you know. But you’ll also study people who realised that, and still achieved remarkable things. When you study history, you’ll challenge current-day dogma and propaganda. The proper and rigorous study of history rewards the historian. However, studying history is not always pleasant. You’ll get a neverending feeling of how bad things can get, and the ease in which evil can triumph. You won’t enjoy an old-fashioned ‘good versus evil’ fable, because after reading Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, how can you possibly seperate humanity into morality groups? We all have good and evil inside of us, after all.
“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. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?“
Yes, that means the most loathsome, genocidal villian has good in them. It also means inside of us, evil exists in the figures we belove. That doesn’t mean we forgo moral judgements. History warns of chaotic societies that distort moral reasoning (Soviet Union). In my human soul, bears the lives of everyone who lived before me, as well as those currently living and the unborn. I live in others, as well. No one can burn this connection.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is essential reading for any historian and artist. What I love about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was the attention he gave to literature and the arts. In an age where ‘media’ overtakes art, and we are left with commercial products that do not tell us any meaningful truths, artists need encouragement to take bold risks and to not give into lies. I’m a writer and a historian, and the works of Solzhenitsyn urged more honesty inside of me. When you study history, you’ll also study liars, and how easy it is for them to get power. In response to such tyranny, we must remember Solzhenitsyn’s words:
“A genius doesn’t adjust his treatment of a theme to a tyrant’s taste.”
Solzhenitsyn understood the urgency for literature. And hence, his writings about it argue for truth. Maybe, if artists focused more on honesty than manipulation, then more people would, as well. On earth, many truths remain unsaid. I often hear stories of people scared of losing their jobs if they speak out. Such situations do not help anyone, and in the future, there will be nasty consequences. I say that with certainity, because I’ve studied history. From an early morning in the Roman Empire to the sun setting over the mosques of Istanbul, suppressing the truth results in demoralised people with little hope or trust in each other. That’s why I’m firmly against censorship or laws that regulate against ‘wrong’ speech. It never ends well.
Yes, our world is broken and flawed. Like a broken snowglobe. But as we continue to read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the shards of glass can come together, glued by honest artists, historians, and those brave enough to tell the truth.